Peter and Mary Thornton knew the season of Christmas would come to their home when Chris, the sixth in a family of eight children, looking proud in his Army uniform, walked through the door.

He was the one who liked the little touches, the spindly strand of blue tinsel above the fireplace and the statues of two little angels on a side table. He was the son who, with a wry sense of humor and wide-open wallet, turned shopping trips into marathon sprees. And he was the man who became a boy every Christmas and insisted on looking as far as Baltimore for the perfect tree to sit in the corner of the living room.

Those traditions ended without cause or reason for the Thornton family of Takoma Park early Thursday when a plane carrying 250 American soldiers, including their son and seven other men from Maryland and Virginia, crashed into the rocky woods of Newfoundland.

"We're left with disbelief, horror," said Peter Thornton, a 58-year-old retired federal employe. At the end of a day full of questions and telephone calls, he told of the family's struggle to come to terms with its loss.

"We're not only asking why is this happening," he said. "We're still saying to ourselves: What is happening?"

Sgt. Christopher Thornton, 24, a 1979 graduate of Montgomery Blair High School, had served almost four years in the Army when he boarded the plane to leave what had been a peace-keeping mission in the Middle East. Seven other soldiers from Maryland and Virginia were believed to be among the dead. They are Pvt. 2 Alexander Stearn of Luthersville, Md.; Pvt. 2 David Heid- ecker of Westminster, Md.; Spec. 4 Robert Moyer of Pasadena, Md.; Steve Colby of Colonial Beach, Va.; Staff Sgt. Jerry Malone of Toms Brook, Va.; Chief Warrant Officer Robert Bowen of Wytheville, Va., and Ronald Russell of Portsmouth.

Thornton had talked to his mother two weeks before that flight. He was happy, excited, ready to come home, and ready to sign up for another four-year enlistment.

"He was a real soldier . . . . He liked his duties and he worked hard to be a good soldier," his mother Mary said, as she recounted anecdotes and times with the son who "had an offbeat sense of humor and could bring joy into any situation."

It was that special spirit that stopped the tears yesterday as the family gathered in Takoma Park and turned the mourning into good memories. Brother John remembered the time the two went Christmas shopping, spent all their money and then realized they had forgotten to buy presents for each other.

Sister Elinor pulled out post cards and letters from her purse and read aloud passages, quips about calisthenics and weightlifting in Egypt, that still evoked chuckles. Another sister, Martha, murmured about how important his friends were to him and how important he was to his family.

"He always brought the spirit of Christmas with him," his father, sitting in front of the fireplace and next to a framed photo of his son. "We were kind of waiting for Chris to come and light the fire."