NEW YORK -- This is the season of hand-tooled elves and tinsel bunting. It is virtually impossible to enter a department store or an elevator without hearing "Joy to the World." It is completely impossible to enter a subway station without being asked for spare change.

The begging season, which never ends, has hit its peak in New York City. It begins on the day that the giant Christmas tree is hoisted into Rockefeller Center. Tin cups emerge throughout the city, proffered by many reputable charities and by the panhandlers of the underground.

"It's not like they go away in the off-season or anything," said Ellen Wilmin, a Manhattan dress designer, as she negotiated a thicket of beggars yesterday in the subway beneath Grand Central Terminal. "But it's something about Christmas, I guess. You just notice it more."

To most New Yorkers, subway beggars are like errant car alarms: They are annoyances that one learns to live with.

There was little rejoicing here Monday when the Supreme Court let stand a ruling that bans begging in the nation's biggest subway system. The learned jurist who wrote that "the subway is not a designated public forum for begging" may be correct but no doubt rides in a lot of taxis.

The ruling was about free speech and constitutional rights, lofty issues on which few of this city's 100,000 homeless people can afford to focus these days. They are too busy preparing for another bitter winter without food, warm clothing, heat or shelter.

"Where am I supposed to go?" asked Santos Rivera, 38, stationed as usual in front of the big movie poster (SCHWARZENEGGER IS KINDERGARTEN COP) near the Port Authority entrance to the No. 7 subway train. "I am not trying to hurt anybody, to harass anyone or even annoy them. I just want to eat."

Nearly 3.5 million passengers ride the subway here each day, and few greet the outstretched palm of a beggar with much pleasure. Transit Authority polls show that many riders have deserted the system because of the nuisance and the fear.

"We {enforce this law} because it is a necessary restraint," said Bob Slovak, a spokesman for the Transit Authority. "Our passengers have been fed up for some time. They don't want to get up in the morning and have a hostile panhandler in their face every day."

But begging in the subways is such a small piece of the city's rapidly growing homeless problem that few people seem to think that it can be banished with edicts.

Police are under instructions to remove panhandlers from the stations. Few bother. They know that riders often dread the constant requests for money, but they also know that, if you toss panhandlers out of one of the city's 468 subway stations, they soon turn up in another.

"It's just kind of useless," said one 11-year Transit Police veteran who asked not to be named. "You can move them off, but you see them back in an hour or two. I could spend all day taking grifters and moving them onto the street. What a waste of time."

For the estimated 4,000 people who live in the subways, panhandling is not just an issue but a means of existence. The hierarchy of the homeless is often intricate and precise. There are crack addicts; "squeegee boys" who aggressively wash vehicle windows at every stop light; vendors selling socks, scarves and bad jewelry, and panhandlers who simply ask for money.

"I don't hang with the panhandlers," said Kevin D., a longtime squeegee boy, outside the Port Authority. "Most of them are pretty wasted."

Not all are, though. Fred Parkin said he comes downtown from the Bronx only during the Christmas season or when he is truly desperate.

He has only one leg and says it is impossible to find work. He has his own code of ethics. He merely stands mute, wearing a blue Reebok and a "Hoya" cap and shaking an empty paper coffee cup.

"The truth is I hate this," he said, leaning on a crutch in front of a Penn Station subway entrance. "Last year, I was in bad trouble, and I came down here. Some guy I knew showed me how to suck tokens out of the turnstiles, but I couldn't do that.

"So I decided I would just take my fake leg off one day. And I made $18. I can usually make that, sometimes more. I don't feel that great doing this. I'd rather be working. I mean it.

"But it's not very easy out there, as you may have noticed. Tell me another way to get the money. I'll do it now."