WITH U.S. FORCES, SAUDI ARABIA -- Gunnery Sgt. David Kimball bestowed an approving glance on Airman 1st Class Lara Kranholde, a woman in her twenties with a voice like a laser. She was singing something called "I Didn't Want to Leave You" to the obvious delight of several hundred Marines.

"You see?" noted Kimball with the bittersweet whimsy that surfaces among U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia. "Every song is a Christmas song. It just sounds different."

It is not the season to be jolly for the men and women of Operation Desert Shield. Soldiers are far from home, facing the possibility of war against Iraq. Their Saudi hosts are kindly disposed but nervous about having them around. In an Islamic country where Christmas is a working day and Santa Claus is a nonentity, the welcome wears thin.

Only "secular" Christmas carols are permitted: "Jingle Bells" is in, "O Come All Ye Faithful" is out. Soldiers will attend services quietly in unmarked buildings or tents. No church activities are to be written about, photographed or filmed.

There are no USO shows, and while Bob Hope is now rumored to be coming to the Persian Gulf between Christmas and New Year's Eve, he will not be traveling with a horde of half-dressed dancing girls. Public appearances by bareheaded women -- let alone any wearing tights -- are culturally offensive to Saudi Moslems.

All this puts a profound damper on Christmas. So soldiers, in the words of Army Sgt. Anthony Greene, are "making the best of a bad situation," and "focusing on the upside." For Greene, 29, a military policeman from Orlando, Fla., the upside is that alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia. As sergeant of the guard on Dec. 25, he can appreciate a Christmas without drunken revelry.

Taking the edge off the Christmas melancholy is a labor of ingenuity and in many cases personal sacrifice for senior officers, non-commissioned officers, chaplains, recreation specialists and others whose job it is to make people feel good in Saudi Arabia.

The Strategic Air Command jazz band, from Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, is a case in point. Lara Kranholde is the newest singer in a 16-member SAC traveling ensemble entertaining sentimental soldiers with an unsentimental blend of pop, hard rock, rap, blues and ballads. All the members are volunteers who traded Christmas at home for a five-week gig in the Arabian Desert.

"I feel like these guys are putting it on the line for all of us, and I personally want to give them something back," said Chief Master Sgt. Leigh Steiger, 44, a baritone sax player. "You couldn't find a better audience."

The SAC band was playing at Desert World, a Marine rest-and-recreation complex that features an Olympic-sized swimming pool, basketball courts, soccer fields, video game rooms, video movie screening rooms, an enormous bookcase filled with paperbacks and a snack bar that sells barbecued chicken.

On this day Gunnery Sgts. Kimball, 34, of Syracuse, N.Y., and Vernon Walter, 37, of Newport, N.C., were having a unit party for their men, complete with hamburgers, cole slaw and sodas.

The two sergeants worked well together. Kimball, a tall, dark-haired, reflective man, used black humor to put a philosophical snicker on the faces of his charges: "It's not so bad here -- no beer, no women, no liberty, no family -- enjoy."

Walter, by contrast, is short and fireplug-shaped, a natural pusher, puller and cajoler always trying to get young Marines to have something to eat, to talk -- and to get their picture taken with Daisy Mae, one of Desert World's two resident camels (the other is Susie Q).

"Does she bite?" asked one downy-chinned Marine.

"Naw," said Walter, then murmured in an aside: "He's a pig-headed Marine. If I told him the truth, he wouldn't believe me."

Walter, who plans to retire when he completes 20 years of service next March, didn't have to come to Saudi Arabia, but volunteered because "this is the only war I'm going to get."

Lacking the USO or other channels for letting off steam, non-coms and recreation officers are reaching for whatever comes to hand. It may be the SAC band, or it may be Daisy Mae, but the best allies are the ordinary citizens who are inundating Desert Shield with candy canes, Christmas decorations, cosmetics, playing cards, gewgaws and gifts of every description, many of them addressed simply "To our Servicepeople!" or "To any soldier for Christmas."

"Some days we get 100 tons of mail, just for the Marines," said Marine commander Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer. "I think we're going to sink in cookies. Mind you, I'm not complaining."

Contributions from home are constantly augmented by special donations from individuals and institutions. In recent weeks Arnold Schwarzenegger donated nine sets of Nautilus equipment, each including lift rack, life cycles and two sets of Olympic weights.

The National Football League sent socks, caps, playbooks and trivia books. The American Businesswomen's Association sent whiffle balls, footballs and hand-held video games. Manchester Community College sent thousands of used books. The Veterans of Foreign Wars sent sunglasses and sports equipment. The Japanese government sent tape decks, stereos and televisions.

One of the most popular gifts is "Better Than a Letter," a $2 million Montgomery Ward & Co. promotion whereby service members can videotape Christmas messages for their families and send them home. Each soldier is allowed 15 minutes in front of video cameras set up at large bases throughout eastern Saudi Arabia. There is no privacy in these open-air studios, but they're mobbed anyway.

Sgt. Travis Franklin, 24, an Army reservist from Washington who has run a "Better Than a Letter" installation since the promotion began, says that talking in front of the camera can disarm even the toughest soldiers.

"They almost never last 15 minutes," said Franklin, a 1984 graduate of DuVal High School in Lanham, Md. "I always ask them if they need a tissue, and they always say no. Then after three minutes they reach down, pull out the shades, put them on and say, 'Okay, I'm finished.' "

"It's all right though," Franklin said. "If you start crying, it makes you feel better."