WASHINGTON, Dec. 14— Hillary Rodham Clinton remembers the Christmas when, as an angel in her school's annual pageant, she stared so long at the flame of her candle that she hypnotized herself and fell over. She also remembers the year she went skating with her family and friends, came home, took off her warm clothes, and discovered that she had chicken pox.
Calamities included, memories of earlier Christmases make her laugh. But it's obvious from the entrance she makes as she greets a reporter in the White House Map Room that, no matter how tightly she is scheduled, no matter how tired she may be -- and her friends say she is very tired -- the Christmas season makes her feel very good. As she gets off the elevator from the family quarters, in a Santa Claus red dress, she does a little dance, kids with her staff and trills a few notes. This is another side of the First Lady, the side the public seldom sees as she makes speeches about health care and the importance of family values.
There are hints to her mischievous sense of humor in the jewelry she wears at Christmas. This particular morning, for an interview, it is a rather large reindeer head at the end of a gold and jeweled necklace. She left behind the matching reindeer earrings at the urging of her press secretary, Lisa Caputo. Earlier in the week, she told reporters that Ms. Caputo had also prevailed on her not to wear her blinking Christmas bulb necklace for a news conference.
"We get pretty crazy celebrating holidays," she said, "and Christmas is the most significant to us. Christmas memories are the ones that are in the forefront of my whole life story, and Bill feels the same way. He's a Christmas fanatic like I am.
"I've just always loved the Christmas story because of what it signifies and because of my religious faith and because of the feelings that seem to come to the surface in so many people and in institutions.
"So when Chelsea came along, we created our own family rituals -- baking cookies, decorating trees, making ornaments, going to church to see the Christmas pageant, going shopping." The Clintons also adopt one or more families every Christmas, she said, providing them with gifts, a practice they would like to repeat this year, anonymously.
Although their first Christmas in the White House will certainly be different from any other, Mrs. Clinton says they will try to re-create their traditions. One of them is a gala party the Sunday before Christmas, where family and friends act out some of the more important themes of the season.
So the President's former next-door neighbor and good friend from Little Rock, Carolyn Staley, will either send or bring up the antlers and noses of Rudolph and his fellow reindeer, the Santa Claus paraphernalia and props for "The 12 Days of Christmas."
"The President," Mrs. Clinton said, "makes a great 'partridge in a pear tree,' but his favorite is 'lords a-leaping.' I don't have a good voice like he does, so I don't want any solo parts. I like to be in the chorus."
Next year, Ms. Staley is sure to be in town. The President has just appointed her deputy director of the National Institute for Literacy.
Food is also a very important part of the holiday ritual, but neither Mrs. Clinton nor any of her family will be cooking Christmas dinner this year, which thrills both her mother, Dorothy Rodham, and the President's, Virginia Kelly. "As my mother said, she's spent 70 years cooking," Mrs. Clinton said. "I've only spent 40 years, and then I had lots of help, but it's kind of an odd feeling in a way, not to be doing it."
The Clintons are expecting 12 to 25 people for Christmas dinner -- mothers, brothers, other family members and friends. Their usual Christmas dinners, which are served in the early afternoon, have been a groaning board that reflects combined family traditions: turkey and ham, bread stuffing and cornbread stuffing, sweet potato casserole and mashed potatoes, either green beans or broccoli, some kind of salad, often ambrosia (which Mrs. Kelly favors), a cranberry mold or Bing cherry mold, giblet gravy, a relish tray with green onions (which Mrs. Clinton said her father loved to eat with turkey), watermelon pickles and olives.
Desserts have included Chelsea's favorite, pumpkin pie; Mrs. Kelly's favorite, pecan pie, and apple and cherry pies, which Mrs. Clinton's parents favored.
This year's menu will be similar. There will be champagne and wine for the adults as well as eggnog; syllabub, a frothy cream and wine concoction; and sweet potato punch, a recipe Mrs. Clinton recently clipped from an Arkansas newspaper. It is made with pureed sweet potatoes, the juices of pineapple, orange and lemon, ginger ale, and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.
"Before you make a face," she said, "I'll send you a copy. I haven't tried it yet, but friends of mine who have say it takes a little courage to try, but it's actually good. Here we try everything."
Desserts this year must include pumpkin pie, Mrs. Clinton said, but the rest is up to the pastry chef, Roland Mesnier, who declined to disclose what he has planned. "We don't want the surprise to leak out," he said.