BERLIN'S CHRISTMAS STARS A SURPRISING SANTA

BERLIN'S CHRISTMAS STARS A SURPRISING SANTA

With a big tummy that jiggles like the Christmas-tale ''bowl full of jelly,'' former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl could play the perfect Santa Claus if he donned a long white beard.

But, as Berlin decorates itself for the holidays this week, Kohl could hardly manage to imitate Santa's jolly grin. A slush-fund scandal has struck Germany like a cold blast of wind from Siberia, and all the talk about gifts this season centers not on traditional presents beneath Tannenbaums but on industrialists' secret donations to Kohl's political party.It's too early to predict whether there will be a White Christmas in Berlin this year. But it is already a Slush Christmas - as in political slush funds.

To be sure, strings of bright lights are twinkling along Berlin's Friedrichstrasse shopping boulevard, shoppers are crowding into the holiday markets, and even the construction cranes in the city's new government quarter are hanging with festive decorations.

But the holiday mood in Germany's capital doesn't extend much beyond those decorations. For political scandals - instead of snow - are hanging in the air, like soot falling from the darkening sky. First and foremost is the slush-fund scandal that has engulfed Kohl and his party, the center-right Christian Democrats. While full details aren't likely to emerge until a parliamentary inquiry is completed next year, it already seems clear that Kohl - during his 25-year tenure as the party's leader - controlled secret slush funds that were filled regularly by industrialists seeking to gain favor with the government.

Hamburg's influential weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, called the Kohl revelation the most serious German scandal in a decade. It derided the former chancellor, who left office last year after his party lost the election, for abuse of power.

The slush scandal has scattered the normally cohesive Christian Democrats, which just a month before had lionized Kohl as the ''Chancellor of German Unity'' at the mass celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall. Today, leading party members are stumbling over each other to distance themselves from Old King Kohl.

Even the normally right-leaning Focus magazine published a photo montage - labeled ''Save Yourselves, If You Can!'' - showing scared Christian Democrat luminaries fleeing a gigantic, confused Kohl.

But Kohl is hardly the only scandal in this unusual holiday season in Germany. First came the revelations that a Social Democrat state governor, Gerhard Glogowski, had taken a free vacation, courtesy of a local company with some interests in state decisions.

Next came an unrelated allegation that Germany's Social Democrat president, Johannes Rau, accepted free flights from a company back in the days when he was a state governor.

Meanwhile, two other mini-scandals have arisen, with critics trying to use the party-donation irregularities to tarnish the reputations of Germany's present and former transportation ministers.

In one case, investigators are trying to find out whether a Hamburg couple's $1.8 million donation to the Christian Democratic party last year had anything to do with the government's later decision to award their company the right to buy former German railroad property - buildings that often can be resold at a healthy profit. The former minister, Matthias Wissmann, a top Christian Democrat, may have had a voice in the decision. So the current Social Democrat transport minister, Reinhard Klimmt, has asked his staff to take another look at the transaction.

But Klimmt has his own problems, it seems. In another inquiry, critics are trying to link him to a brewing scandal in his home state of Saarland, where he used to head the Social Democrat Party. It seems the party collected nearly $40,000 in donations from a local meat company a few years ago, and failed to follow the law by declaring the contribution.

All the scandals come in the midst of reports that criminal activity in Germany - from petty payoffs to brutal murders - has been rising in recent years. And a Berlin-based group called Transparency International has criticized German businesses for succumbing on occasion to the demands by foreign potentates for bribes.

But the real scandal may be how the German government and some states have subsidized some key industries over the years. Coal mining was propped up for years by subsidies that are just now being phased out. Even Germany's vaunted auto industry has gotten some help; a European Union court last week confirmed that the eastern German state of Saxony had offered overgenerous subsidies to entice Volkswagen AG to build an assembly plant there.

So when the holidays arrive in earnest later this week in Berlin, it may be a blessing when everything shuts down for a few days - the scandal-plagued government, the subsidized industries, and the scandal-sheet newspapers. Maybe then, for a change, Germans will be able to celebrate a White Christmas instead of a Slush Christmas.