"I still remember my first Christmas without my kids. I started wrapping presents on Christmas Eve just as my husband and I had always done together -- only this time I was alone. I don't think I've ever cried harder in my life."

The Holiday Season is traditionally the time for families to gather together in warm homey, cozy Norman Rockwell-style -- cherishing each other and the years past -- happy, merry, jolly.

But what about today's non-traditional families created by separation, divorce, and re-marriage?

The single-parent mother who never wore a Santa suit before. The father faced for the first time with fixing his children's holiday dinner, alone.

The stepchild who doesn't even like his new brothers and sisters, much less want to give them a present. The stepmother who suddenly feels "invaded" with a houseful of "his" kids. The grandparents who feel cut off from their grandchildren ever since their daughter-in-law's new marriage.

Or maybe worse, the parents who had their children last Hanukkah or Christmas and will again next year, but this year, they are alone.

"What have our holidays been if not for the family, the traditional family," says Marilyn Fannin, who recently ran a workshop on the topic as staff psychologist at Woodburn Center for Community Mental Health in Annandale.

"The year-round process of re-defining family is condensed, crystalized at this time of year," adds Fannin, herself a single parent for the last 10 years.

"A family is not always Mom and Dad and 1.7 kids. A single-parent family is still a family -- a place to love and share and care. It's changing, you aren't losing. You haven't lost the holidays. They're not spoiled, just different.

"It's important to remember that you don't stop being a family just because your son or daughter is spending Christmas Day with the other parent. The only part that's different from the traditional families is that the kids have two Christmases and you're splitting the sharing them when usually families are together."

Fannin suggests developing new holiday rituals instead of trying to reenact the same holiday play, sans original actors. Although she and her teen-age daughters, for example, had always spent Christmas at home, they now visit relatives in Florida (but only after decorating their own tree at home). v

She stresses building meaningful memories, taking lots of pictures, and not forgetting to ask the child what they would like.

"Somehow, the holidays bring out the worst in people because they're reminded of the past," says Pat DeLorme, family therapist and director of social service, The Psychiatric Institute of Washington, and a single parent of a 10-year-old son.

"We all need more stroking during the holidays."

She suggests "making a family" with other single parents and their children, old friends, distant relatives, or lonely neighbors.

"Don't assume that everybody else has plans and feel sorry for yourself. Make presents with your child, and invite yourself over to deliver them. Don't isolate yourself, even if you stay at work, or have the old lady down the street over for dinner.

"And even if you do have the children this year, invite others for dinner, have a party. You may need other adults.

"I'll never forget my first Christmas alone with my son. In my family, we'd always had big, fresh Christmas trees from the country and my Tudor house was the perfect setting for a big tree. But when Carter and I got home with this huge tree, it broke the stand, and we couldn't even get it in the house ourselves.

"I went off -- crying and angry -- to buy a new stand. Right then, it dawned on me. I had to scale down everything. But it still took me three Christmases to get it even manageable."

DeLorme's tree is still real this year, just smaller. And she imports friends if she needs help wrapping gifts, assembling toys, and even for playing Santa.

"I tell Carter everyone has a Santa Claus -- and that is someone who does things for you. But not necessarily just his father."

DeLorme suggests planning ahead for the bad moments by being with a close relative or good friend: "So that if you cry through the whole thing, it's okay.

"But don't force gaiety. When you are separated or divorced, it's going to feel bad for you and your kid. Allow that, but remember it gets better and better each year."

And as painful as it may be for the adults, both Fannin and DeLorme emphasize the importance of the children's contact with both parents during the season.

"The child needs to have access -- even if only by phone -- to the other parent," says DeLorme, "and you must respect that need."

She cautions not overdoing "because kids aren't as demanding as we think, and often we're doing something for ourselves to make up for the emptiness we feel. Decide what traditions to keep, what you can do without, and what you can afford.

"We always have given a big party Christmas Eve with all our old friends and relatives, and Carter and I decided that we really wanted to keep that family tradition. So we continue to have the party, and he waits to go with his daddy until the next day." (If you can't afford the kind of party you used to give, DeLorme suggests making it co-op.)

For step families, just getting everyone where they belong and finding time for the new family can be overwhelming, concedes Mala Schuster Burt, who with her clinical-psychologist husband co-founded Step By Step, a resource center for step families in Hunt Valley, Md. (Both married before, the Burts' own "blended" family includes her two sons and his two daughters, ages 11 to 14.)

"Making holidays feel right for blended (step) families is just like when a couple marries the first time," says Mala Burt, "creating a new family and new traditions by bringing something from each original family."

One Silver Spring step family with blended religions, Jewish and Catholic, lights Hanukkah candles and decorates a Christmas tree, spreading out the gifts over both holidays.

"In our house," says Burt, "even though the tree ornaments came originally from two different families, they are all in the same box now. But we keep hearing the same story from blended families: of how when everyone gets ready to decorate the tree, the kids divide it in half, with one set of stepchildren staying on their side, keeping their ornaments and tinsel separate."

Burt suggests that the new family create new, handmade decorations, or go on a shopping spree for new ones. Even one big family tree and separate smaller ones in the children's rooms can be an answer.

"They need firm parental guidance because the kids naturally fight anything that builds the blended family into a real, viable unit. It's a conflict with their fantasies that their biological Mom and Dad will get together again.

"Let the kids talk about how it used to be, and don't try to compete with the original parent.Give them time and tolerance to work through their feelings of loss.

"And if stepchildren only visit during holidays, remember they are working out more intense feelings than if you lived together fulltime and need special time alone with their biological parent.

"Even the Christmas menu -- turkey or ham, sweet or white potatoes -- becomes a big emotionally-laden issue because food is nuturing. Ask the kids what they would miss the most, and then make favorites from both families."

The advice of one prominent Washington journalist (and mother of seven stepchildren) is "relax, be flexible and forget the myth of 'super stepmother.'

"Christmas is wracked with resentment and readymade for guilt. And being rigid is about the worst thing you can do. I don't expect presents, or their physical presence, and I give presents to the stepchildren I felt particularly close to that year.

"One of the things I do on Christmas Day is make a huge bowl of tunafish and I consider it a plus when any of the kids drop by during the day. They can make a sandwich, have a Coke, a beer, or a Bloody Mary, according to their age."

"Becoming a new family is like baking a cake. There are all kinds of ways, but it's still a cake," adds Susan Grossman, a clinical social worker in private practice in Arlington.

"Remember, one way isn't right or wrong," says therapist Fannin. "Just believe in yourself. Make it yours. Today's single parents and step parents are writing the script as they go along."