Many people assume that Christmas is hardest for children who have stopped believing in Santa Claus. Mrs. Sharp believes the holidays are most difficult for single parents, particularly if this is the first or second holiday season after a separation.

Sometimes their holidays are emotionally charged because of their former spouse's behavior (toward them and the children). Other times single parents admit to feeling uncomfortable at Christmas because our contemporary culture wraps itself in old-fashioned "family" sentiments each December, requiring mother, father and children to dance around the Christmas tree happily together.

One of the reasons single parents may experience difficulty during Christmas week is because they think holiday traditions belong to only perfect Currier & Ives families. Frequently the first time a single parent has to open up the ornament box alone, he or she experiences such a great sense of loss, the formerly married parent decides rashly not to engage in customs the family enjoyed together in the past.

"What's the point?" they wonder. The point is that single parents and their children need the reassuring and powerful message that treasured rituals provide: "We" are still a family. A loving, close-knit family shares traditions. Our family is measured by the love which unites us, not by our size or shape.

Just as Victorian traditions can be updated for 1980s family life, so too can your family's holiday rituals be adapted to fit new circumstances, whatever they may be.

Single parents also should try to incorporate holiday customs with no past associations into their family's "new" repertoire. Here are two charming Victorian Christmas traditions. However, because they may seem novel to contemporary readers, they are traditions ideally suited for single parents to make "their" own.

The Christmas Stocking: Decorative stockings still can be hung by the chimney with care, but Victorian children who found their Christmas stockings bulging at their bedstead knew true joy. What a thrill it was to reach out for it, pull it under the covers, clasp the contents with the imagination running wild, until by dawn's early light it could be emptied onto the bed and the wrappings furiously pulled off with glee.

There is much to recommend the custom of bedpost stockings. First, the youngsters are always wide awake Christmas morning long before the oldsters. An interestingly filled, amusing stocking buys a much needed 40 winks. Also, bedpost stockings easily can be hung at one parent's home, even if Santa officially visits the other.

Victorian parents filled each stocking according to a magic recipe that still works: "Something to eat, something to read, something to play with and something they need."

Christmas Crackers: Many of our Victorian Christmas customs originated in England, including the Christmas cracker, a festively wrapped cylinder which, when pulled at each end, gives a "snap," pulling apart to reveal delightful surprises.

No Victorian Christmas dinner celebration was complete without crackers, which were opened while waiting for the Christmas pudding to arrive. Included in each cracker is usually a paper hat, a motto or fortune, a tiny toy and a balloon.

Resource List: Christmas Eve: Buche de Noel cakes are available from the French Market in Georgetown (338-4828) and Bakery Potomac Metro on Capitol Hill (543-2960). Ice Cream Yule Log cakes, $11.50 at area Baskin Robbins stores. Christmas Dinner Crackers: Conrans, Georgetown Park (298-8300), assortments in three sizes -- mini, medium, large -- $4.95 to $10.95, and at area Paper Stores, $14.95 for 8 large crackers.

Boxing Day: John Grossman's The Gift Line, reproduction Victorian Christmas Boxes, assorted sizes $1.25 to $3.25 at Perfect Papers, 3238 P St. NW (342-7301); Nickleby's, 1319 Connecticut Ave. NW (223-1319); Peabody's Past and Presents, 888 17th St. NW (887- 0755).

Twelfth Night: Frankincense and Myrrh, gift set, $5, Washington Cathedral Gift Store (537-6267); Three Kings Cake complete with crowns at Bakery Potomac Metro and French Market.