"FOLK SINGING," says folk singer-songwriter Christine Lavin, "is more of a neighborhood than a business."

Lavin, one of the friendliest and funniest neighbors on the block, should know. The New York native has been playing and singing her songs since the early '70s.

Okay, now imagine a snowy night in this folk-singing neighborhood. The windows are frosted and all the streets and stores are closed. So Lavin calls up her neighbors and invites them over to sit and sing by the fire, to tell stories. Love stories.

That's the way "On a Winter's Night," Lavin's self-produced, handpicked compilation of songs by 15 contemporaries, feels. It's a warming gathering of talented friends, exchanging intimacies over guitars, hot chocolate and brandy.

"On a winter's night/Sometime when we're all alone/We'll sing every song we know/Turn off all the lights," croons Willie Nininger, setting the tone for a cozy circle of songs about meeting, making love or missing another on a winter's night.

David Wilcox is up next, gently singing of love and life "Frozen in the Snow." Patty Larkin whispers evocatively of the "Winter Wind." Hugh Blumenfeld prays, "Let Me Fall in Love Before the Spring Comes." Honey-voiced David Roth wonders why everyone talks about "falling" -- he always feels like he's "Rising in Love." Later on, Megon McDonough has everyone reminiscing about "Sweet Summer Dreams."

Lavin, host of this winter's evening, sings tales about "The Kind of Love You Never Recover From." She appears at the Birchmere Friday and Saturday with "neighbors" Larkin, Gorka and Wilcox for two holiday shows.

A self-professed "cheerleader" for her fellow folk artists, Lavin assembled the tape and CD compilation as a way of getting the word out about all the good songs and singers out there. It's independently marketed and sold from the stage at shows or by mail (call North Star Records at 800/346-2706).

"Three years ago at Christmas time I {mailed out} a list of 12 records you could buy directly from the artist, and I gave a mini-review of the record and address and phone number and price," Lavin says. "It was fairly successful, but people had to go and write for the records. So last year I thought, 'I'll just put a cassette together, a whole bunch of songs and sell it,' and I paid double-scale royalties to all the artists involved and listed how to get their records."

That informal compilation led to "On a Winter's Night." Lavin says she decided on the winter love song theme because "there's so many Christmas records out there. Now, I've been brought up Catholic and I'm not anti-religion, but it just dawned on me how people who are non-Christian must feel being bombarded by Christmas carols everywhere they go. So I thought, 'Well, why not a seasonal record that doesn't mention anything about Christmas?'

"In fact, on the opening song I had matched Willie Nininger up with a producer in the studio, and the producer added a little bit of 'Silent Night' at the end of the song. And I had to ask them to start over -- it was really pretty, but I wanted it to be accessible to everybody."

Lavin is calling from a beauty spa in New York, in between manicure and massage appointments.

"So much for the image of the hard life of the suffering folk singer," she laughs. "Mary Tyler Moore gets her nails done here, how about that?," Lavin breathes in a mock-breathless tabloid tone. "And Raquel Welch comes in once in a while for a massage . . . . My nails are probably the shortest nails they do here."

The singer is perhaps best known as a satirical comic writer and performer whose sharp-eyed satirical songs like "Shopping Cart of Love" (from Lavin's Rounder solo album "Attainable Love") find the pulse of a real-life situation, then tickle it.

"I think humor is a real open door," she says. "It draws people to shows, and then they're surprised that there's a serious element to it. But I don't like it when they call me a comedian. I mean, I don't do comedy clubs."

But Lavin's reflective work is attracting more attention lately: Cabaret artist Andrea Marcovicci is covering Lavin's affecting "The Kind of Love You Never Recover From" and Lavin's attorney has pitched the song to Whitney Houston.

The idea for the song arrived when an article on love triangles in a magazine caught Lavin's eye.

"It mentioned a man who was 80 years old who said he still carried the love in his heart for a woman that he had when he was 19. He doesn't discuss it with his wife, it's something that was private, that he's never completely gotten over. When I read it, I just got chills. I usually I write about things I know about, that happened to me, and I was thrilled that I was able to write something that was true even though it wasn't something I had experienced myself," Lavin says. "But it's very funny -- college kids will come up to me and they'll be crazy about that song, and they'll say they know exactly how it feels. And I want to tell them 'Honey, no you don't,' " she laughs.

CHRISTINE LAVIN -- Appearing Friday and Saturday with Patty Larkin, John Gorka and David Wilcox at the Birchmere. Call 202/432-0200.