Yesterday was a RIF Christmas at the Bethesda home of Joan Hurley.

An Oct. 24 Reduction in Force (RIF) notice ended Hurley's $23,500-a-year job at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), where for the last year she had administered more than $1 million in federal grants.

"It looks like Christmas here, but it's a different Christmas," said Hurley, 39, as she sat in a warm living room near a Christmas tree that glistened with tinsel and a miniature nativity scene that twinkled with colored lights.

Nearby sat her daughters Mary Beth Allen, 19, and Kristen Allen, 18, two of the three children of a previous marriage.

The main difference for Christmas 1981, Hurley said, is that she was not able to abide by her personal motto: "Do it right."

"We haven't been able to do it right this year," she said. "Christmas has always been a big family tradition here" at the four-bedroom Cape Cod on Broad Street in North Bethesda that she moved into 13 years ago.

Last year, Hurley and her husband, Steve Bergquist, had gotten a color television for Mary Beth. The year before, both daughters got stereos.

But this year, Hurley said, she went into debt just to spend roughly $500 for Christmas gifts, much of it on clothing, compared to about $1,000 for costlier items in Christmases past.

Hurley was among thousands of federal government RIF victims, most from the Washington area. According to the Office of Personnel Management, 5,224 throughout the country had been laid off by Dec.1; 3,103 more were slated for layoff in December or January and, in all, more than 25,000 had received notice of possible separation.

Hurley's salary was the family's main income. Her husband is a lawyer, but has been working at a clerical job while looking for legal work, she said. With a $10,000 second mortgage she got last October to fix a leaking roof, and with the "huge appetites" of her children, especially 14-year-old John, Hurley said she needs to earn $20,000 a year or more to be able to pay bills "and have a little left over."

Christmas shopping used to be pleasant. But this year, she said, "I felt some anger when I was out shopping, seeing all the things and the prices. It has been emotionally draining, and financially, too . . . . We are talking about changing from $24,000 a year to $140 a week" in unemployment benefits.

The anger sometimes spills over into the household. One of the girls or their brother may complain about not having enough money to do something, and will blame her, she said.

"Then I will flip out and start screaming," she said, "I feel like a walking volcano."

Hurley said her family has already endured several rough years, when she was a single parent attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins University and feeding her family with the help of food stamps. She recalled a "toothbrush Christmas" when she delivered telephone books to earn money and bought the kids little beside toothbrushes.

The current financial problems are somewhat softened because both daughters are working, she said.

Mary Beth is assistant manager at a pizza parlor and plans to attend Montgomery County Community College. Kristin is already a student there and works part time as a waitress at a department store. Both also get free or reduced-price food, a significant fringe benefit during hard times, Hurley said.

Instead of holiday joy this year, Hurley said she has been feeling stress about her own problems and bitterness toward President Reagan, because she sees his proposed cutbacks in federal spending as the death-knell of crucial social service programs.

"I will be able to find another job," she said, "I feel worse about the alcoholism program than I do about me."

Her RIF, she said, was part of an overall cutback that will fold the alcohol abuse grants into larger block grants, which will then be cut 25 percent. Many states, Hurley is convinced, will fail to realize the importance of continued full funding of such programs.

"I think it will make an incredible difference that jobs like mine are gone," said Hurley, who has worked in the alcoholism field for six years, "Some of these projects were on the right track to finding cures.

"The programs were excellent, just excellent, and I don't think we will see the likes of them for any time in the future."

"I get angry hearing Ronald Reagan on the radio telling people 'Merry Christmas,' " she said.