The religious affiliation of Bill L'Hommedieu, profiled in a Dec. 24 story about Christmas for divorced families, was incorrectly reported. L'Hommedieu is a member of the Christ Church of Alexandria. (Published 1/5/88)

Bill L'Hommedieu remembers Christmas 1986 with a wry smile. He had done what he thought a father should do. He had bought a live fir, dragged the floppy-branched six-footer home in his car, fought the rain to carry it inside his Arlington home and put it up just in time for the scheduled Christmas visit of his then-8-year-old son.

But his son Jared took one look and yelped. "This is the third tree I've had to decorate," he said, coming from a Christmas celebration at his mother's home where two Christmas trees stood. "Do we have to decorate it? I'm so tired of decorating."

"That tree must have weighed 200 pounds," recalled L'Hommedieu, who separated from his wife five years ago. "I was disappointed but . . . the good thing is the tree's now sitting out in the back yard, growing."

Such is the awkward readjustment that is attempted by thousands of families that fall apart and then have to pull together to establish new traditions during the holidays. For these parents and children of divorce, the holiday season is very different from the stereotypical Christmas-card images of generations past.

In Washington, nearly 11 percent of all adults are separated or divorced, ranking sixth among 13 major metropolitan areas in the 1980 census, according to a survey done for the Greater Washington Research Center. The reality of establishing a new structure and concept of family and holiday hits home by looking at the number of children here living in households of divorced or separated parents: 105,926 as of the latest Census Bureau count.

These newly restructured families attempt to develop their own memorable traditions, and even when the breakup is amicable, the holidays can make for some uneasy moments. This week, some parents are learning to celebrate Christmas without children; others are becoming instant parents by virtue of remarriages; and many try to make up for lost time with an avalanche of gifts.

Christmas "is a very significant holiday and of all the holidays, not to have the children with you during this one is more difficult, more painful," said Sheila Feldman, president of Montgomery County Single Parents, a 20-year-old organization that plans open houses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for parents who find they have an empty house and too many memories. "New traditions have to be started . . . and it's very, very tough."

This Christmas, two households in the Washington area -- the homes of Bill L'Hommedieu and Eileen Pogash Young -- are among thousands that are reformulating their holiday traditions. A few holidays have passed since the initial breakups in these families, and the adults say they are adjusting to a holiday celebration unlike anything they knew growing up. For their children, Christmas also now is a day unlike most others.

It's a day when they get to see both their parents.

"The first Thanksgiving was hard, very hard," said Eileen Pogash Young, whose divorce from her husband of 17 years, a Montgomery County police officer, became final this month. "The police department ladies' auxiliary gives out a Care package to someone in the department who needed it, and that year it was for {our family}.

"I didn't want it because I figured somebody else would need it more . . . it was just hard realizing how much we were changing."

Young is the mother of three children, Veronica, 3; Courtney, 7; and Bradley, 9. Three years ago, just after Veronica was born, the marriage fell apart, she said. Young was separated from her husband for nine months before she could even tell her mother and father.

Their first year of separation, Young and her husband figured out a holiday schedule that Young said she finds very important. The children spend Thanksgiving with her in their house in Silver Spring. On Christmas, they spend most of the day with their father and his parents, who also live in Montgomery County.

"Thanksgiving is a very special time for me. It's about friends and family and it's just a holiday that I have always enjoyed," she said. " . . . At Christmas, I want them to be around people who are having fun. I want them to see reality -- or maybe the reality that I want them to see. I know that a lot of families are broken up. But I don't want them to think that's what families are. I want them to grow up thinking like I did: that you get married forever. Like our parents did."

Young, 37, grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and moved to Montgomery County as a young adult. Her memories of Christmas, she said, are very different from what she has come to know here. "Up home, people really got into it . . . but not in a materialistic way. For Christmas, as kids, we got pajamas for presents. Here, the first Christmas we were apart, the kids got things I could never have imagined. Bradley got a Commodore computer. Five-year-old Courtney got a stereo."

Young will be the first to admit she is still figuring out how to manage the holidays for children and herself. She has the children select their father's gift from a catalogue. She buys a Christmas tree and pulls out the old ornaments. She copes with surprises that unsettle her but mean a lot to her children -- such as last year when her husband arrived two hours early to see the children wake up and open up their gifts.

"To be honest, Christmas time is a sad time. So many years you put into things like this. When you look at your tree and you look at your ornaments, you remember buying them. There are memories behind everything. And there's something else you realize: You can't go back."

"My wife always had Christmas and a lot of it," said L'Hommedieu, a graphic designer. "I had my episodes, even before the divorce, of feeling the pressure of the holiday. I felt, and I know a lot of people feel, that something magical has to happen. And it rarely does. I think there was always pressure to create these Dickensian episodes, fantasies that don't exist. Personally, in the years I've been out of my marriage, I've felt less pressure during this time."

L'Hommedieu had been married for 11 years before the divorce papers were signed. But the couple had separated for more than five years, since Jared was 3. This year -- the sixth Christmas to be celebrated separately -- the routine is becoming more familiar and growing, perhaps, into a tradition.

"We went for a couple years where we decided to have a Christmas one year here, and then one year there. What I found happening was that we were creating two or three Christmases. I didn't like that," L'Hommedieu said. "I prefer to celebrate the day on the day."

To that end, Jared's Christmas day starts at his mother's, just a few miles away in Arlington. At 1 p.m., the 9-year-old's party changes venue. L'Hommedieu picks him up for another holiday celebration at his red-brick home. It's an adjustment that sometimes this father laments.

"I see myself, not only at Christmas time, but in other times, as displaced, a backup, as a relief pitcher. What's important to me is Jared, and it's taken a long time to come to grips with that . . . I realized early that there was no reason for me not to play a big part in his life. To deny me in his life is denying him a resource; which would be criminal, tragic; which I think happens a lot in a lot of relationships . . . . "

L'Hommedieu, 45, has grown more religious since the breakup. Over the past year, Jared has joined his father in attending Unitarian services and even serving as a church usher. Last Christmas, the father and son participated in a new holiday experience: Jared performed in the church's Christmas pageant while Dad watched.

"I guess, as a result of not being in a family, a traditional family, I sought family in other ways," L'Hommedieu said. "I'm pleased Jared wanted to do something like that -- and I'm glad I can be there for it."

Jared L'Hommedieu can barely remember a Christmas celebrated any other way. He spends the morning at one parent's home, opening presents. He spends the afternoon at the other's, opening presents again.

There aren't a lot of children in his third-grade class with such a holiday schedule. As far as he knows, he's the only student of 25 whose parents are divorced.

But Jared can see advantages during this time of year as perhaps only a 9-year-old can. "The best thing about the holidays is I get to see both of them and I get twice as many presents. The worst thing is, if I have Christmas here and I have fun, then I have to go to my mom's and have another Christmas. I think one Christmas is enough."