Anna Robinson, 98, shops and cooks for herself, and still manages to care for her Alexandria home.

But each Christmas, she willingly relinquishes a little bit of her independence and spends the holiday with longtime friends.

"I go to have dinner with a family I know. My niece used to take care of their children," Robinson said. "Now I'm their child. They take care of me."

Christmas can be a painful season for elderly people who have outlived their close relatives or find themselves far from their children.

But many, including Robinson, say that in a figurative sense they continue to celebrate the holidays within a family circle.

"Any time someone takes care of you, they can't be nothing else but family," said Robinson, who has outlived her relatives.

Those who work with the elderly, and older people themselves, say Christmas has a more spiritual meaning for senior citizens than for the population at large. A Christmas wish list often includes another year of healthy life or a chance to see a friend.

The resourcefulness of elderly people during the holiday season is impressive, said E. Veronica Pace, director of the District's Office on Aging.

"Often, Christmas is spent in fellowship with church members, families or friends. But there are always those without family and friends," Pace said. "Each year, they lose someone else."

For some seniors, such as Olivette Suttles, 90, fellow residents of retirement homes become family. Suttles took her Christmas dinner of cornish game hen and cranberry sauce with her close friend Lillian Abramson, 84, at the Sunrise Adult Community Center in North Arlington.

In her lap, Suttles held the red felt stocking she had sewn as a gift for an employee of the community center.

"I like to have an extended family and to relate to others as though they were my family," said Suttles, who said her family contact is limited now to a younger sister who lives in the area.

Suttles, a former college dean from Tennessee, said her present arrived early yesterday morning when two former students called to wish her a merry Christmas. "I've been floating on air ever since," she said.

Annie Riley, who said she is in her sixties, said one of the main reasons for attending the Christmas dinner sponsored by the National Black Caucus on Aging at her apartment building was the price: 50 cents for a turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

But she said the companionship of other senior citizens played a big role as well. "It's so wonderful to be able to come here for the holidays," said Riley, who spent Thanksgiving the same way. "Most other places like this for older people would be closed" on holidays, she said.

Even with their "extended families," the holiday season can be a painful time for seniors.

"The losses that are inherent in aging can really get heightened during the holidays," said Elizabeth Graham, a clinical social worker who specializes in working with the elderly.

Residents of nursing homes or retirement communities often are adjusting to a new environment, which complicates the process of celebrating the holidays. "For older people in one of these communities, Christmas means creating a new tradition for themselves," Graham said.

Many of the Christmas celebrations at residential homes and senior citizen centers took place last week or over the weekend. For many older people, Graham said, such festivities serve as a cheer-filled prelude to a Christmas Day spent alone.

"It's a bittersweet time for many people," Graham said. "The children and grandchildren are sometimes halfway around the world, and there you are left with nothing."

Pace, of the District Office on Aging, said even those elderly people troubled by loneliness or physical infirmity tend not to wallow in self-pity during Christmas.

"We're talking about people who are independent," she said. "They have been around a lot and know how to plan for themselves on that day."