Christmas is a time of plenty for 10-year-old Angela and her father, Gary Whitney. Plenty of food, plenty of gifts and plenty of relatives to visit.

Plenty. So much, in fact, that the holidays become bewildering.

You see, Gary Whitney is divorced from Angela's mom, so the natural letdowns of the festive season drop him a bit lower than they do other people.His little girl lives with her mother and stepfather. And Whitney's parents are divorced, too. Angela has a mother, stepfather, father, three sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, stepbrothers, stepgrandma, father's girlfriend and the girlfriend's children who all want to see Angela on Christmas Day.

However, divorce being what it is, they won't all be gathering in one home.

Thus Whitney, whose usual time to visit Angela is from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Christmas Day, spends most of the holiday on the road, taking Angela from one home to the next.

In the midst of this ever-changing cast of characters and gifts so numerous Angela forgets who gave her what, one thing remains constant: Whitney tries to carve out a little time for the two of them alone. He tries to make a Christmas memory for his only daughter. A memory of him.

"One time we sat in my ex-wife's living room to open presents," he says. "Another year we exchanged gifts in the car. You do whatever you have to do to be able to share a little of that holiday experience with them.

"It hurts, you know. When you let your child off at her door, you walk away suffering _ but at least knowing that you did what you could do.

"Nothing reminds you of the sadness of divorce more than the holidays," he adds. "Everyone feels it: the custodial parent, the noncustodial parent and the kids."

Grace Forsythe has a different custody complication. She has custody of her two daughters. Under her divorce decree, however, her ex-husband gets the girls over winter vacation.

Having just moved to Utah, Forsythe is facing her second Christmas without them and the first time she'll have to send her 10-year-old and 5-year-old off alone on a plane.

She says, "I have real fears for their safety. The day they fly to Atlanta, I am going to be a nervous wreck." She'll keep herself extra busy at work that day, trying not to listen too hard for the phone to ring. The call will be her little girls telling her they arrived safely.

She dreads, too, waking to an empty house on Christmas morning. Forsythe plans to do some community service that day _ feed the homeless or visit a nursing home.

This much she has learned from Christmas past: Structure your day, leaving no time for self-pity. It's surprisingly painful to be around other people's young children. Start talking about the holidays early, so your children have time to get excited and express their concerns.

"Last year my kids were really worried that their dad wouldn't put up a tree in his little apartment," she says. "We called to make sure he would. This year they are taking some ornaments along to help him decorate it."

Christmas will come early to her home. Forsythe and her girls are speeding up the burning of their advent candles and opening gifts from each other throughout the month. "I have learned," she says, "that you can celebrate the meaning of a holiday on a different day."

Doreen Virtue has written a book for parents who must deal with the pain of divorce long after the court case is settled. It's called "My Kids Don't Live With Me Anymore - Coping With the Custody Crisis."

At the time of her demoralizing divorce, Virtue went to live with her parents to finish college so she could support her two children. Upon graduating she went to court to regain custody.

She didn't get custody. The judge told her they were fine with their father, in the home they were used to.

Virtue understands the fears of noncustodial parents. A loss as major as the loss of custody leaves them reeling and wary of more big pain from loving small humans. "We feel as though we are tiptoeing through a mine field, waiting for the next disaster to strike," she explains.

Yet she also understand the pain of parents who have custody. She writes, "The parent with most access is frequently considered to be the `winner' in what, often, is a no-win situation. The custody crisis of a most-access parent consists of long lulls of normality, interspersed with temporary and often fearful periods of separation from the children. The parent has to relearn, once, twice, or several times a year, what it feels like to send the children away. In many cases this is harder than the lot of the least-access parent who makes, just once but with terrible finality, the transition from full-time to part-time parent."

This December many divorced parents will be relearning the truth: Their children aren't really theirs. They can take heart in the fact that all parents eventually have to learn the same thing. This is what Judith Viorst writes of in "Necessary Losses," and what Kahlil Gibran refers to when he says, "Your children are not your children. . . . You may give them your love but not your thoughts. . . . For they have their own thoughts. . . . You may house their bodies but not their souls."

In the seven years since Darrel Trost's divorce, the holidays have lost their sting. "Or at least they're no more painful than any other day," he says with a small smile.

His four children live in Seattle. Trost visits them for a three-day weekend every six weeks. This year, as in the past seven years, he'll have a mini-Christmas with them the week after Christmas, in his hotel room.

"When I was single I was a basket case over the holidays," he says. Time helped. Remarriage helped. Learning to focus on other holidays helped, too.

He never misses a Halloween, he says. His ex-wife and her new husband invite him into their home to help the children dress. Then Trost takes them trick-or-treating. He returns to their home to watch the children's ritual of pouring out their sacks and trading candy.

The Fourth of July is also his youngest child's birthday. That day the Trost children come to Salt Lake City to be with their father for holiday fun that has become one of their favorite traditions.

"Children need traditions, consistency and knowing they can count on you," he says. His own children have adjusted well, knowing they can count on their father for daily phone calls as well as their own particular brand of holiday celebration.

Now two children by his wife's first marriage are learning they can count on him, too. Trost can be counted on to help them with their homework every night, to take them skiing, and, yes, to love them and share their joy at Christmas time.

Gary Whitney says divorced parents, especially those who don't have custody, are often tempted to shut out their children in order to shut out the pain. They are twice as tempted to shut out other people's children.

Don't even be tempted, says Trost. If he wasn't part of his children's lives, if he ignored his "new" daughters, "They'd all get used to life without me. It would be me that would be missing out."