It happens every year. The family get-together, the main event of the holiday season, is traditionally an occasion where everybody tries a little too hard, expects a little too much and ends up feeling a little bit like Scrooge.
Family tension is one holiday custom that should be discarded, say counselors who urge parents and their grown children to give up the pursuit of the perfect holiday reunion.
Don't try to cram a lot of visiting into one or two days, experts say, and don't attempt to recapture the magic of past holidays (which probably were just as stressful as this one).
"As families grow and develop, the holiday itself has to grow and develop," says Dr. Evan Imber-Black, director of family studies at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "People have to let go of their expectations or at least talk about them in a way that brings some humor to bear."
"Try to make it just another visit," therapist Janet Dight advises, "even if your mother has been telling you since July that Christmas is the most important day of the year for your father."
Dight, the author of "Do Your Parents Drive You Crazy?," billed as "a survival guide for adult children," says when grown children return home for the holidays, parents resume their place as the heads of the household, which sets the stage for Yuletide tension.
"They want to recreate the Christmases of your childhood," she says. "They want you to come screaming down the stairs looking for your presents under the tree like you used to."
Grown children aren't very good at feigning excitement over what's in the stocking, but they can and do revert to adolescent ways (the feet on the coffee table, the dirty dishes left in the sink), and this often contributes to holiday tension, Dight says.
"To be treated as an adult, you have to give up all the benefits you had as a child," she says. "You can't let Dad change your snow tires and let Mom do your laundry and then expect them to see you as an adult. You can't have it both ways."
And then there's Catching Up During the Visit, which can mean that the holiday becomes an occasion for the grown-up child to deliver major personal news or introduce a Significant Other.
If you're going to quit your bank job to pursue a career as a stand-up comic, or you want your live-in lover to share your old bedroom over the holidays, Dight advises that you give your parents notice to avoid a bad scene during your visit.
"Pick up the phone, call them and say, 'Here's the situation. How are we going to handle this?" she says. "That way, you won't spend weeks dreading what's going to happen."
Dight and Imber-Black both warn that when grown children remarry and have their own children, the stakes rise dramatically.
For starters, Imber-Black says, "each of the new parents recollects the rituals of how their own families celebrated the holidays," and sometimes those rituals don't mesh well.
When that happens, she says, "ask yourselves, 'How can we take rituals learned from each family and create something new for ourselves?' "
And there's the in-law holiday tug-of-war, the "your parents or mine?" dilemma.
Many couples try to avoid this pitfall by engaging in what Dight calls "the Annual Season's Greetings 500-Mile Road Rally"--shuttling kids and gifts over long distances between two sets of grandparents, eating two huge meals and ending up tired and miserable.
"You wind up traveling all over the place like a pack of gypsies," Dight says, "and your kids think that Christmas is something that happens in the back seat of an automobile.
"Well, Christmas is for kids," she emphasizes. "What's best for your children far outweighs what your parents want. Don't drag your kids all over the country to make your parents happy."
To keep the holidays sane and minimize guilt, Dight offers these tips:
Spend Christmas Eve from 6 p.m. until Christmas Day at noon in one place--preferably your own house.
Apply the equal time rule. Spend Thanksgiving with one set of parents and Christmas or Hanukkah with the other. Then alternate this schedule every year.
Celebrate the holidays en masse. Consider getting your parents and in-laws together at the biggest house. Have every family bring a portion of the holiday meal and give each person a specific cleanup assignment.
"Even if it's too late to change your plans for this holiday season, you can set new rules at the end of this year's visit," Dight says. "Say gently but firmly, 'This running-around is crazy and we're not going to do it again next year.
"Your parents want you to believe you have the power to totally and completely ruin their holidays," she says with a smile, "but it just ain't so."