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PARENTING : Keeping the Peace at Holiday Time : Advance planning with family members can head off potential conflicts about where and with whom to share the festivities.

October 21, 1994|CINDY LaFAVRE YORKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whether it involves a heated debate or the "eenie, meenie, minie, moe" method, de ciding where and how to spend the holidays can be a complicated, even agonizing choice for many families.

Far-flung relatives, mixed religious traditions, children who don't fare well on airplanes--these are all factors that can make the season far from jolly for well-intentioned moms and dads.

"Negotiating who's going where can be very difficult at times," acknowledges Melanie Allen, Ph.D., a Sherman Oaks clinical psychologist. Allen, who knows people who have eaten more than one turkey dinner in the same town on the same day, says most families in close proximity to loved ones still have less to grapple with than those with out-of-town travel obligations.

But whatever the situation, Allen believes that advance planning--and sensitivity to the needs and wants of all involved--can head off the worst of the season's potential conflicts.

Janet Orsi Shuman of Studio City is a firm believer in well-organized holidays that divide duties as hosts among family and friends, in more or less unvarying arrangements.

"My brother always handles Thanksgiving; my friend Debbie and I alternate the hosting of Christmas," says Shuman, a Roman Catholic whose husband, Phil, is Jewish. The couple spends the Jewish holidays with friends, whom Shuman calls her "extended" family.

Indeed, the potentially charged issue of mixed religious backgrounds is often successfully addressed by couples who celebrate multiple holidays rather than choosing one over another.

Sheri Gilreath of Calabasas, who was raised Jewish, and her husband, Alan, a non-practicing Lutheran, have incorporated both of their traditions into their easygoing holiday rituals. The pair observes Christmas and Hanukkah in the company of their children, Dana, 16, and Greg, 12, along with Alan's parents, who live in West Hills.

Such rituals tend to be particularly important to small children, who are only beginning to discover the joy and meaning of the holidays.

Jodie Reff, who plans to host a family Hanukkah celebration this year at her Sherman Oaks home, will also, at the request of her 4-year-old daughter, Jessica, produce a children's Hanukkah party. Already Jodie expects the event to become a family tradition, and Jessica is bubbling with excitement.

"Mommy is making potato pancakes," she reveals.

But what of families facing more complicated logistics: parents out of state, elderly uncles, the prospect of lugging kids and presents across country with only a couple of days in which to do it?

For those coming to grips with where and how to go, Allen suggests an effective problem-solving technique: contracting.

"Let's say there are family members in New York and more still in Denver, and with one long weekend you can't see them both. Families should interact, make decisions and fill out a simple agreement on paper, informing all family members of the decisions while asking them to respect and honor them," she advises.

Furthermore, she encourages families to make plans as early as possible--up to three or four months in advance.

"When decisions like these are made at the last minute, it is much easier for pressure to be applied by one family member or another, when emotions may be running high during the holidays," Allen says.

On the other hand, there are always those who remain cool by refusing to plan at all. Gilreath's family, for example, rarely determines very far in advance where they will spend a particular holiday.

"A lot of times, we just decide at the last minute," Gilreath says, fully aware that such a loose structure is probably incomprehensible to many. She is still unsure, she reports, where her clan will be come Hanukkah, yet none of them is the least bit stressed about it.

"When it comes to traditions in stone, I guess we really don't have any," Gilreath concedes. "But we always have a good time and that's what's important."

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