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Commitments : Family Feud-- Christmas Style : Everyone yearns for the perfect holiday. But the cold reality of family squabbles and rude remarks never fails to put a damper on things. Stay loose. Stay calm. And whatever you do, don't get sucked in the fray.


You've flown halfway across the country to spend the holidays with your family. Your head is spinning with nostalgia. Your heart is bursting with holiday cheer.

But your treasured Christmas Eve turns into the nightmare before Christmas--again.

Your mother complains her children are "selfish and ungrateful." Your grandmother embarrasses everyone with a racial slur. Dear brother rudely announces that he plans to return the pricey gift you spent hours selecting. And your bonehead cousin needles you with sexist jokes.

Four days later, as you board the plane to head home, you feel as if you've been through the holiday from hell.

It happens every year.

Holidays, with their speeded-up pace and extra obligations, always bring increased stress. But when you spend them with relatives who have radically different notions of behavior, humor or taste, holiday gatherings can drive you crazy.

Feelings get hurt, old feuds are resurrected and relatives leave the affair no longer speaking to each other.

It's a major problem for many families, and not just those with a history of distant or volatile relationships, says Los Angeles therapist Marcia Lasswell, president-elect of the American Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists.

What to do?

When relatives or close family friends drink too much, offend others or act like fools, she says, you have three options:

"You can confront the person. Or leave. Or grin and bear it."

In part, how to handle it depends on whether you are the host. "When you are having the party at your home and this person has a history of that, then I would lay down some rules," she advises.

Before the party, tell the person: "You've ruined a number of Christmases before and if you want to come to this party, I don't want you to drink. There will be no alcohol served to you in my home."

"Just dealing with in-laws, different lifestyles and blended families" can be trying during this season, says Cynthia Whitham of UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute.

A gay partnership or mixed marriage--ethnic, racial, religious or intergenerational--can be tough for some relatives to deal with, and after a few rounds of spiked eggnog, the veneer of politeness can wear thin.

A display of bigotry at a family gathering can be unbearable. Laura, a Chicago writer, says she usually spends most of Thanksgiving and Christmas biting her tongue as she endures the racist remarks of elderly family members.

"I could make an ugly scene. But I'm a guest at their house. And I figure they are going to die soon anyway and then I won't have to listen to it again," Laura says. "Sometimes I'll make comments to counter the bigoted remarks. It annoys me that my children have to listen to this."

If you are in a mixed marriage and a relative has made offensive remarks in the past, Lasswell advises that you firmly, yet cordially, tell them at first mention of the invitation that "I don't want you to do it again. It makes us unhappy and it ruins the festive nature of the party. If you do it, I'm going to ask you to stop. I don't want to embarrass you and I don't want to be embarrassed."

If you anticipate some ill-mannered comments, Orange County clinical psychologist Lois Nightingale suggests you decide ahead of time how you will handle them.

Ask your partner what is going to make him or her the most comfortable. Your partner might be mortified if you confront the offender. Or, he or she might feel vulnerable and unprotected if you don't.

Chances are you aren't going to "enlighten or change" someone who is "hateful and bigoted," Nightingale says. Confronting the person sometimes only deepens the feelings and "makes them feel justified."

If you expect things to get rocky at a family party but don't want to confront anyone or bail out in a hurry, prepare yourself to ignore tactless remarks or plan ways to escape those who annoy you the most.

"Picture someone saying something nasty and either respond with a compliment . . . or excuse yourself" and go help in the kitchen, Nightingale says.

For example, if someone asks you an embarrassing personal question, say: "It's nice to have people be so concerned about my life."

Then change the subject or walk away.


Everyone yearns for the perfect holiday, the kind of enchanted time they may remember from childhood.

"We want to make it as good or even better than it used to be," says UCLA's Whitham. "But it is probably impossible to recreate what you did as a child (at Christmas), or what your fuzzy memory of it is."

Agrees Lasswell: "If we didn't have great Christmases in the past, we want to make them great now. And if we did have great ones, we want them to continue."

Divorce and remarriage, disputes over parenting styles, and tension over money and gifts can all disrupt family harmony.

Holiday festivities can be ruined--especially for children--when battling parents let their personal hostilities spoil a gathering.

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