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It's time to pass the baton, er, drumstick

When are you grown up enough to host the big family holiday gathering?

November 24, 2005|Dawn Bonker | Special to The Times

SOME houses are made for those big, noisy, it's-chaotic-but-we-love-it type of family gatherings.

Sabrina Barton of Fontana has such a house -- the kind with a roomy kitchen that flows into the family room and opens onto the spacious backyard, where the overfed can stretch, toss a football and watch the kids.

"We can totally pull if off," says Barton.

Now if she could just corral some guests. At 24, Barton may be young, but the self-described Martha Stewart wannabe already hosted Easter dinner this year and says she's ready for the grand dame of American holidays. But Thanksgiving at her house? Not yet, dear. She will hit the freeways today with her husband and four children, joining relatives in Long Beach for the feast of feasts.

"It's seniority. You gotta be the big mama with the big kids to be the big boss. I mean it in a nice way," Barton says, laughing. "It's just not my turn yet, maybe. I guess I'm OK with it."

If on this day you're beating lumps out of the gravy as children wrestle under the card tables, perhaps being the guest rather than the host sounds pretty good. Then again, you may be having the time of your life. No more rehearsing: You're a real grown-up now, says Herbert Rappaport, author of "The Family Gathering Survival Plan: How to Make All Your Family Occasions Stress-Free" and the director of the Psychological Services Center at Temple University in Philadelphia.

"It's like putting on a production," Rappaport says. "A lot of people relish it and look forward to it."

If they can wrangle a turn, that is. Eventually the day comes for most young adults when home for the holidays no longer means returning to a parent's home. Or, as the old song says, over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house. Or to your big sister's place, where you instantly feel 12 years old as soon as you enter the door.

How does one tweak those holiday traditions? How do you convince family to come see the new house or the new baby or at least trust that you have wits enough to take that bag of weird body parts out of the bird before popping it into the oven?

Gently, Rappaport says. Despite the commercialism, in-law jokes, overspending and threats of emotional meltdowns, the holidays and their attendant traditions are actually good for our hearts and souls, he says.

"First and foremost, holidays become a reflection of what people's beliefs are," he says. "They're a time to consolidate, evaluate our lives. They also have a way of punctuating life. People need markers to look forward to. Holidays become that. They are the punctuation points along the lines of our lives."

In unhappy families the holidays may stir up too many painful memories, in which case it might be better to toss the traditions and start over -- or bow out altogether, Rappaport says.

"Breaking off and starting your own traditions may be necessary," he says.

But even if your family is in the ballpark of functional and the holiday routines are dear, don't be shocked if everyone is surprised that you want a little adjustment, Rappaport says.

"People are really a little bit uncomfortable with change," he says.

Rappaport knows the feeling. With two adult children in San Francisco, he now travels to them for the holidays. It felt odd at first, but he says he discovered the joy in it. "As you pass the baton, it's fun to see your kids become more competent in all areas, including putting on the holidays."

Getting to that happy point may take some patience, says psychologist Pauline Wallin, author of "Taming Your Inner Brat," a guide to breaking childish behaviors -- from sulking to self-pity -- that foul up adult life. Begin with the building block of any good holiday meal: butter. As in butter them up.

"It's best to first recognize the tradition of how it's been done. Say, 'I always look forward to having the holiday with you,' " she says. "When you give people a compliment or recognition, it puts them in a receptive frame of mind."

Let the relatives know that, indeed, you still want to spend the holiday with them, but you would like a shot at running at the show. If you need a script, Wallin suggests something like: "We're so excited this year. It's the first year in our new home, and I just wondered if it would be too much to ask to just change where we have the family dinner this year."

Be honest and sincere, but don't whine, she says. "Don't demand an instant answer, don't pout if you don't get the answer you want, don't assume your idea is the best thing going, and don't presume that Grandma is ready to pass the holiday torch just yet."

If you're like Erika Metz of Irvine, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that your request is embraced. After years of spending Thanksgiving at her in-laws' house, Metz is bringing the holiday home this year. With twin 16-year-old daughters and an 18-year-old son who is thinking of enlisting, Metz thought it was time. Time to bake pies with her kids. Time to make memories in her own house.

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