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5 ways to keep peace during family gatherings

By Sandra Rodriguez Barron, Special to CNN
Most holiday drama tends to age well, taking on a nostalgic and humorous turn as the years go by.
Most holiday drama tends to age well, taking on a nostalgic and humorous turn as the years go by.
  • Experts offer tips to keep drama to a minimum during holiday family gatherings
  • Steer clear of controversial topics, including politics
  • The enjoyment of some should not come at the expense of others
  • Playing noncompetitive games is a way to get everyone to relax
  • Holidays
  • Entertaining
  • Christmas
  • Family

Editor's note: Sandra Rodriguez Barron is the author of the recently released novel "Stay With Me" (Harper) and "The Heiress of Water," winner of the 2007 International Latino Book Award for debut fiction.

(CNN) -- From the cheerful messages and images on the photo cards that arrive in our mailboxes this time of year, one would think that the holidays are a time devoted exclusively to peace and joyful celebration.

In truth, tensions among family members are often exacerbated by ongoing disputes, rivalry, conflicting expectations for the holiday, disputes over lifestyle, new marriages, divorce or just plain bad manners.

Below are some strategies to keep the family drama to a minimum:

Check the emotional baggage. No one should waste precious time trying to change anyone, much less on a day that is supposed to be about peace. Steer clear of conversations about controversial topics, from politics to commentary about personal choices.

Dania Martinez, 29, of New York City, has chosen to remain childless despite irritating pressure from her family to get pregnant. "My sister and I are always asked, especially during the holidays, when we are going to give my parents grandchildren."

If relatives start to harp on your lifestyle, gently remind them that there are 11 other months in the calendar to have that conversation.

"If there is a good chance that tension will erupt between you and a family member during the holidays, bring the matter up before the celebration gets under way," suggests clinical psychologist Carmen Marcano-Davis, Ph.D., who has a private practice in Milford, Connecticut.

Find a neutral zone. The bigger the family, the greater the potential for friction. Gathering at one house may also place an unfair burden for a single household.

"When we get together for the holidays, it's a madhouse," said Anna Jovel of Antioch, California. "After a crazy Thanksgiving, my parents finally decided to rent a hall for Christmas."

Finding a public space can also resolve conflicts about who is "family" and who is not, providing more room for added guests. In these tough economic times, sharing the expense of a hall and a caterer, or having a potluck, is smart and equitable.

Children's squabbles can set off the adults, so consider hiring a baby sitter or teenage cousin to make sure the kids are happy, safe and entertained. Defuse social anxiety by offering a "lounge" in a quiet corner for those who need to withdraw for short periods of time.

Set boundaries, but stay flexible. The enjoyment of some should not come at the expense of others.

"Ask yourself if this is truly the best time to invite out-of-town relatives," Marcano-Davis suggests. "Be honest with yourself. If you are looking forward to some quiet, peaceful days off from work, then cramming people into your house may be asking for trouble."

Ideally, your guests will be willing and able to stay at a nearby hotel, but if that's out of the question, bartering with a trusted neighbor who is going to be out of town is a clever alternative. You and your guests can provide house- or pet-sitting services in exchange for an empty house and extra beds.

Fun is the ultimate buffer. Singing carols, playing musical instruments, putting on a talent show and playing noncompetitive games are all wonderful ways to get everyone to relax and enjoy each other's company. Secret Santa or white elephant gift exchanges add a touch of humor and playfulness.

You can provide guests with a supply of funny hats or themed props to keep the spirit light. Put on some music and dance, but don't forget to include kids and elders. Adding just a touch of structure can encourage positive interaction, and action-oriented gatherings send a strong message that it's time for serious fun.

Recognize the family culture and build on it. Psychologist Marcano-Davis warns against trying to take a family too far out of its comfort zone. "For some families, revelry and loud music would be too jarring, while a too-sudden shift to a religion would seem false. For some, just spending time together watching a Christmas movie is an expression of holiday joy and togetherness."

You can still honor your family's culture while you expand it. To begin, try displaying family photographs from times gone by. Vintage photos remind us of the fleeting nature of life while reassuring us of its continuity. Everyone will enjoy reminiscing about the good old days, thus reinforcing familial bonds.

Despite our best intentions, the season can be a triathlon of cooking, shopping and decorating. But if generosity is to be the common denominator among all faiths and cultures, then the key to a successful holiday is to be more aware of your limitations and more considerate of others' sensitivities.

If, despite all precautions, there is still turmoil at your gathering, don't despair. Luckily, most holiday drama tends to age well, taking on a nostalgic and humorous veneer as the years go by, as those old photos will attest.