For eleven months out of the year it can be tough enough to navigate two sets of in-laws, each with their own rules, be they strict or lax; their own inside jokes, be they dry or silly; and their own set of manners, be they poor or pristine.

Now add to the agenda bright lights, seasonal soundtracks, deep-rooted traditions, family photos and heightened emotions – that’s right, it’s Christmas!

Perhaps in your family, Christmas celebration is a simple, solemn, dimly lit meal on Christmas Eve. The whirring of classical holiday hymns on the record player sets the serene mood – even before the tryptophan kicks in.

Now what about your spouse’s parents? Get set for a three-day weekend packed with gingerbread-house-building competitions, Christmas cracker explosions and a PJ-all-day dress code. And as for background tunes? Alvin and the Chipmunks blare through the surround sound.

Before you turn into the Scrooge of your brood, though, don’t forget that you’re an in-law too! How does your spouse’s family enjoy spending the holidays with you? What must they think when you whip out that elf suit for Mr. Bobbles, the family cat?

Whoever you are and whomever you’re celebrating with, read on for expert tips on how to have a happy family holiday!

Holiday how-tos for happy in-laws and you

Every family is different, and those differences become especially apparent during the holidays. As Christians we know that the true reason for the season is the gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, and what better reason to make this Christmas one of peace and family unity?

But how do you do that? Here are eight tips from people who know how to get your holiday off to a good start:

1. Who, when, where?

Mike and Leah were caught between two sets of in-laws – both local, both huge Christmas celebrators. To be fair, they made the decision as a couple to spend Christmas Eve with Leah’s parents and Christmas Day with Mike’s, with the plan to alternate every year. But when Mike’s parents found out, they had another idea. They suggested spreading the Christmas cheer (and food) out a bit so everyone could have a more relaxed holiday. And that’s the year the couple celebrated Christmas on December 14th with Mike’s side! After all, the holiday is about celebrating Christ’s birth, not about celebrating December 25th.

Can you perfectly please everyone, every year for every holiday? Probably not. But you can work toward a balanced and fair holiday with a heart for honouring your extended family, while not neglecting to create special memories and moments with your spouse and kids. In Complete Guide to the First Five Years of Marriage, Wilfred Wooton writes, "Consider how your parents and other relatives may wish to have you involved. Perhaps a Christmas Eve service together is important to the wife’s parents, while Christmas dinner is central to the husband’s. Try to be open to the desires of family members – but not controlled by them."

2. Festivities involve food, so don’t be rude

"Cooking for large groups of people takes quite a bit of planning, energy and resources," marriage and family therapist Diana Bigham points out. "Offer to help cook to lighten the burden or pitch in on the food expense. Always help clean up after meals and any time there is a mess (especially if it was made by your child)."

Don’t be a picky eater or drinker, either. You think green bean casserole is soppy and fattening, but to them it’s a favourite family tradition – even if it is a soppy, fattening one! If you must have your green salad, how about offering to provide it? Who knows, it may become tradition for you to provide the fresh greens at all family get-togethers.

3. Traditions: Yours, mine and ours

"Balance the development of your own traditions with those of the homes you came from," suggests Wooton. And why not start some shared traditions everyone can enjoy? For one family, two traditional turkey dinners within two days was simply too much of a good thing. So with one side of the in-laws, this family opted for a new "traditional" dinner – a Ukrainian Christmas meal! Bring on the perogies, farmer’s sausage and cabbage rolls!

Discuss with your spouse what traditions you’d like to establish as a couple, and as your own family. "It may be a lot easier for you and your spouse to change what you want for the holidays than for parents to adjust what’s been important to them for many years," writes Wooton. But that doesn’t mean that parents can’t be flexible, right? Maybe waking up for homemade cinnamon buns and reading the Biblical account of Christ’s birth with your spouse and kids would be your ideal Christmas morning. If so, your in-laws can kindly wait until lunchtime to celebrate with you.

4. Manners make a difference

Social graces put a smile on family faces – and Bigham knows it: "Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ really go a long way. Expressing appreciation and gratitude really helps to make the environment more friendly and caring."

Also, you can’t go wrong with compliments – as long as they are sincere. Is your mother-in-law a talented tablescaper? Break the ice by letting her know you appreciate the effort she puts into making the holidays beautiful – and ask her for some tips!

5. Sharing your spouse

Get a little jealous when your wife spends time catching up and joking around with her siblings rather than cozying up to you by the fire? "Sharing isn’t just a lesson for children," says Bigham. "Allow your spouse to spend time with the people they grew up with and don’t expect them to only be with you the whole time. This helps them reconnect and perhaps even work out issues that may be affecting your relationship."

6. Who’s your number one?

"Show your spouse that he or she is number one in your eyes," suggests Romie Hurley, licensed professional counsellor. This means that in the debate over your husband’s turkey carving skills versus your brother-in-law-who-can-do-no-wrong’s carving, you shower support and respect on your gobbler-slicing virtuoso.

Be careful, though. As you ally with your spouse, don’t make the holidays an "us vs. them" family feud. Instead, focus on unity with your extended family, whenever possible. This allied attitude begins even before you receive your first holiday hug from your mother-in-law. Do you ever complain about your in-laws to your spouse? In keeping with the theme to keep your spouse first on your proverbial Christmas list, Hurley encourages you to "remember that you’re loving your spouse by honoring his or her parents," at all times.

7. In-laws who aren’t into your faith

So there’s a 10-foot inflatable Santa on your in-law’s front lawn. And on Christmas morning your spouse’s parents show video footage to the kids of Santa (or Grandpa in a Santa suit) putting presents under the tree. They point to half-eaten cookies and "magic" red glitter scattered around the fireplace.

You want your kids to love Christ more than Kris Kringle, so what do you do? In Complete Guide to the First Five Years of Marriage, Dr. Phillip J. Swihart writes, "Enjoying the family event is possible, even if you follow it with a reminder to the children about the real meaning of the holiday." You could also ask your in-laws if it’d be okay for you to say grace before meals.

8. Joining in the joviality

You’re spending time with your in-laws not just so your spouse can be with his family, but so you can be a part of his family! That’s why Bighman says, "Participate. Not sure how? Talk with your spouse about helping include you in the conversations and activities. You are now a part of your spouse’s family and they want to get to know you. Being uninvolved looks unfavorable, though perhaps unintentionally."

To add a bit of low-pressure fun, come prepared with puzzles, movies or board games to play with the whole family. Just make sure your round of 500 doesn’t get too competitive – unless everyone is into that sort of thing.

*Names changed to protect privacy

Reference to the individuals and organisations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individual’s external work or their respective organisations.

Reprinted with permission © 2014 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved

Cara Plett

Cara Plett is an in-house writer for Focus on the Family Canada

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