By Mary Lynn Bruny

It’s getting to be that time of year when I decorate the house, have family visitors, host holiday dinners and hide a bottle of vodka under my bathroom sink. Don’t get me wrong. I love my big family. I love holidays. But both in combo can drive me bonkers and into my bathroom for a wee nip of fortitude.

Lots of us fall into this trap. In the jam-packed months between Thanksgiving and Easter or Passover, we greet each successive holiday with high expectations of picture-perfect Norman Rockwell family moments. It’s a recipe for disaster that I myself have made many times with great success. Over the years, however, I’ve become a bit better at handing these family “opportunities.” Here are some of my hard-earned tips. Happy holidays!

1. Keep your expectations low.

You see those holiday spreads in a Pottery Barn catalogue and think you want that—with happy, attractive, pleasant, well-behaved people. OK, scratch that image from your head. Sometimes family gatherings are just something you have to get through, like taxes, waxings and colonoscopies. Think of them as more like a Wild West free-for-all combined with an all-you-can-eat buffet with bedraggled decorations. Things will get sticky (literally, if there are children involved). Snippy comments may be made. Tears may be shed. If you make it though the holiday “incident free,” consider it a miracle.

2. Don’t compare yourself with your friends.

You know what friend I mean: little Miss Suzy Sunshine with the holiday sweater who rhapsodizes about the holidays and what a joy her precious family is that she is so grateful for, while you daydream of stuffing her mouth with her cheerful red holiday scarf. That one. Maybe wait until summer to see her.

3. Take the easy way out.

Lighten your load. Listen and repeat after me: Paper plates are really OK. Get the compostable ones if that helps relieve your guilt. Paper napkins too. And you can order takeout food. If your mother gives you the stink-eye because you’re not using Great Grandma’s china like she did for 40 years, just stink-eye her back. You’ve learned from the best.

4. Watch the alcohol consumption.

Oh, sure, a nip or two from that bottle under the sink is fine. But too much and pent-up ugliness may erupt from your mouth in a molten-lava fruitcake-flavored flow you’ll immediately regret. Keep an eye on your guests’ consumption too, especially your uncle who after too much holiday cheer starts in yet again (like for the sixth time? seriously!) on how expensive his hip-replacement surgery was—practically shouting while weaving and bobbing about, leaving all to fear he will fall on said hip and damage it yet again, and then you’ll all have to hear the same mind-numbing tirade at every foreseeable-future family gathering. Maybe just offer this guy a soda.

5. Don’t let their crazy talk become your crazy.

You know someone will say something. Whether it’s politics, religion, gun control, feminism, wars, gay marriage or a family member’s new tattoo, someone will spout something rude or inappropriate. Don’t react. You’ll want to—but don’t get on that crazy train, and try to stop others from climbing aboard. It has only one stop: Crazyland. Be the defuser instead. Change the subject to a new noncontroversial topic, like legalized marijuana.

6. Exercise to maintain your sanity.

Instead of ingesting large amounts of sugar to get you through, go for an exercise high. Nothing motivates you to hit the gym or pavement more than having a visitor who, every time you turn around, is in your face asking, “What are we going to do next?” I’ll tell you what you’re going to do next: Lace up your shoes and slip out the back, Jack. Just remember you have to come home.

7. Vent, but not too much.

If the bottle under your sink isn’t enough, meet with a good friend and allow yourself three minutes to vent. Any more and the negativity will start eating your insides out like battery acid and you will turn into a bitter, nasty husk of a person and your friend’s eyes will pop out of her head in fear and she will start slowly backing away from you toward the door, hoping to escape alive, never to see you again. You don’t want that. So only three minutes … but you can talk really, really fast.

8. Remember the end is in sight.

You will have endured. You will have suffered. Your floors will be covered with sticky crumbs. But like after a cleanse, you will feel rejuvenated and born again. The blessed quiet in your empty house will be the sweetest sound you’ve ever heard. Your home will feel like a joyous place of comfort, despite the cracks in the ceiling you need to fix or the ugly counters you’ve always wanted to replace. Now you can take a moment and be grateful for your family, the holidays and the fact that they’re over.

Mary Lynn Bruny, a freelance writer, lives in Boulder. During hectic family gatherings, she sometimes aims for “a Zen-like state, kind of like a Stepford wife who’s had a partial lobotomy.”

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