While the idea of getting together with extended family during the Christmas season is exciting for some, others are filled with dread, hoping for a valid excuse to leave early or not attend at all (“Oh, our car broke down on the way, what a bummer!”). But no matter where or with whom you find yourself this Christmas, here are a few ideas to help maintain your sanity and add joy to your holiday gatherings:

Plan a theme or activity to break the ice.

A good friend recently mentioned how Christmas with her extended family has always been stressful, since many of them do not get along. Last year, she decided to take matters into her own hands and have an ugly sweater contest, complete with prizes for the truly awful sweaters. The result? Everyone participated and showed off their sweaters, and by the end of the evening, everyone was laughing and having a good time. This year she organized a spin-off of “Minute to Win It” for the entire family to play on Christmas. Even if you’re not ready to play gameshows with your family, there are lots of great group activities such as:

  • Baking or decorating cookies with kids and adults.
  • Having everyone bring a white elephant gift to exchange. One variation is to find and bring the worst Christmas tree ornament they can find. Whoever gets your ornament has to display it on their tree the next year.
  • Take advantage of the snow and plan a snowman-making contest, build a snow fort or have a snowball fight. Our family is going sledding this year at a hill close to our house as one of our main activities.
  • Play indoor games such as charades or Pictionary, which can work for any size group.

Find common ground.

Although you’re entitled to your own opinions on politics, religion, or education, Christmas gatherings are not always the best place to voice those opinions. Thinking ahead to topics that should be avoided and areas that can potentially create common ground among people can be helpful. Consider books you’ve read this year or movies you’ve seen. Has your family donated time or energy towards a ministry or non-profit organization this year? Do you have a favorite hobby, activity, or pastime that others in your family could relate to? My husband’s family likes to pull out the old family photo albums every year, and we all chuckle about old fashion trends and hairstyles. It never gets old and always brings a smile. Do you have old family pictures to look at or videos you could bring out and watch together? Whatever it is, find something that can give you some common ground among your family members.

Make sure to include everyone.

This may seem like an obvious point, but is easy to overlook at family gathering, adding undue stress or strain to the event. Asking everyone to bring a favorite dish or Christmas cookie, having everyone share a favorite family memory or picture allows everyone to be included in the day’s activity, no matter their age. Ask a group question for everyone to answer: What’s the best thing that happened to you this past year? What trips did you take? What was your favorite activity you participated in or event you attended? Ask easy questions anyone could answer with very little forethought or planning.

Family gatherings during the Christmas season don’t have to be something to dread or fear. Instead, with just a little planning, you can create an environment that allows for love and joy to be felt and shared by everyone. And after all, that’s what this season is about anyway:

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 9:6)

What can you do to create an atmosphere of peace at your holiday gatherings this year?