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How To Make The Most Of Your First Christmas With The In-Laws

12/19/2011 07:28 am ET | Updated Feb 18, 2012

It's your first Christmas together as a married couple, what could be sweeter? The joys of decorating your tree, curling up together and watching "It's a Wonderful Life" and strolling the streets admiring neighbors' twinkle lights... or, not.

The truth is, in a typical year the holidays bring a stream of parties, mania, travel, and seemingly endless errands, but your first Christmas with your in-laws can induce a MAJOR stress attack... if you let it.

First, it means you're leaving your own traditions behind. For some, that's a welcome change. But for others, even as grown adults, the idea of spending Christmas away from own family can be slightly traumatic. Secondly, there's the fact that you're entering someone else's family tradition, AND you're the new kid on the block. Finally, you have to exchange presents with people you don't necessarily know that well and who don't necessarily really know you. It's like "Meet the Parents" with a gift exchange scene added in for good measure. Here are some tips on how to avoid a total stress attack and enjoy yourself this Christmas:

Get Educated. If you haven't spent holidays or overnights with your in-laws before, take some time to get educated on their "way of doing things". There are no rights and wrongs, but every family and household has their own way of working and, rather than fretting that you might do something deemed "weird", do some prep work. Ask leading questions of your partner in advance of the day. They can be as simple as "We always had a big breakfast on Christmas morning before we opened gifts in our pajamas and then dressed for church, what about you?" This is more likely to elicit a response with information like "Church? We don't go to church really. And actually, my sister's kids start opening gifts before the sun is up." The more you know what to expect the more comfortable you'll be.

Teamwork is key. The first set of holidays requires a lot of teamwork and information prep on both of your parts. If your in-laws are close knit and you and your parents aren't speaking, it might be a good idea to have your partner give everyone the heads up to leave that topic alone. If you know that your father-in-law is obsessed with your having kids and you aren't comfortable with that topic, be sure your partner knows so you can dance around it together.

Let people know about your eating restrictions in advance. This seems like a no-brainer, but if you don't eat meat, or are vegan or something else like that, have your partner give everyone a heads up in advance and BE SURE THAT THEY DO IT. I always remember my first holiday with my former in-laws. I was a vegetarian at the time and, as plate after plate of meat came out of the kitchen and onto the table, someone jokingly said, "I hope no one is a vegetarian!" No one had any idea I didn't eat meat! The ending of that anecdote is this: oxtail stew was my gateway drug back into omnivorism.

Get on the same page about gifts, especially if you are in charge of the shopping. There is NOTHING more stressful than the first time you need to purchase presents for your in-laws. The truth is, gift exchange is different in every family: for some large and lavish is the norm, while for others modest gift giving is the norm. Some families are open and clear about the "rules" of gifting, while others aren't aware of where they fall in the spectrum. You don't want to show up bearing Kindles for everyone and find out that the norm is to exchange homemade presents. Before you start your shopping, ask your partner what he or she received and gave as gifts the year before. It will likely be telling. Assess who you are really buying for and, if there are children involved, like nieces and nephews, consult with their parents. It's easy to want to go wild but....

Remember: Money can't buy you popularity. It's a common mistake early in relationships and family integration that Christmas is a chance to ingratiate yourself to the in-laws and that the number of brownie points will correspond to the lavishness of the present. Don't put pressure on yourself to make a statement with your gifts other than that of being thoughtful. I'm not trying to sound like a greeting card about "the spirit of giving", but this is really about the spirit of avoiding frustration. If people don't receive your presents with the enthusiasm YOU think they should have when opening your present, you might find yourself disappointed.

Fix Your Face. I've been told that I wear my thoughts on my face. If you are anything like me, remember to fix your face before you open a present, or eat something you've never tried before that is being served. You may not like what's on the other end of the experience, but try not to wear that fact on your face this first holiday. In that same spirit...

Be Open to New Things. Maybe it's a family game of touch football or helping to bake in the kitchen; be open to the traditions that your partner's family has. You'll be surprised what you get used to.

Don't be afraid to bring things to the table. I'm not talking about a covered dish (though that might be a part of it), I'm talking about traditions or elements of the holiday that for you, make it feel like a holiday. So maybe it is your grandmother's turnips being on the table or a tradition of sharing resolutions around the table. One of my friends always celebrated Christmas Eve growing up, so she introduced that tradition on the years she spends with her husband's family. It's a little daunting, being the newcomer to have a voice, but the cool thing about marriage is that you're actively expanding each other's definition of family and tradition.