“If we tell our spouse in the car on the way to mom and dad’s house ‘watch, Smedley won’t wait to jump on me about X,’ and two hours later Smedley asks us about something tangential to that issue, we will likely overreact and have the same disagreement we haven’t resolved for the last 15 years,” Logan said.
Add to that the fact that people are drinking more, eating sugary foods, deprived of sleep, and not exercising as much, and no one is at his or her best, so relationships' old patterns can return, explained Bethann Bierer, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Colorado in Denver.
"When people who don’t usually spend time together are expected to engage with one another, magic doesn’t always happen," Bierer said.
What's more, even if you’re all pudgy gingers, you and your siblings likely all have dramatically different personalities. As Felder has written, a single family can contain an extreme narcissist and a total pushover, both of whom happen to find the other’s temperament totally intolerable.
As a coping mechanism, Felder recommends that rather than feel shocked that our relatives are so unlike us, we should instead simply try to marvel at the vibrant genetic diversity that we’re having the opportunity to witness.
“Take a deep, relaxing breath,” he writes in his book, When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People, and think to yourself, “Wow, we’ve got an empathetic caregiver and a self-absorbed bully in the same family gene pool!”
How wondrous! Now will somebody please pass the bourbon!
Logan told me that the mindset we bring to holiday celebrations can also determine how well we get along.
“A few weeks ago I drove by the house I lived in from [ages] 2 to 22. Just pulling into the neighborhood brought back memories from different times in my life,” he said. “I could either focus on my brother putting me in a bird cage when I was tiny or all the great memories shared with the family. Often with conflict, we focus on the differences or past hurts rather than remembering to feel gratitude for him helping coach my little league baseball and football teams. If we walk in the front door thinking about past problems, we will likely be a contributor to conflicts. If we walk in thinking about the good times, we can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of happy remembrances and close bonds.”
It’s also important to remember that irritation is shaped by culture, including our expectations of others, internal biases, and even the language we speak.
In fact, in Annoying, Palca describes several cultures where the concept of annoyance, for whatever reason, simply does not exist. Which is why next year, my family will be spending next Christmas either among the Utkuhikhalingmiut Eskimos of northern Canada, or on the Ifaluk coral atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia. So Kuvianak Inovia to all, and to all a good night!