An adult daughter searches for the joy in the season, despite memories of distressing family scenes.

I love the holidays. I really do. Give me cold weather outdoors, a crackling fire indoors, tantalizing smells from the kitchen, a glass of eggnog and a roomful of people I love, and I’m in heaven.

Only problem is, that scenario’s rare. What’s more familiar is the nervous juggling act of pulling together an elaborate feast, the confluence of different—and difficult—personalities, the hopes and expectations surrounding gift-giving… It’s enough to make your head spin with worry.

Those Hallmark commercials make family gatherings look easy, even blissful. But that’s not real life—at least, not where I come from.

Real life is having a mother who’s so anxious about the dinner she’s preparing, she can’t take the time to enjoy visiting with friends and family. Real life is being around a moody, critical father who won’t hesitate to complain about dinner starting late or the turkey being dry, thus embarrassing his wife in front of guests. (No wonder mother’s so worried about the meal.) Real life is wondering if that very same father, who has an unpredictable temper, is going to fly off the handle if your mom innocently questions his method of carving the turkey.

Hardly cozy sentiments of the greeting-card variety.

When I was younger and lived at home, I met the holidays with equal parts joyful anticipation and dread. I delighted in having the day off from school or work, lazing under the warm bedcovers with visions of Mom’s stuffing and pumpkin pie dancing in my head. But uncertainty about how the day would play out would feed discomforting fears, and I would rise to the occasion with no small amount of trepidation.

I’d hope that my dad would be in a good mood; that my brother, Tim, wouldn’t goad him by challenging his criticisms; that my mother would relax; that my other brother wouldn’t show up late or, worse yet, cancel at the last moment. On a good day, only one of these things would happen. On a bad day, they might all play a factor in ruining that year’s Thanksgiving or Christmas celebration.

Once I grew older and moved out, it was easier. Having the freedom of transportation and my own apartment to return to, I could always arrive right before dinner and escape as soon as I had cleared away the dessert plates. I never did have the temperament for trying to soothe ruffled feathers and make nice when the only mistake I owned was in making an appearance at all.

But that changed when my parents moved up to Washington state. Now it takes a hell of a lot more than a half-hour drive to visit with them. Flying there means spending at least a couple of nights at their house, leaving no escape route if things get uncomfortable, as they inevitably do.

Not surprisingly, I typically save my visits for non-holiday times and instead fret over getting their gift package to them on time through the beleaguered Postal Service. This is no small feat for a procrastinator such as myself and, needless to say, creates almost more anxiety than it’s worth. But there would be an uproar if I didn’t mail off something, and so I do what I can to keep some semblance of peace.

Like the holidays themselves, I love the idea of giving gifts. In fact, few things in life make me happier than surprising someone with a present that suits them perfectly.

What I don’t care for is being expected to proffer gifts to family members—both immediate and “extended”—because a) It’s the “right” thing to do; b) Tradition dictates that you do so; or c) You’ll get a guilt trip if you don’t.

When I was 18, my mother told me it was wrong to spend more on gifts for my boyfriend than for individual family members. Why? Because she equated the depth of one’s love with how much money you invested in presents. And after all, he was just a guy I was dating, not someone “serious” (re: fiancé or husband). Never mind the fact that the young man in question treated me with more respect and kindness than my father and oldest brother ever had—or will.

Then there was the time when I gave a Christmas present to a good friend and coworker, only to have him respond, somewhat distressed, “But, Lorrie, I didn’t get you anything.” Yes, he liked the shirt very much, thank you, but he just wasn’t comfortable accepting it when he hadn’t done the same for me.

Thankfully, I was able to convince him to keep the shirt, which he wore to work proudly the following week. Perhaps more important, he respected my wish that he not run out and get me something in return; ultimately he understood that simply being a good friend was gift enough.

If only I could convince my parents of the same.