Maybe every adult feels the same on Christmas, as though the Ghost of Christmas Past dissipated amid wisps of smoke or vanished like those baseball players who walked off into the cornstalks in "Field of Dreams."

A slight whisper of longing tugs at the corners of the day, reminding us of comforting traditions of childhood we can't recapture even as we construct similar memories for children and grandchildren, or for nieces and nephews or dear friends.

Christmas now means annual, massive gatherings of extended family here in Utah. Our five kids love them. They immediately fall in with cousins they know well but don't see often enough. They usually wind up begging us to approve sleepovers that extend the fun.

I don't think I'll ever get used to this.

Family was always the center of Thanksgiving and Christmas at our house, but growing up on the East Coast with all of the extended family west of the Mississippi meant that the definition of family on a holiday was Mom and Dad and my six sisters.

Opening presents was a marathon that lasted for hours as we took turns ripping off wrapping paper and commenting on each gift, savoring the giving, the receiving and unmatched quality time with each other.

Now there are five brothers-in-law married to my sisters. There are my wife's five brothers and sisters and their spouses. And the result of all this marrying is a raft of grandchildren for her parents and mine that now totals somewhere in the 50s. (Only the grandmothers keep up-to-the-minute tallies when families get this big.)

The ultimate contrast between Christmas Past and Christmas Present is the Great White Elephant Gift Exchange every Christmas afternoon at my mother-in-law's home.

This spectacle is best enjoyed when 30 or more people are bartering over goofy gag gifts. The diaper with Tootsie rolls wrapped inside is the highlight for everyone under the age of 21.

Tension, of course, is always a companion at these mega-

gatherings, despite the frivolity and the joy in seeing family from far-flung locales like North Dakota, California and Saratoga Springs.

Are the men doing enough dishes or changing even one diaper? Who let the boys take the rest of the fudge into the video-game room? Whose house rules will be used for this game of Monopoly? OK, whose kid made Billy cry?

On my side of the family, like Tolkien's Hobbits eat Second Breakfast, we have Second Christmas, usually the day after or weekend after the special day.

This is how my mom avoids all entanglements with the thicket of in-laws spawned in the wake of raising seven children. We go and celebrate First Christmas with our in-laws and then she gets us all together and to herself by hosting Second Christmas.

A sweeter woman never lived. "Second Christmas" ought to be chapter one of the manual mom should be writing called "Nancy's Notes on Niceness," or "Nixing Negativity." This would be a best-seller. Miss Manners could write the foreword.

Even with Mom setting the tone, human nature will cause some conflict at the lodge she arranged for a two-night Second Christmas sleepover this week. One regular skirmish is inevitable: how to reconcile the early sleep times of the infants and toddlers in the younger families with the night-owl needs of their teenage cousins.

On both sides of the family, as with every other family, there is plenty to talk about when we get together. And plenty to not talk about.

Navigating those minefields and the occasional feud between some family members has helped me learn five strategies useful for First or Second Christmas or any other big family celebration.

1. Be creative: The Great White Elephant Gift Exchange is a great way to set aside any baggage and have fun and even compete. In our version, the first person picks a gift off the table and opens it. The person who draws No. 2 can steal that gift or open second. A gift can only exchange hands three times. Lots of strategy involved.

2. Go against the cultural or social grain. Instead of sitting and watching football with the boys, join the ladies making a puzzle. (BYU, the U. and the Patriots haven't played on a big holiday in years, anyway). This really works but only if the puzzle isn't just a flower. You women could make this easier.

3. Make the kids feel like adults. You know when you were a teenager you wanted to hang with your aunts and uncles. Teens are hysterically funny when they get comfortable, and their parents love it when you spend time with them.

4. Milk the humor. Sit near the funniest person and ask questions until you hit a rich vein of killer stories. This is child's play. Every family has someone who did stupid things and can laugh about it or who just says the darnedest things.

5. Forgive. Come on, it's Christmas. If you don't celebrate Christmas, blame it on a New Year's resolution. Let an old sore heal. You might even get a mention in Nancy's Notes on Niceness.


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