Holiday gatherings can be happy occasions full of family and friends. Or they can incite celebrants to participate in mass fight-or-flight syndrome. Making sure you experience the former and avoid the latter is an exercise in forethought, mindfulness and intentional lightheartedness, according to psychotherapist Deborah Sandella, author of the best-seller Goodbye, Hurt & Pain: 7 Simple Steps for Health, Love, and Success. Considering each guest’s feelings is also essential to planning a peaceful celebration, adds Phoenix-based social worker Wendy Lieberman, an experienced family counselor.

Here are the experts’ tips for hosting a happy holiday season:

Step 1: The Decorating

Creating a warm atmosphere of inclusiveness should be the aim of any seasonal party. That’s more challenging than ever this year, due to a national climate of fractious politics. Sandella suggests heading off any heated arguments by placing a friendly “Politics-Free Zone” sign near the entrance to your home. Additionally, she says that doing a bit of research on your guests beforehand allows you to acknowledge different faiths and cultures in a respectful, natural way. For example, placing a few gold-wrapped Hanukkah gelt (coins) at everyone’s place setting includes a traditional Jewish note on a Christmas table.

Step 2: The Food

There’s no one so out of place as the vegetarian at a ham or turkey dinner. Consider having a piece of fresh fish at the ready as a protein alternative and make sure vegans are happy by providing plenty of vegetable side dishes. Better yet, ask guests to bring their favorite holiday side, which gives everyone a hand in contributing to the holiday feast. Another thoughtful touch is to order food from guests’ home states to serve, says Lieberman, a transplanted New Yorker who always appreciates potato pancakes and bagels from Zabar’s.

Step 3: The Toasts and Blessings

Rather than making religious or political references in a toast, which may risk excluding some guests and polarizing others, try to emphasize gratitude for the people in your home, Sandella says. Tempted to throw in a zinger or joke that might cause offense? The psychotherapist cautions to “think about our kids and modeling constructive behavior,” and refrain from doing it. Alternatively, you can go around the table and ask everyone to name one thing they are grateful for. If a guest has suffered a loved one’s loss in the past year, Lieberman recommends mentioning the deceased warmly in a toast, so there’s no “elephant in the room.”

Step 4: The Conversation

The best way to put an end to conflict among family and friends is not to let it start in the first place. Sandella suggests games to play to keep everyone busy, interacting and cooperating in a fun way. She recommends board games that are lighthearted and not too revealing (the board game Therapy might not work, for example). Or make up your own games, such as having pennies at each guest’s place setting: Once seated, they look at the date on the coin and share a happy memory from that year in their life.

Step 5: The Laughter

Lighthearted fun is key, according to Lieberman. She’s used that mainstay of Internet clicks—the silly animal video—as a tool to get even the crankiest or most disagreeable guest to lighten up (extra points if a child is passing around the video). Send the clip to a few guests before dinner, then bring it up during the meal and have everyone share their own silly dog or cat stories.

The upshot of this forethought? With a little bit of planning, and a few nods to inclusiveness and silly entertainments, today’s holiday gathering can be tomorrow’s sepia-hued memory. Give it a try—you might just find out something new and lovely about your nearest and dearest.

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About the author

Dana Dickey is the Los Angeles editor of digital women’s lifestyle publication PureWow. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler and Vogue.