The sun is shining, there are presents under the tree and the scene is set for a relaxing festive season with your nearest and dearest.

Well, that’s the plan anyway – but reality has a way of rearing up like third cousin Tom trying to sneak a kiss under the mistletoe.  You’re practically broke already, dreadful Aunt Doris is coming for Christmas dinner, Granny is threatening to produce her revolting tuna mousse and you just know Cousin Bob will get plastered in the corner again.

In other words, festive cheer can descend into one big fat misery fest before you can say “deck the halls”. Luckily there are ways to get around dinner-table blues, difficult family members and everything in between.

Here’s some holiday-season etiquette from the experts to ensure tinsel isn’t the only thing that sparkles this year.

So many presents, so little money

Blown your bonus before you’ve bought gifts for loads of family members? Stop panicking and start talking, says Anri van der Linde, owner of the Jaffae finishing school in Johannesburg. Contact family members and come to some form of consensus – such as buying gifts only for the children or deciding on a maximum spend per present.

When it comes to younger kids, buy for everyone or no one, says Courtenay Carey, executive head of the African Institute of Protocol, which provides leadership and etiquette training. 

Read more: From the adventure seeker to the keen homemaker - this gift guide has something for everyone

Little kids can feel hurt if they’re left out – but the great thing about them is they’re easily satisfied so you don’t need to spend a lot to see them smile. Planning ahead can help you avoid unnecessary stress, says Charlotte Youens, owner of Joburg etiquette school The Elegant Touch – and if you’ve left it too late, try to remember for next year.

“A bit of research and thought can make gift selection a whole lot easier. If you rush out at the last minute and grab the first thing you see, the gift usually reflects chaos.”

Don’t get into debt buying presents, Carey says.

“Rather buy one nice present for the home that everyone in the family can use. It will go a long way in terms of budget and thoughtfulness.”

Rules of re-gifting

Giving away something you got for your birthday to someone else for Christmas may be considered dodgy by some. But the experts say re-gifting is fine – as long as you don’t get caught.

“If you’re never going to use it, then you can re-gift. Obviously the original gifter shouldn’t find out,” Carey says.

Youens agrees.

“Also make sure the tag from the person who originally gave it to you isn’t still attached to the gift. And if you’re caught out be honest: tell the person that while it was something that wasn’t to your taste you think it would be perfect for them.”

Eat, drink and try to be merry

Preparing a Christmas feast for your extended family and friends is a costly business, but you don’t have to bear the burden alone.

“It’s okay to ask everyone to pitch in,” Carey says. Close family and friends can be asked to contribute money and everyone else can bring a dish or dessert along.

If you’re a guest in someone’s home you should always ask the host what you should bring. Don’t just assume it’s okay to bring whatever you want, Carey adds.

Good guests always bring a bottle of wine or champagne, says Clarisse Coetzee, a Cape Town events coordinator. But treat it as a gift, Carey cautions – don’t just grab and down the wine.

Read more: Here's a fun game you can play with your family to save big bucks for Christmas

When a guest brings chilled white wine, it normally means they’d like to enjoy it with your meal. When a guest brings red wine, always ask “Shall we open this tonight?” since they may have intended it as a gift for you.

What to do if Auntie Mavis brings the same unpalatable dessert every year? Accept it with grace and serve it with the other puds. “Christmas is a time for making everyone feel special and appreciated,” Carey says.   

’Tis the season to behave

Holiday excitement can cause children to forget their manners, Van der Linde says, but it’s no excuse. Please, thank you and excuse me must be used all year round. Also:

  • Speak to your kids in advance about their reaction to gifts. “Irrespective of what they get, they must show appreciation and gratitude to the gift giver,” she says.
  • Ask your guests to put cellphones away during Christmas dinner. Take pics of your feast beforehand if you must – and of empty plates afterwards – but posting on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat during the meal is a no-no.
  • What should you do when someone else’s kids misbehave and threaten to ruin the day? “Try speaking to their parents in as diplomatic a way as possible,” Youens says. “Most parents don’t take kindly to other people disciplining their children.”

Read more: Have a great festive season with your boyfriend’s family even as they remind you that you’re not his wife yet

  • Don’t get into arguments if you can help it – it’ll just ruin things. If you feel your blood start to boil, leave the table for a while. 
  • A basic table plan can be invaluable. If you know Uncle John can’t stand Cousin Bob, seat them far away from each other. And if there are lots of kids around, put them at a different table.
  • Try not to overdo the booze. A few glasses are fine but Christmas is about connecting with family and friends – not passing out face-first in your turkey.

What to wear?

The dress code for Christmas Day depends on how formal the occasion is. If you’re at the seaside it’ll probably be a casual affair but if you’re invited to the home of the family matriarch or patriarch you’ll no doubt have to make more of an effort.

Respect traditions and manage expectations, Coetzee says, and everyone will have a great time.