Due to overreaching government regulations and a few thousand years of social taboos, humans tend to marry strangers, assimilating them, more or less willingly, into our families. These incoming humans often have wildly inappropriate holiday habits that do not match up well with the Way We Do Things In This Family. Sometimes things are forced to change—and it rarely goes well.
Maybe I can use some of my vaunted sensitivity to help solve these complex Christmas negotiations. According to my wife, Jan, I must have been saving it up until now.
Here are several potentially disruptive situations at this most wonderful time of the year and the correct solutions:
- Home field advantage. The location of the annual holiday gathering can divide a family. While in many clans the tendency to gather at the oldest participant’s home is normal, there’s a tipping point where Grandma wants to stop cooking and cleaning and watch the game like everybody else.
In other families, however, the honor of hosting the Christmas meal is eagerly declined. We’ve seen what Grandma’s house looks like when we leave and even caught Grandma and Grandpa opening the expensive champagne right after we left and had to return to claim a forgotten offspring.
The solution: The host location should be the one closest to a bowling alley. It’s hard for people to argue politics over the pin clatter, and everyone can get out of the house to gain some space. Plus, I hear they serve beer.
- Menu management. To avoid unfortunate “tofurky” incidents, many families opt to spread the food preparation chores across all the members. The result is culinary chaos, however well meaning. You’ll get Swedish pickled fish alongside sweet-potato pie, mac and cheese passed with seared eggplant and crème fraiche adjacent to KoolWhip. No one wants that.
The solution: Other than several dozen cookies required for admission, the cooking should be the sole responsibility of the host. And by “cooking,” I mean “ordering.”
This is the 21st century—we don’t cook for crowds, there are people for that, such as Famous Dave’s. Instead of arguing over whether the turkey is done and embarrassing yourself trying to carve it, hipster families have moved on. After a while, the tradition won’t center on Aunt Emily’s green bean casserole but the betting pool on the delivery time and who can make a log cabin from bare ribs.
- Gift timing. When to open presents can be a deal-breaker. It turns out the scene depicted with such historical accuracy in “A Christmas Story” as Ralphie and Randy dive under the tree on Christmas morning is not written on the back of the Bill of Rights. Some families open all—or more inexplicably—some of their gifts the night before. (Opening some is like stopping halfway through an ice cream sandwich, in my opinion.)
Some folks even dribble out the unwrapping as they decamp to various locations, such as grandparents’, dinner site, some uncle and aunt nobody under 12 knows, etc. People who have graduated sixth grade under-estimate the importance of the schedule for this crucial part of the holiday.
The solution: Drone-drop the presents to the target at the time of the giver’s choosing. This is a feasible update for Santa Claus, but with children’s noses pressed to the window to see a different kind of cyber-reindeer.
The moral here is as families merge through ever-shifting marital alliances, almost all of us will be confronted with bizarre group activities other people call “celebrating Christmas.” Therefore, it’s a good idea before courting to not just scan the plat book but go through one holiday cycle to uncover any heretical holiday rituals.
Sadly, in the end, most of us will compromise. The hybrid traditions that arise are what succeeding generations will rebel against. Through it all, remember the miracle of Christmas is if you try your best, it’s hard to do it wrong.