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How to Survive the Holidays Without Angering Your Family, Annoying Your Friends, and Alienating Your Neighbors

Miss Conduct's indispensable guide to a jolly season.

Email|Print| Text size + By Robin Abrahams
November 19, 2006

ASKING AN ADVICE COLUMNIST HER OPINION of the holiday season is rather like asking an emergency room physician her opinion of motorcycles. We rarely hear about the times when things work out well. I have never, for example, gotten a letter like this:

Dear Miss Conduct, I just wanted to write and tell you what a great Christmas our family had. All the family members loved their presents, and the shopping came in well under budget this year! Uncle Sid from the Jewish side made his famous latkes and sang a hilarious version of "The Hanukkah Song." Chandra, our new sister-in-law from India, looked beautiful in her red-and-green sari and said she was amazed at how much Christmas and Diwali have in common. The kids behaved like little angels and, best of all, Mom stayed sober the whole day!

No, I don't get very many letters like that. Don't get me wrong: The holiday season can inspire joy, generosity, playfulness, indulgence, nostalgia, spiritual renewal, and love. But it can also be difficult for the bereaved, members of minority religions, the unhappily single, the unhappily married, those who desperately want children and don't have them, people with difficult children, people with difficult parents, people who are broke or in debt, those struggling with their weight, recovering addicts, teachers and students facing end-of-semester deadlines, anyone who works in the retail, travel, or service industries, and everyone with close friends or relatives in any of the above categories.

In short, all of us. Which is why approaching the holidays in the spirit of Murphy's Law, grim though it may sound on the surface, ultimately makes sense. Here, then, are some tips to avoid the most common missteps and make the holidays what we all want them to be. Let's start with the elephant in the room.

For Christmas People: There Is No "War on Christmas," So Get Over It. Last year, a group of loudmouths decided to make a big fuss about a nonexistent "War on Christmas," the major point of which, as far as anyone could tell, was that people were occasionally being wished "Happy Holidays" and that religious displays in public squares were correctly identified as such. Christians were urged to fight this "war" by sticking proudly to their guns and wishing everyone around them a Merry, Militant Christmas. This is utterly ridiculous - and utterly against the spirit of Christmas. As a religious holiday, Christmas celebrates the miracle of God entering the world as an infant born in a stable: naked, poor, and powerless. The most beloved secular myths of Christmas are also about treating the poor (Bob Cratchit), the different (Rudolph), and the humble (Charlie Brown's Christmas tree) with respect and compassion. So how about showing a little of that Christmas spirit to others who don't celebrate as you do? Particularly, don't get snooty with salesclerks who wish you "Happy Holidays." You're not standing up for any grand principle when a clerk says "Happy Holidays," and you respond "Merry Christmas!" in a snarky tone. You're just being mean to people who probably make $6.75 an hour, so stop it.

Know That "Happy Holidays" Is PC - Plain Courtesy. Saying "Happy Holidays" doesn't mean that you're denying your religion or cultural practices; it means you're being considerate to others who might not share them. (Or that you're covering Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's for people whom you don't see that often.) That said, if you do know what holiday someone celebrates, it's rather silly not to wish him or her a nice specific one. When the Cohens show up at the Mahoneys' annual December party, a round of stilted "Happy Holidays" at party's end sounds a bit ridiculous. Better for the Mahoneys to wish their guests "Happy Hanukkah" and the Cohens to wish their hosts a "Merry Christmas." A diverse city like Boston includes more than just Christians and Jews, and "Happy Holidays" works fine if you're not sure what, if anything, someone celebrates. (It's not always simple. Some non-Christians celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday, and some Christians do not celebrate Christmas.) Whatever your religion or lack thereof, chances are you're getting some time off in November or December or bonus pay for working, so "Happy Holidays" is appropriate.

For Non-Christmas People: You're in the Minority, So Get Over It. Being wished "Merry Christmas" is hardly the same thing as being baptized and forced to recite the catechism at gunpoint. If you are a Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or random heathen who is wished "Merry Christmas," look at it as an opportunity to espouse your values and tell your well-wisher how you plan to spend December 25: "Thanks! I'll be subbing for one of my colleagues at the hospital so she can be with her family." "Merry Christmas to you, too. My friends and I always get together for Chinese food and a movie." "I can't wait. Christmas is one of the few days of the year I have time to get to the mosque for all five prayers!"

Remember That Excessive Christmas-ness Gets on Everyone's Nerves. Many folks who don't celebrate Christmas are annoyed by the holiday's relentless in-your-faceness. Here's a secret: It annoys most Christmas-celebrators, too. Even the most rabid Santaphile does not want to hear those sleigh bells jingling and ring-ting-tingling before the Halloween candy is cleared from the shelves. And if the ubiquitous decorations irritate you, be grateful that you're not the one who has to dig them out, put them up, and take them down every year.

So can we all just get along now, and none of this "War on Christmas" nonsense? Good. Now let's get to some fun stuff:

Don't Do Things That Make You Miserable. You'd think I wouldn't have to say this. But many people seem to stress themselves out no end over the holidays. Maybe your bubbe used to make perfect golden latkes for Hanukkah, and now every time you try to grate the potatoes the way she did, you wind up with bleeding knuckles and a foul temper. Buy a mix, already. Your family might whine at first, but in the long run, they'll realize it's nicer not to have their potato pancakes served by Raging Bull. So if the earlier sunsets and the whispers of frost fill you with horror at some dread holiday chore approaching, try not doing that chore this year. Skip it altogether, pay someone else to do it, or foist it onto the hobbyist calligrapher in your family who actually likes addressing Christmas cards.

Communicate Holiday Plans and Expectations Well in Advance. This is particularly important if you are in a new relationship. Decide at whose house various festivities will be held, who will do what chores, how religious or secular things will get, how extravagant or minimalist present-giving should be, and the like. Interfaith couples often have it easier with this one, because they realize that they will need to discuss and negotiate in advance. People from similar backgrounds can take their traditions for granted, leading to unpleasant surprises when Calvin expects everyone gathered around the Thanksgiving table to say grace and tell what they're grateful for that year, and Marianne expects them to keep their mouths shut and watch the game.

You should also pay attention to friends' levels of holiday enthusiasm. Some people just do the holidays to a far greater degree than others. Jenny Jingles assumes that she and Franny Frosty will exchange presents, because haven't they been each other's support system and best friend all through that awful first semester of law school? But Franny has never in her life bought a present for anyone other than her immediate family and is horribly embarrassed when Jenny shows up with a snow globe purchased just for her at the Cambridge Art Fair. Franny could have avoided this awkward situation if she had noticed Jenny's impending Christmas cheer and suggested that they treat each other to a nice holiday lunch at Harvest instead of getting presents. And Jenny could have been more attentive to the fact that Frances never once mentioned the holidays in a context other than that of much-desired time off.

Make the Preparations Part of the Celebration. Don't think of the holidays as events; think of each holiday as a process, and try to let the process be as social and entertaining as possible. Preparing for the holidays alone makes the work feel like chores and makes you feel isolated and resentful of all the people you're doing it for. So have some fun. Go present-shopping with friends and stop for lunch or a coffee or a cocktail somewhere along the line. Set aside evenings or weekend days for the whole family to bake, clean, and decorate together. If you live alone, invite friends over to wrap gifts and have hot chocolate - or crank some tunes, fix an indulgent snack, and turn the gift-wrapping (or online shopping) into a little party for one. Yes, of course these all sound like unbelievably dorky ideas that no urban hipster would ever do. That's because you must . . .

Admit That the Holidays Aren't About Good Taste . . . "Good taste" in the sense of kindness and sensitivity toward others, absolutely. But not "good taste" in the sense of albino-pumpkin-and-white-chrysanthemum Thanksgiving centerpieces or Christmas trees of Art Deco perfection that no yarn-and-Play-Doh kindergarten ornament will ever desecrate. If that's your thing, by all means have the holidays as you like and revel in your tasteful splendor. But if, deep down, you really want to wear reindeer sweaters and listen to Andy Williams, or go outside and bang pots and pans at midnight on New Year's Eve, or throw all the Hanukkah gelt down on a roll of the dreidel like a riverboat gambler - then the holidays are the time to let those nerdy impulses hold sway. When it's cold outside, baby, why be cool? The holidays are the one time of year we're allowed to regress and wallow in nostalgia and anti-hipness.

This goes for outdoor decorations as well. If you want splashy colored lights instead of tasteful white ones, go for it. If the theological weirdness of Santa and Rudolph worshiping at the manger makes your heart fill with Christmas joy, put 'em up. (Tasteful minimalists can express holiday-season love and tolerance by being patient with their gaudy neighbors.) Just one, quite serious, caveat: Gaudy or refined, all outdoor holiday decorations are utterly grotesque by early January. Please, take them down.

Accept That There's No One Right Way To Do the Holidays. People who prefer all-white centerpieces and truffle stuffing are not snobs brainwashed by Martha Stewart who have forgotten the true meaning of Thanksgiving. Those who go for gemutlich decorations of construction-paper hand-outline turkeys and Stove Top Stuffing are not hopeless rubes who should have gone back home to Nebraska the minute they finished grad school.

Well, perhaps they are, and perhaps the albino-pumpkin people are pretentious twits. But you don't know that. Don't accuse people of moral failings based on how they decorate their tables or what they put on them, or how much or little they spend, or if they celebrate any holidays at all. Some wonderful and generous people prefer to spread their wonder and generosity about year-round and not make a huge deal of the holidays. Some people who spend lavishly to make their families joyful on Christmas day never put a bit of effort into making them happy otherwise. We all do the holidays based on our own idiosyncratic traditions and emotional needs. So don't try to jolly up the "Grinch" in the next cubicle who spends Christmas alone with a good book or sneer at "Cindy Lou Who" across the street who wears a different Christmas sweater every day in December.

Accept That There's No One Right Way To Do the Holidays, Part 2. And just as ways of celebrating the holidays differ person to person, they differ year by year. If you haven't celebrated Hanukkah since childhood, but this year you are in special need of spiritual rededication, it's time to break out the menorah and prayer books. Or if you have suffered a loss in your family and just can't bring yourself to do the traditional Thanksgiving at Aunt Bessie's, why not suggest the family go to a restaurant instead? Just as you shouldn't make others feel guilty or inadequate for not celebrating the holidays the way you do, you shouldn't make yourself feel bad for not celebrating them the way you have in the past. Holiday traditions are lovely, but they shouldn't be a straitjacket. Instead, they should be more like a really great pair of black trousers - something that goes with everything and with which you can be creative. (Yes, I do realize that after all my efforts to stay sensitive to readers of all religions, I have now just alienated practically all of the men. But it's a really good metaphor, guys! Stay with me!)

Don't Expect Perfection. Chances are good you won't have a sepia-toned Norman Rockwell fantasy of a Thanksgiving or a sparkling New Year's Eve party straight out of Noel Coward. Don't make yourself crazy about what your holiday isn't - try, instead, to appreciate what it is. And accept that there will be times when holiday preparations will be stressful and that some of the time spent with family or friends may feel more obligatory than joyful. There may be times when the blandness of "Happy Holidays" annoys you or when you feel as though you're going to rip your hijab off and scream if one more person says "Merry Chri-" and then turns beet-purple and stammers apologies at you. All worthwhile things have their moments of boredom, stress, and anger. Let yourself feel what you feel, and move on.

Give Yourself the Best Holiday Present: A Margin for Error. Don't expect life to go on as usual during The Season. Accept that you probably will spend too much, not get as much done at work as you'd like, and gain some weight. Decide in advance how much of a margin of error you want to allow yourself (say, 10 percent over budget or a 5-pound weight gain). And decide where you can afford to err and where you can't - perhaps you can spend time but not money or indulge in sweets but not alcohol. A little forethought can prevent regret later.

Expand the Circle of Joy. Finally, keep in mind that the holidays are not only about love and joy for you and your family and friends. Take some time to be extra-kind to those who may be struggling (remember my list earlier of those for whom the season can be difficult). Be patient with other people's moments of holiday-induced stress, boredom, and frustration. And be extra-polite to salesclerks, please!

And from the bottom of my unhip, imperfect, politically correct heart to all of you: Happy Holidays! Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology, writes the weekly "Miss Conduct" column in the Globe Magazine. E-mail her at missconduct@globe.com.