Thursday, December 21, 2006


(News-Herald, December 21) There’s nothing like happy family gatherings for the joyous Christmas holiday. Actually, in many cases, that’s true. In some homes, on Christmas, there will be nothing going on that is anything like a happy family gathering.
Here are a few guidelines to help make the day a little less like a Fingernails On Chalkboard Festival.
First the rules about gifting. You may not (and Miss Manners backs me up on this) dictate the form of presents to be given to you. Broad hints are allowed (“Gosh, but my life seems so empty without a pair of fuzzy bunny slippers”), and you are always free to respond to subtle inquiries such as “So what would you do if you suddenly won twenty-five dollars?” or “Good Lord In Heaven, you are impossible to shop for—what should I get you?”
You may do gift-giving as you wish. But you may not pretend to have given someone a gift when you didn’t actually do so (“I know you’re concerned about poverty, so I adopted a twenty-year-old Korean orphan in your name”).
On the actual celebratory day, you are obliged to follow certain meal rules. Unlike Thanksgiving (turkey) or July Fourth (hot dogs charred over an open flame), Christmas does not have an official food. Some items are mentioned in various carols (bowls of wassail, figgy pudding, snow), but these fit better in holiday paintings than on your actual table. Some people push ham as a Christmas standard; I have no idea why. Search any Christmas story—neither pigs nor any of their byproducts make an appearance. Personally, I like to grill a hunk of the Christmas Cow.
The correct meal for the day is whatever is preferred by the host cook. Presumably this comes fully advertised either by advance notice or years of tradition. The only correct response is general merriment and delight. If you have issues, supplement your diet before and/or after the main event.
Don’t help the cook, unless she specifically asks for your help, which she won’t. You don’t know how to prepare any of the dishes. Really, you’re not helping. That’s not where the pepper slices go, and what do you think you’re doing with that lemon. Stop. Your hostess is not shooing you out of her kitchen to be gracious; she wants you to leave her alone.
However, post-mealage, all protests that no one need help with the dishes must be ignored. Any dope can do the dishes, and even if they can’t, you’ll be home before your father discovers that you loaded the dishwasher All Wrong.
So. Help with the cooking—no. Help with the dishes—yes. It’s amazing how many people get those simple instructions backwards.
The day must include something traditional. Your tradition may be to feed leftover ham to the neighbor’s dogs or paint the cat green. Maybe every year the kids hide grandpa’s teeth and nobody gets dessert until he finds them. As long as it’s traditional.
Part of tradition is that some members of the family must be dragged into grumpy compliance. This is important. It doesn’t mean that some people hate tradition—this little dance signifies that the family observes its traditions on purpose, not through mindless habit. Tradition is never mindless.
You should also do something untraditional, different from every other year. It may or may not be fun, but it will allow you to identify this particular milestone (“Yeah, that was the year we set fire to the driveway…”).
Video games are okay, but they must be played on a big screen and everyone in the room must be allowed to provide color commentary or ask irritating questions. Board and card games are good, but you must allow people to either participate or kibbitz. Television can be watched if you watch a sporting event that allows for much vocal armchair coaching or a Holiday Classic of some sort. Classic Rudolph, Nightmare Before Christmas, Pee Wee’s Christmas Special, or any number of Christmas Carol variants (I favor Muppets or Mr. Magoo). It’s even better if the classic is bad enough to draw group heckling; my family finds joy in watching “The Year without a Santa” which is quite possibly (sorry, fans) the dumbest Christmas show ever.
You may set up a neutral corner for people who need a little quiet (a table with one of those six billion piece puzzles of a small Bavarian village will do). But after a short time, you may drive them back out.
Christmas is, after all, not about being all warm and cozy. It can be awkward, uncomfortable and inconvenient. Which, I figure, proves we really love these people—why else would we bother.

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