"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city," said George Burns. Well, guess what? It's the holidays and you're all together. Here's how to be more Baileys than Griswolds this winter vacation.
By Amy Shearn
1. "Here, I saved you a seat."
Let's acknowledge that every single person at Great-Aunt Rosilyn's Winter Holiday Celebration is not your favorite. And of course not, and what beautiful diversity there is in the world, and in your family and in Great-Aunt Rosilyn's musty, knickknack-overpopulated living room. But that doesn't mean you have to fall on the carving knife, so to speak, of endless conversation about your elderly relatives' gout. Making eye contact with the one normal cousin, or your brother's new girlfriend, and patting the cushion beside you on that 75-year-old crushed-velvet couch is a way to save yourself. Not to mention that it can be a great comfort to another guest who is feeling a little lost,; or worse, about to get into a passionate global-warming debate she will never win. Diffuse awkward situations before they happen with your own ad-hoc seating arrangement -- extra credit if you arrange your chosen ones close to the cheese plate.
2. "I brought my dish-washing gloves!"
"How can I help?" is probably the most accidentally annoying question in the English language, right there behind "What do you look like without your glasses?" First of all, asking how you can help actually gives the host/hostess yet one more thing to do; namely, find a task you can do and explain it to you (i.e., "Ah, yes, could you please get down the wine glasses? Let me show you where they are…") Second of all, you often end up with a task you really would rather not do, especially if you are a chronic overgiver apt to say "Yes of COURSE I would love to clear the yard of dog droppings and then lead all the children in a game of Red Rover!" So, like when you apply for a job, be specific and play to your known strengths. Are you a uniquely gifted dish-washer who finds said job a respite from the clatter of the dining room? Then bring your heavy-duty gloves and volunteer, with friendly/deadly precision, "I am ready to wash the plates."
3. "Those hand towels in the bathroom are perfect."
Hosting a family get-together is a little bit like giving birth to a baby: something that sounds like a good idea in theory, but then, in action, involves so much more pain and chaos than you ever imagined (all which you forget by the next time). When you look at your hostess, know that she is in a slightly otherworldly mental state -- she might be smiling at you, but she's actually calculating when to serve the baked brie, when to put in the apple pie, trying to remember if everyone's been offered a drink. You can be the kind nurse of the night when you give your hostess the salve of noticing some little detail that usually goes overlooked. She obviously put thought into the cute-but-not-too-cute seasonal hand towels placed in the bathroom -- give her credit for the one thing you already know was perfect, so that even if something else goes awry, she'll be starting off the night with a warm, fuzzy moment.
4. "Let's try it your way."
You and I know that you're an adult now, that you've forged your way in the world, that you are a wise woman and that you know perfectly well how to carve a d&^%@# ham. And you and I also know that when you try to carve said ham, someone of the elder generation is going to try to school you. So, how about today, on this one special day, you just say, "Okay then. Let's try it your way." It's a win-win -- either the ham gets carved or the knife comes back to you and you get the satisfaction of being right. Life is short but dinner is long, brave warriors, and you must choose your battles wisely.
5. "Jimmy Heineman."
As with any ambitious mission, surviving a holiday get-together still smiling calls for strategy, strength and code words. Particularly when your cousin's tweenaged child is trying out his new persona, Captain Awful. Surely your brothers and sisters remember Jimmy Heineman, your family's erstwhile neighbor, once the scourge of the neighborhood, name-caller and booger-flinger, the kid most likely to stick his finger in your birthday cake every. single. year. Jimmy Heineman, who grew into a perfectly lovely man and now heads his own charity providing medical care to orphans in Africa. Jimmy Heineman, family code for, "Don't worry… he'll grow out of it."
6. "You know, the first Thanksgiving meal was actually deer, corn and shellfish!"
Vegetarians are to Family Holiday Dinner as Nixon was to China. Trust me, I was once the vegan at the table; and no, I didn't think jokey comments like, "don't lentils have feelings, too?" were funny, and no, I didn't particularly want to dissect my dietary restrictions in front of all four generations of my family. If you're the only gluten-free, raw, fruitarian locavore at the table, comments and unsolicited advice are basically guaranteed. You could bring a PowerPoint presentation of Michael Pollan quotations, or you could gracefully show off your knowledge of -- neutral! -- historical trivia.
7. "I could really use help folding the napkins."
Giving a kid -- someone else's kid, that is, preferably one who is under the age of 10 -- a job at a family get-together is a kind of tiny gift to everyone. People in this demo don't want to make small talk, but they do want to explore Aunt Celeste's rare crystal collection. Busy those idle hands with something concrete, and the kids will feel like they are a part of the grown-up bustle.
8. "I will buy you a drink."
Say this, to your spouse, when your family is making him crazy. Just a little acknowledgement that you know what he's going through, and that soon you will be laughing together over a couple of stiff whiskey sours.
9. "I will buy you a really huge drink."
Say this, to your spouse, when his family is making him crazy. Sometimes the nicest thing you can do is to acknowledge your partner's frustrations with the people he's related to, the people he loves, even if he can't remember it at the moment as they are all trading their alien conspiracy theories over pumpkin pie. When he gives you a stricken look, whisper, "I think it's amazing that this family produced my favorite person." It's a kind-hearted reminder that he is not like them, and that anything critical that might get said in the post-gathering-debriefing session is not about him, and that no matter how nutty his relatives are, he is still the person you love.
10. "Tell me again about the time you went to the World's Fair."
Someday, God willing, you too will be the ancient shriveled person parked in the corner watching your progeny mill about while you feel like an alien among your own clan. "Why are we eating dinner four hours late and can they maybe shut up about Breaking Bad?" you might ask. When you become this person, you will appreciate the niece who finds you and asks an amiable, directed question or two. Before you become this person, remember that everyone likes to tell stories about happy times. Asking questions about the past is a way to bring cheer to your great-great-aunt's day, and you'll probably get to hear some excellent tales while you're at it. (I wrote an entire novel based on a family story I heard in a similar way… just saying.)
11. "At least we didn't light the side of the house on fire this year!"
Nothing brings families together like remembering those tragedy + time = comedy moments, those notable shared disasters of the past. This works if dinner went off without a hitch; it works if the sugar bowl was mistakenly filled with salt. Remember together how life is imperfect, and how even those imperfect times bring you all together.