I don't know how innkeepers do it.
All those breakfasts... all those dirty towels... all those beds to be made... the sandwiches and cocktails... dinners... having to be nice 24/7.
Let's hear it for innkeepers who always have a smile for their guests -- and everyone else who is struggling to keep smiling when hosting family this holiday season, when the visiting toddler drops Goldfish everywhere and the teen refuses to be roused before noon from the family room sofa bed. Did I mention the uncle who falls asleep on the couch before dessert, snoring loudly?
Tens of millions of us will be traveling between Thanksgiving and the end of the year and most of us will visit family. I gained my new innkeeper's perspective when I hosted my husband's family one Thanksgiving week a few years back. They flew in from California, Texas, Illinois and Washington State. Did I mention it was also our 25th anniversary?
Thanksgiving dinner was the least of it. In fact, more of us gathered for leftovers two days later when another brother came from Boston to see everyone. When I wasn't cooking or doing dishes, I was throwing a load of towels in the washing machine, checking to see if anyone needed a snack, and planning excursions. Was it cocktail time yet? My mother-in-law joked that I didn't come into the house that week without a couple of bags of groceries. She was right. How else was I going to feed a dozen or more every night?
My late mother-in-law Lee Yemma really enjoyed herself Thanksgiving 2007 at my house
It's not always easy to be a guest either, especially with messy, noisy kids in tow. Frankly, I was glad that some of our guests opted for a local chain hotel -- and so were they, because they not only scored bargain rates but a more comfortable bed and their own bathroom. Don't get me wrong. I love my husband's family and we had a blast. (The kids especially liked hearing l stories about what a rascal their dad was as a kid.)
This column is dedicated to all of you getting ready to host your family and friends for the holidays. Good luck! Your Mantra: it won't be perfect. Not the food. Not the kids' behavior. Not the adults' behavior. We're talking about family, after all -- squabbling cousins, know-it-all brothers-in-law, aunts who can't resist criticizing your cooking, bored tweens who make it clear they would rather be elsewhere. Let's not forget the vegetarians and vegans in the bunch who make every meal a challenge.
Never mind the memories we're hoping will result from getting everyone together. Never mind what sappy commercials suggest holiday gatherings should be like. Face it. Hosting the family for the holidays is hard work. Being a holiday guest is no picnic either. Young kids are discombobulated by unfamiliar surroundings and too much sugar; grown-ups are discombobulated by overeating -- and drinking.
It's even tougher when divorced and stepfamilies are part of the mix, "Don't try to force everyone to act like one big happy family," suggests Dr. David Fassler, a child psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. "Let the kids adjust and adapt at their own pace. Don't try to force them to like their new relatives. You can expect them to be polite, but you can't make people get along. Either it will happen or it won't."
Frankly, I think we're doing pretty well if we manage to get through the holiday weekend without some relative or another storming off angrily or a child collapsing in tears because of a cousin's teasing. Besides suggesting some of the relatives might be more comfortable at a nearby hotel, here are my six other tried-and-true tips for surviving the relatives this holiday season:
HIDE THE GLASS ANIMALS, especially if there are preschoolers or toddlers in the house. Are the electrical outlets covered? Medications stored high in a cabinet? Cleaning supplies locked up? Even baking ingredients such as vanilla and almond extract can be harmful to young children, as can holiday plants like mistletoe berries or poinsettias. For more safety tips, visit the National Safe Kids Campaign Website.
STOCK UP ON APPLE JUICE, peanut butter, pasta noodles, and whatever else your young guests are eating these days. Don't be insulted if they won't eat the fancy dishes you've slaved over. If you are the guest, offer to pick up what your kids can't survive without. Bring along a children's cookbook (Amazon.com lists more than a thousand! ) and help the kids to prepare a dish or favorite cookies. Remember, the important thing is the conversation around the table, not what's on the plates.
CREATE A KIDS' HANG OUT AREA, even if it's just a portion of the den or living room with toys, a TV and a place to keep their "stuff." Suggest the kids bring along a favorite movie. . If your guests are driving, suggest they bring along favorite pillows, blankets and for the littlest ones, crib sheets, and night-lights to make them feel more at home.
GET EVERYONE OUT OF THE HOUSE. No one will get on each other's nerves as much if they're not confined to small spaces. Send the gang to the zoo, the local ice-skating rink, children's museum or around the neighborhood to check out the decorations. (Link to many children's museums and science centers by visiting the Association of Science-Technology Center Website.)
SET THE GROUND RULES. No food on the couch, no teasing the dog, no disciplining anyone else's kids. Don't be shy about asking the kids to help either. Even 6-year-olds can make their beds (or roll up their sleeping bags) set the table or help with cleanup.
LEAVE THE EMOTIONAL BAGGAGE at the door. The holidays are not the time to air long-held grievances.
When all else fails, bring out the chocolate Turkeys.
Eileen Ogintz interviews families and experts around the world for her widely syndicated column Taking the Kids ™ and is the creator of www.takingthekids.com She's written seven family travel books, most recently The Kid's Guide; NYC and The Kid's Guide: Cruising Alaska. For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com.