1. Go easy on the egg nog.
Is there anything less fun than being sober in a group of drunks? And here’s the thing: drunks never believe they’re drunk. They think they’re witty and clever and maybe a bit sexy. They’re not. They wreak havoc and hurt feelings and ruin carpet instead of spreading Christmas cheer.
And young’uns, the last thing your parents and grandparents want to see is you overindulging. (I lied; that’s the second-to-last thing they want to see you doing.) Your mother nursed you until her breasts look like empty pillow cases; your father did geometry homework with you; your grandparents bought savings bonds for your college education. They do not want to witness the senseless death of your brain cells. Trust me on this: you and every other human on the planet is stupid enough already.
2. Check your politics at the door.
Maybe the Grinch was able to steal Christmas, but the mere mention of Hillary or The Donald can hold Christmas cheer hostage. If you are a good boy or good girl, you will not utter these words: Syria; immigrants; Russia; twitter, or Kanye West. You can have a lively debate about fruit cake or artificial Christmas trees if you’re hankerin’ for some spirited repartee.
3. Nothin’ wrong with store bought.
My Grandma Seilkop, with the able assistance of my Aunt Sue, put out an unbelievable spread Christmas morning for about twenty people. Old fashioned oatmeal with honey and cream; fried egg, the yellow a creamy blister; bacon dredged in flour and baked. But Grandma’s most beloved specialty was her pecan rolls made from dough that rose under a dishtowel, twice. And because they were not caloric enough, we slathered them with real butter. The men bragged about how many rolls they could eat; the ladies pretended they had only had a bite.
I remember the year Grandma was just too tired to make the rolls anymore. I am sure it made her sad to buy Graeter’s rolls instead. It turned out that those rolls were just as good (dare I say, even a smidge better). And despite this departure from our family tradition, none of us left the table hungry, and Santa still came
4. Those dishes do not wash themselves.
My Grandma Seilkop, she was a smarty pants. After we finished our turtle soup dinner on Christmas Eve, nobody was allowed to go into the family room, where an obscene mountain of gifts waited to be devoured, until every dish was washed and dried, and the tables were set for Christmas breakfast.
My children don’t remember Grandma, but somehow they learned her roles. Whenever we finish a meal at a relatives’ house, they immediately start clearing the table and washing the dishes. They don’t ask; they just do it.
Your grandma might demur when you offer to do the dishes or put the tables and chairs away, but believe me when I tell you she is tired. Her feet hurt, her ear lobe hurt, even her nose hairs ache. So be a little elf.
5. Avoid redundancy.
Why do we make ourselves crazy, celebrating with the same people six times in two days? These same people we don’t see for the rest of the year?
It’s hard coming up with a different Christmas sweater for each event and generating fresh conversation with the same people. Mostly what you talk about is how you’re still stuffed from the last meal, or how long the Christmas Eve sermon was.
Instead of cramming all that togetherness into 48 hours, why not plan another Christmas in July? There will still be fruit cake left.
6. It’s just one day, people.
The holidays are saturated with guilt. Both sets of grandparents want to see the kids on THE day, so young parents drag whiney, soggy, saggy children around to make an appearance.
Want to give your kids a wonderful gift? Tell them you’ll celebrate whenever they can make it, even if it’s on Epiphany. It might be hard to get the words out, but encourage them to stay home and make their own traditions.
Offer to bring a simple meal and Christmas cookies to their house. And don’t stay too long.
7. Judge not.
This Christmas, even if it’s for just one day, give everyone a break. Don’t watch to see how much cake your fat cousin puts on his plate. Don’t opine about the expensive gifts the youngsters got. Don’t judge the cranky little kids. I’m pretty sure you were a brat, too, on Christmas back in the day.
8. Do something nice, but keep it a secret.
One year we dragged our tweens to a church to serve dinner to homeless and lonesome people. I think there were more volunteers than guests. I am not sure our grand public gesture sent the right message to our kids, and I wonder if we were missed the other 364 days of the year.
If I had it to do over again, I would have encouraged my girls to think of a unique way to help someone who may be forgotten, someone who was wanting.
They could shovel an elderly neighbor’s driveway, not just at Christmas, but in February, too.
If they know someone who has lost a loved one in the last year, send a card telling her or him you are holding them in your thoughts and remembering the person who has passed.
Take a plate of cookies to a neighbor your family has never met.
Go around the neighborhood when it’s still dark, and carry everyone’s newspaper to the door. (Note to younger generation: a newspaper will look like a rolled up log inside an orange bag on the lawn. A newspaper is actual paper with words printed on it.)
Take the single mom’s dog (the one her kids promised to care for) for a walk, or take out her garbage.
And here’s how to make the gesture sweeter: don’t tell a soul you did it!
9. So you’re still at the kids’ table . . .
There are two ways to vacate chairs at the adults’ table: divorce or death. Don’t be in a hurry to get there. But after the meal, pull up a chair next to one of the elders him or her you wanted to be sure to spend some time together.
10. Accept change.
Christmas gets less magical as you get older. As my wise friend Claudia says, “It’s more fun to watch the magic than be the magician.”
11. What to give someone who has everything money can buy?
I know, Great Aunt Ethel needs nothing. She even says, “Don’t get me anything!” You know, though, you have to get her a broach or a scarf or some stupid geegaw that will gather dust. It will give her pleasure brag about you to her card club.
But there is actually something you can give Ethel that she wants and truly needs: a phone call. Now I know you have that flat-screened gizmo you’re always looking at, and I know it does some amazing things. I am pretty sure you can take it out of your pocket right now and ask it to remind you to call Aunt Ethel every two weeks.
You say there’s nothing to talk about. I get that. Ethel’s world has become very small. She can’t drive anymore, and even if she could, she’s not mobile enough to get out of the car and tool around. Nearly all of her friends and some of her family have died. Can you imagine what that feels like? The next time you go for a beer with your friends, think of what it would be like if you were the only one left. Grim, right?
Here are some conversation starters:
Say, “I’m having this situation at work. What do you think I should do?”
Say, “What was it like back when you . . .”
Say, “I was just remembering that time when you . . .”
Say, “I wanted to tell you why you are so important to me.” (Obama isn’t the only one thinking about his legacy.)
12. Give a little sugar.
Your parents bug you. You’ve told them five times what time you’re going to pick them up. They think they know better than you how to make the baby stop crying. They buy you sweaters with kitty cats on them. They give you the third degree about your job. They worry about you ALL. THE. TIME. Why can’t they just chill.
Against all reason, you think they will always be there. No matter how old they are when they die, you’ll be surprised.
And then one Christmas you’ll think, “I wish my mother were here so I could kiss her and tell her all the ways she helped me.” Don’t miss a chance to give her a little sugar now.
If you follow these tips, you won’t just survive Christmas. You’ll thrive.
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