Don't get too drunk with your grandma, but do get a little drunk with your grandma.
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It's 10 AM on December 25th and seriously, mom, do we have to go to that thing at Aunt Linda's house? Can't we just do brunch and get Christmas drunk on mimosas, watch It's a Wonderful Life and fall asleep in our new pajamas? No? Fine. But I'm positioning myself firmly by the shrimp and if anyone tries to move me, toddler or no, they are getting a mean face and an overly involved story about why I'm not with my ex anymore. What is it about the melting pot of personalities, relationships, and different takes on what "gravy" means that makes hanging with your family at Christmas or any other holiday such a mince pie minefield?
I really enjoy the company of my extended family. My dad's side knows that all you need to make a sandwich is gravy and bread, and all the women on my mom's side think they are psychic, which is obviously wonderful. But whether or not your aunties, grandpas, and a million confusing combinations of second and third cousins twice removed (we all have giant Catholic families, right?) are your favorite people in the world, the holidays can still be a bit of a headache, socially. What do you bring? How much do you drink? What amount of info about your personal life do you really need to tell people you only see a few times a year? What do you do if your grandma gets drunk and starts reminiscing about necking in the back of a car in the 40s? What if one of your relatives is getting really aggressive about his bullshit conservative politics?
Eat and drink up
This is some of the nicest food you'll eat all year—what, you're making stuffing from scratch casually in your daily life?—and your older relatives probably won't even let you help with the dishes. Cheese platter, ho! (I mean that like the way pirates or ocean explorers talk about land, but it's also pretty perfect as an imperative. Bacon-wrapped shrimp, hoes!) This is also some of the nicest wine and/or beer and/or fancy spirits you've never heard of that you're likely to encounter for a while, so get in there. A couple glasses of wine never hurt anyone, socially, I say. Plus family drunk is a sacred, beautiful thing. Just don't overdo it; last year I got so accidentally boozy on mimosas I had to go upstairs and secret nap for a bit.
Do the manners thing. If only to dampen some of the "kids these days" arguments that are floating around, turn off your phone for a bit and participate in a lovely tradition that's been happening as long as humans have existed: shared food and group yelling. Don't worry about gifts, but do BE PRESENT, you know? (You can use that one whenever, it's appropriate on birthdays, too, so you're welcome.) If you have to be an asshole the rest of the year, please remember that this is the one night when please and thank yous and not texting while someone is talking to you is really important. You can go back to cutting in line to order coffee while talking too loudly on your cell phone and planning to eat your malodorous sandwich on a crowded bus during rush hour tomorrow, you grinch. Offer to help, bring a food or drink, be someone's designated driver, or accompany them on a walk home. Be tactful if someone goes on a political, religious, or moral rant that you don't agree with. Do you really need to pick a fight with your elderly relative over politics on Hanukkah? What will it achieve? Try to move the conversation away to something nicer, like bread rolls, or different types of trees (balsam is a personal favorite, if you're looking for a hard line to draw). You can do this.
This is the one night when not texting while someone is talking to you is really important.
Don't bring your significant other unless they are here to stay
If you only see your extended family once a year, be warned: They will ask about that nice young man you brought last year forEVER until you bring another one. This is just them being polite and working with what they know about you: your name (or at least a name similar to yours. I accept "Marnie," "Melissa," and "Michael" at family functions), "aren't you all finished school now?" and that you had a date last year. Not their fault if each grasp at conversational straws is a stab in your freshly broken heart. Your first Christmas on your own after a breakup is going to be a triple nightmare with well-meaning cousins saying things like, "Soooo, how are things with Tom?" This may or may not lead to a three-sherry phone error starring the slurred phrase, "I just don't know what happened, Tom," which is obviously something we'd all like to avoid, Tom especially.
Place to be: the kids table
Man, kids that aren't your problem are fun. They have almost no filter and the good ones do not put their jam-hands on you without asking. They will say hilarious things that are mean and nice at the same time ("You're very pretty like Cinderella except that you have silly orange hair"), and maybe tell you funny secrets about your relatives, a.k.a. their parents. Alternatively, set your partner up for some grade-A, top-quality doin' it later by letting them hang out with and be super nice but not talk down to the kids. Even if you're not into having one of your own any time soon, you will like watching that happen, trust me. (Is this creepy? Am I alone here? Please let me know in the comments section of this book.) There are worse ways to spend an hour or two than feeding shortbread to a new doll with a four-year-old. Although these days it's probably some interactive hologram-doll running off an iPad that the four-year-old has hacked to play Disney songs in the background of the virtual tea party while you were busy trying to figure out how to turn off the flash on your digital camera like some kind of elderly troglodyte. Children are the future, etc, etc.
Try to move the conversation away to something nicer, like bread rolls, or different types of trees.
Alternatively, get to know the Olds
If children are the future, your grandparents and great-grandparents are the past in present. My m'm's dad, though now passed away, went from living on a farm on Prince Edward Island to fighting in WWII to driving a car and using the internet and who knows what other massive changes throughout his lifetime. Plus, he was hilarious and had a million great stories. Old people are living history as well as fun people with less of a filter than anyone under 60 and are way cooler than they sometimes get credit for. Think about all those famous old people you like: Your grandma is a non-meme Betty White just waiting to tell you about being a woman on a mostly-male university campus in the 50s or the year she spent living in Africa or what your dad was like as a kid. Old people are smart, storied, hilarious, and not to get all wah-wahh on you, but they're not gonna be here forever. Put in some face time with the lovely people who keep you in sweaters. They'll appreciate it, too.
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Be grateful, you Scrooge
Not everyone has a family they are close with. Not everyone has a family, period. Some people who don't even know you that well think you are important enough to have over to their home for a meal they took a long time to cook (or order in, or have catered, steal from the back of a truck, I don't know your life), to celebrate what's happened this year and what may happen in the next. Get over yourself and have a nice time. It's a PARTY.
As usual, don't be a prick and try to do positive things for yourself and other people. That's all any life advice ever comes down to, really. Have a very lovely holiday and try not to worry too much about how the winters are getting warmer every year and what are we even going to DO about the song "White Christmas" when that doesn't make sense as a thing anymore? Enjoy your family dinner/pagan ceremony/low-key movie and Chinese food/however and whatever you choose to do. Also everyone be cool about the five pounds you may or may not gain; consider it prudent winter insulation.