“Can I refill your eggnog for you? Get you something to eat? Drive you out to the middle of nowhere and leave you for dead?”—Clark Griswold expertly navigating an awkward situation in ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’
A How-To Guide for Handling Festivity Fretfulness
It’s been said that Christmas isn’t a season; it’s a feeling. Unfortunately, sometimes that feeling is nagging uneasiness. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that most of our holiday get-togethers involve the people we’ve been avoiding all year: distant relatives, casual acquaintances, quirky co-workers, and that one neighbor with the yappy dog that wakes us up at 2 a.m. This mixing of unlike, yet related people for an annual gathering outside the confines of their natural habitats can be, well…awkward. Whether you’re headed to a 3:30 “dinner” at MeMaw’s house, your office Holiday Happy Hour, or your neighbor’s Progressive Dinner / Ugly Sweater / White Elephant Gift Exchange, consider this a primer for identifying where the most common pitfalls lie and how to avoid dipping your sleeve into the awkward sauce.
Respondez, s’il vous plait.
That’s the long version of RSVP, the oft-ignored plea from hosts that you let them know if you’ll be attending their soiree. It sounds more formal than it has to be. Call your mom and tell her to let MeMaw know that you’ll be at Christmas dinner, or lunch, or lupper, or whatever you like to call it, and that you’ll be bringing a friend. Better yet, call MeMaw yourself. She’ll be thrilled to hear from you (if she still hears well), and it will give her a chance to get some of her more probing questions out of the way. For your office party, shoot an email to the organizer letting them know you’re looking forward to the get-together, even if you would actually rather take a razor scooter to the shin than make small talk in the break room with Bob from Accounting. If your neighbor is hosting a gathering, roll down your window next time you see him at the mailbox to say you’ll be glad to pop by for just a little while, but not too late, because you have to go to work early and it sure would be great to get a good night’s sleep without waking up to that darn dog EVERY NIGHT, HOW DO YOU NOT HEAR THAT?? On second thought, leave that last part out, because we’re going to focus on being joyful and avoiding police presence. The point here is, there are people who have extended an invitation to you. They plan to provide you with something they believe to be edible and company they believe to be enjoyable and the least you can do is to let them know if you’re going to show up. A bonus of the RSVP is that it also gives you a chance to get some advance directive on the details of the gathering. Maybe you can even find out what exactly “Festive Casual” attire means. If you do, please share with the rest of us, because I have to admit, I’m feeling less than confident about these bedazzled sweatpants.
Be careful what you wish for…
They say it’s better to give than to receive, but no one ever said what to give. Gifting scenarios are tricky and rate high on the Awkwardness Potential Scale. Tread lightly here. Show up empty-handed and you risk being typecast as stingy and thoughtless. Overdo it and your gift recipient may feel inferior. This is where your RSVP skills will come in handy because you’ll have already taken the temperature of your host. For MeMaw’s house, first ask if you can bring anything. If she insists that no, she has it all under control and all she wants for Christmas is to see your smiling face, then give her what she asks for…and add a small, useful gift that she’d never buy for herself, like a pretty tea towel. MeMaws just love pretty tea towels. And don’t make a big production of giving it to her, because your sister-in-law will just think you’re sucking up and that you’ve always been the favorite. (WHATEVER, MADGE, just go sit at the kids’ table and quit trying to cause drama.)
The office party will probably have some lame Secret Santa type thing. Unless you know all of your co-workers really well, avoid the gag gift route because you never know who might get offended and plot a New Year’s lawsuit, putting everyone out of a job. (“Why would you give me a Chia pet? Don’t you know my ancestors rubbed dirt on their heads as an ancient fertility ritual?? You mock my traditions and this is a hostile work environment. I am outraged!”) Avoid finding yourself in this awkward spot by bringing a small, useful gift that one would never buy for themselves, perhaps a pleasantly neutral tea towel.
The neighborhood party may include a gift exchange of some sort. Gift exchanges are hard, because your gift is on display, and let’s face it, ultimately judged. This can lead to stress shopping, putting you at risk for picking something awful, which will be super awkward. Keep your wits about you and think of a small, useful gift that one would never buy for themselves, like, I don’t know, maybe a humorous tea towel??
Keep this same level of focus when considering a hostess gift. Don’t be the guest that stumbles into the party with a showstopping but unwieldy bouquet of fresh flowers that requires your hostess to drop what she’s doing to put into a vase, or your delicious but insanely messy Mississippi Mud Cake that she’ll have to cram onto her carefully curated buffet table. No, instead, you should consider bringing a small, useful gift that one would never buy for themselves, such as a festive little tea towel.
The moral of the story is unless given to a small child or a frat boy, the gift of a tea towel is universally well received and rarely awkward. (You’re welcome.)
‘Tis the season to eat, drink, and be merry, not to eat, drink, and preach to others about your strict dietary regimen. The holidays are about spreading comfort and joy, so if some folks find their comfort in a plate stacked high with homemade fudge and their joy in two cheeks full of sausage balls, they don’t want to hear your views on the addictive properties of sugar or the irresponsible swine production industry. Every party has a quiet corner with some celery, carrots, and cherry tomatoes, and that is where you will find your people. You may even find someone who plans to run a Jingle Bell 5K tomorrow! Of course, the exception to this would be if you have a serious or life-threatening food allergy. That would be pertinent information for your host to have. You could address it in your RSVP and then offer to bring a gift of food that doesn’t have the potential to kill you. Best of all, your host will not have to stop entertaining to comb the house for an epi-pen or have the party flow interrupted by EMS, all things that would be incredibly awkward for everyone involved. And while we’re on the subject of “eat, drink, and be merry…”
During the holiday season, almost all events become an Occasion with a capital “O.” Everything is a little more sparkly and it feels natural to loosen up a bit with a celebratory cocktail or four. Here are the Cliffs Notes for boozing it up at the holidays: If you’re normally a drinker, then drink as you normally would. If you have a tendency to drink to excess, take it down a notch. If you rarely drink, now is not the time to start. To expand a smidge on the subject, the irony of alcohol is that it starts out as a means to cringe less and laugh more, but it often causes us to take a hairpin turn straight towards a steep ravine of awkwardness. The holidays are filled to the brim with stress and sentiment. We spend large chunks of time in confined spaces with people we love, people we hate, people we used to love, and people we just plain don’t understand. Pouring alcohol into this mix creates an environment that can turn a cozy hearth into an all-out dumpster fire. This is not meant to be an intervention (we’ll save that for the dessert course at MeMaw’s house); rather, a reminder to recognize and abide by your limits when the drinks start flowing. Don’t seek solace in the bottom of a bottle once Uncle Bud starts spewing his political views. The last thing you want to do is toss your cookies on MeMaw’s antique Persian rug, even if you do plan to inherit it one day. (You think I don’t see you eyeing that rug, Madge. Back off.) How awkward will it be when MeMaw has to clean up your mess with her new pretty tea towel? Although it would certainly make a memorable story. Which brings us to our next topic…
Our society seems to be in a perpetual state of taking offense, so the act of making small talk is kin to walking through a minefield. We all know to avoid the big three: sex, politics, and religion, but now even our safeguards can be misinterpreted. Don’t talk about the weather, because it will spawn a discussion about global warming, which points a finger at our elected officials, and the next thing you know, the environmentalists won’t leave the living room because there are real estate developers over by the food table. Take caution when complimenting another guest’s appearance, as they may prefer that you see their inner beauty instead of their snappy take on “Festive Casual.” A decent opener is, “How do you know <host name?>” However, this won’t work at MeMaw’s house, or at the office party. You’re kind of supposed to know the answer to that already. Another icebreaker is, “So what are your plans for the holidays?” This question puts legs on your conversation and leads to helping you find out what holiday they celebrate, what sort of family connections they have, their vocational commitments, or in the case of unbearable silence, if you need to find another person to entertain with your sparkling conversation skills. At a family gathering, they’ll want to know about your work. At a work gathering, they’ll want to know about your family. Speak respectfully about both those subjects, as it’s called “small talk” for a reason. Save the “big talk” for your therapist. Think of your small talk as little hors-d’oeuvres that are meant to be consumed in bite-size pieces, giving the other person a chance to easily move on to speak to other partygoers if they feel the need. For example, tell a quick story about your entertaining Uber ride to the party instead of the endless wonders of your two-week Alaskan cruise.
Wrapping it up.
All good (and painfully awkward) things must come to an end, so keep your eye on the prize and don’t let your departure leave you or your host cringing. You may be tempted to pull an Irish Exit, which is the act of “ghosting” from a party without telling anyone you’re leaving. This is only acceptable when the party has clearly gone on too long and most of the guests have ignored the booze guidelines. It would be simply unforgivable to ghost on MeMaw, and in the best interest of your livelihood, you need to make a special point to thank your boss for that ah-mazing gift of membership to the Jelly of the Month Club. The best practice here is to thank your host personally for their hospitality, wish them a happy holiday season, and make repeated empty promises to get together again sometime soon.
Congratulations! You’ve made it through your holiday gathering. Now it’s time to treat yourself. Go out tomorrow and get something nice, something you’d never buy for yourself. Might I suggest a lovely tea towel?