Getting our homes ready for visitors, and navigating family tensions once those visitor arrive, can be stressful undertakings.
Pass the wassail and repeat after us: “Christmas comes but once a year.”
Need more than a mantra? We asked local experts for their tips on how to make sure celebrations stay jolly for your guests (even the scrooges), or your host if you’re the houseguest.
Moorea Seal, founder of local boutique Moorea Seal and author of the recently released “52 Lists for Calm,” says that bringing together guests who don’t know each another can create an engaging experience at holiday celebrations. But following a few basic etiquette rules can help keep the faux pas and stressful interactions to a minimum.
Bring a gift
The first rule as a holiday guest is to never show up empty-handed. Always ask if there’s something you can bring. If your super-polite host says, “Just bring yourself,” you should still bring something — after all, they are cooking, cleaning, planning and rearranging their home and their schedule to make the event happen.
Bring a gift that doesn’t require the host’s attention (i.e., nix the loose flowers), and that can be shared if desired, such as a box of chocolates, a bottle of wine or a tin of gourmet snacks (when traveling, Seal brings a regional gift, such as coffee beans or smoked salmon).
Headquartered in Seattle, Chipmonkey Wine pairs wines with cards for life’s many occasions, including a delightful, humorous holiday edition ($40–$230 at chipmonkeywine.com), which has the option to add photos and a personalized message.
Help your host
If you’re staying at someone’s home, there are additional things to keep in mind. “Pick up after yourself and be helpful,” says Arden Clise, president of Clise Etiquette and author of “Spinach in Your Boss’s Teeth: Essential Etiquette for Professional Success,” who adds that offering to do things such as wash the dishes, help put a meal together or run errands goes a long way in supporting your host.
Additionally, check your attitude at the door and make sure to show appreciation for what your host has provided. “At the end of your visit, strip the bed and put your linens in the laundry room or on the bed,” says Clise. “Send a thank you note to your friend or family member thanking them for their hospitality.”
As a host, make sure to lay down boundaries! Is the kitchen off-limits to guests, or do you need helpers? Can your sibling assist with the wrapping or is it less stressful if you handle certain duties alone? Ask for what you need.
But don’t leave guests out in the cold either. Snacks and drinks set up in another room encourages mingling and helps keep people entertained while you dive into the tasks at hand.
With our current political climate and family drama in general, holiday gatherings can be a minefield. Should you invite that problematic relative this year or not? According to both Clise and Seal, the answer is, it depends. “If you are the person hosting family, then you are the one providing a resource, so you also get to say ‘I’m not comfortable with this person being here,’” says Seal, who suggests also keeping others’ feelings in mind.
Clise says to look at the big picture. “If the lack of an invitation is going to start World War III because of hurt feelings, it might be best to invite the person,” she says.
Another point that Seal and Clise agree on? Communicate with your problematic guest beforehand. Speak privately with the family member about behavior that bothers you and other guests, and let them know it’s not acceptable at your gathering.
Unexpected feelings and conversations can surface during family functions, as well. Maybe your aunt is a big fan of the phrase “fake news” or it turns out your nephew got arrested and everyone is just finding out. Now what? First: breathe. If things get heated, attempt to change the subject, deflect with humor or speak firmly, but calmly, to diffuse the situation.
Clise offers up some good examples of what to say: “‘Uncle Bob, you are certainly passionate about the impeachment hearings; I’d love to hear from others about their favorite Christmas memory. Jane, is there a Christmas that stands out for you?’ Or, more direct: ‘Things are getting a little heated right now. Let’s cool down with some of Aunt Mary’s famous pecan pie a la mode and be grateful we can be together this one day.’”
While differing views are challenging to navigate, especially with loved ones, when people feel comfortable, Seal says, they are less likely to deliberately push buttons.
She suggests providing something that makes each family member feel seen and heard, whether that’s their favorite beer, a traditional family game or a special gift.
That said, as guest or host, you have the right to speak up if someone exhibits offensive or demeaning behavior. Trust your instincts and remember that the holidays, though stressful, won’t last forever. Take the magic when and where you can, and let the rest melt off like snow.