1. Avoid social interactions with questionable relatives.
Yes, you do have to offer an initial greeting to everyone that you see, this is only polite, but your line of responsibility ends there. Once you have achieved this basic fake show of happiness that you have seen them once again, run like hell and don’t look back. (After all, what could you possibly have in common with your cousin that is not allowed within 500 yards of a school zone? Or that crazy aunt who has made it her personal mission to tell everyone on the planet what her bunions and/or church group have been up to lately?)
Now, it’s possible that the questionable relative may not fully understand that you are avoiding them. (Let’s face it: they didn’t get on the Questionable List because they were too smart.) They may try to hunt you down, so you must always remain on the offensive, ready to leave the room or the country at a moment’s notice. Never let your guard down, always checking your personal radar for incoming dud missiles. (If you can swing it, tie a bell around their neck for security-breach purposes, explaining to the questionable relative that it’s a new family tradition and they can never take it off.)
2. Never discuss what you do for a living.
It doesn’t matter how successful you think you have been with your career, there is always someone in the room who has done better. You don’t want to hear something that makes you feel less worthy, especially in front of that one cousin who always manages to have things handed to her, even though you know she was a total slut in high school and didn’t open a single textbook after the third grade.
Likewise, never ask anyone else how they are making a living, especially if you haven’t seen them for a while. In every family there are always relatives who, through some mystical combination of choices, happenstance and laziness, have managed to find a vocation that is the most boring job in the world. The only thing more boring is listening to that person talk about how boring it really is. Life’s too short. Just assume that if they aren’t in jail, money’s coming in from somewhere and that’s all you need to know.
3. Get the sibling rivalry issues out of the way as quickly as you can.
As soon as you walk in the door, march right up to the currently-ruling senior member of the family (mother, father, crazy aunt with all the money, Oprah) and demand that they immediately post a proclamation listing the preferential order of favoritism amongst your siblings. This may seem a bit harsh, with disappointed people crying, but at least it will dispense with those tiring “Mom always liked you better!” phrases being tossed about after someone has had too much brandy, and everyone can just relax and enjoy their pumpkin pie.
4. Under no circumstances should you wander into the kitchen and volunteer to help with the cooking.
This is complete madness. Unless you are hosting (see next entry) there is absolutely no reason for you to be in the kitchen. That place is a hotbed of jealously and sabotage, with everyone trying to outdo everyone else and create the perfect dish. There is NO mercy in such a setting, with vindictive hell-cats doing whatever it takes to ensure that their concoction is memorable and everyone else’s is full of suckage, including hiding all the butter in the bread box or shoving people down the back porch stairs when they stupidly step outside for some air.
Just say no. Bring plenty of your own pre-made dishes to the festivities, enough that no one should be peeved that you aren’t helping out in the inferno of Paula Deens in the kitchen, trying to backstab each other with flour-dusted knives. (And it’s okay if you don’t actually make what you bring. Jesus loves you even if your green bean casserole is store-bought.)
5. Never host Christmas Dinner.
There’s no point. It’s a hell of a lot of work, no one fully appreciates all of your efforts despite what they might say, and people refuse to go home when you are ready for them to do so. And things get broken. They always get broken, usually by one of the questionable relatives that shouldn’t have been invited in the first place, but some softie relative felt sorry for them and extended the invite. (Softie: “But they don’t have anywhere else to go!” Me: “Then maybe they shouldn’t have been running a meth lab in the back of a daycare facility!”)
6. Avoid all political discussions.
Someone on the other side of the spectrum is going to say something so astonishingly insipid that you want to have them committed for the safety of mankind. Likewise, they are going to stare at you with incredulity, horrified that you are still a member of this family. This situation can’t go anywhere good. Instead, talk about something benign like woodchucks or cornmeal.
7. Despite the alluring temptation, do not overeat.
You will be miserable enough having your belly suddenly need its own zip code. You don’t want to complicate things by being in this much agony in front of a crowd of people, most of whom you don’t like, with half of them breaking all of the preceding rules and making themselves even more avoid-worthy. Control yourself, consuming only modest portions. It’s much easier to tolerate obnoxious relatives when your stomach isn’t pressing up into your throat and cutting off your oxygen. (And with a lighter payload, it’s easier to run faster when it’s finally time to escape from this house of bitter relations and drive back to sanity.) You can always take a goody bag of leftovers with you as you run out the door. But speaking of…
8. Take preliminary measures to restrain the Food Snatchers.
These are the folks who do the least amount possible to “participate” (they might pick up some napkins they found in the dollar bin at Wal-Mart, that’s it), but once the meal is over they back a pickup truck to the kitchen window and start hurling out every leftover they can get their hands on. They don’t ask for clearance, don’t help with the dishes, or even stop to consider that anyone else might want something. They just grab and run.
You already know who these people are, so you might as well plan ahead to foil their heinous crimes. When Christmas Day arrives, have a quick meeting with the non-sociopaths in your family. Draw up a preemptive attack plan, with muscular people assigned to each of the Snatchers. Post-meal, if any of the Snatchers approaches the remaining food supply, they are to be tranquilized with dart guns immediately and then dragged into the backyard, where hyperactive little nieces and nephews can later find them during a rambunctious game of hide-and-seek.
9. Drink alcohol, even if you have never touched the demon juice before.
Start when you get up in the morning. Do shots in the shower. Do not live one second of the day without a frosty beverage within arm’s length. If you are lucky enough to be dining in an alcohol-friendly environment, immediately locate the other drinkers and take blood oaths that you are all in this together and no man is to be left behind. If small children have to be knocked to the ground during emergency cocktail procurement, so be it. Keep things flowing.
If you are attending one of those horrifying “alcohol free” shindigs, keep in mind that cooking sherry, fingernail polish remover, and many household cleaners contain at least trace amounts of alcohol. (There might be some side effects, but can they be any worse than being sober around gene-negligent cousins?) Make sure that you have an abundantly-stocked cooler in the trunk of your car. Always bring extra, because there’s going to be some poor soul whose alcohol preparations went terribly awry and they arrived at the party empty-glassed.
If you manage to exhaust the alcohol supply due to poor planning, go to Desperation Plan C. This is where you hypnotize the Paula Deens in the Competitive Kitchen, convincing them that they need more oregano for a dish that they aren’t actually making. Volunteer to run get some, claiming you know just the place that is probably open. (Do NOT mention the name of your non-destination, because some fool might whip out his smartphone, do a bit of fingering, and then start hollering that the place you aren’t really going is shuttered and barren on this Day of the Yule Log. You can’t take the risk.)
Once you are safely in your car, with the doors locked and bolted, head behind that nearby gas station where you thoughtfully buried three gallons of vodka in 1987, just in case. Whilst guzzling, high-five all the other people who are hiding-out and self-medicating, because you know they’re going to be there, clutching impromptu shopping lists that will never be filled. Relax, swap war stories, and maybe even make plans to meet your new best friends again, same time next year. Speaking of…
10. Under no circumstances should you agree to host the upcoming New Year’s Eve party.
Refer to the nine issues above. Things are even worse when drunken people suddenly realize that they have accomplished nothing of merit in the past year.
(Originally published in “The Sound and the Fury” on 11/20/10 and “Bonnywood Manor” on 12/04/15. Both of those versions involved Thanksgiving Dinner, but I switched it up a bit this time because, really, with any situation where an extended family gathers to nosh on a bird, the fallout is essentially the same. Cheers.)