Carolyn Hax Live: Hootenanny of Holiday Horrors 2012 (Friday, Dec. 7)

Dec 07, 2012

In her daily column in The Washington Post Style section, Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there. Hax is an ex-repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

This chat is one of the Washington Post's most beloved annual traditions -- the holiday-themed edition of Carolyn Hax Live. It started way back in 2000, and happened most recently about a year ago.

Carolyn was online Friday, Dec. 7 at noon ET, taking your questions and comments about her current advice column, what ruined your holidays last year and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

E-mail Carolyn at

Got more to say? Check out Carolyn's discussion group, Hax-Philes. Comments submitted to the chat may be used in the discussion group.

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Hello, everybody, and welcome to the chat that everyone has been suffering for all year. I'll switch over to the Hoot sometime in the second hour--heralded by Pops's "Twas the Night Before Christmas," of which I just discovered I am not in possession because his email is lost in the ether somewhere. That seems fitting. 


Even though we're pretending this is a normal chat at first, you're welcome to reduce yourself to a creepy little bobbing-head avatar in Turntable (link), where you will be treated to the holiday soundtrack they play in Hell. (Current tune: Hippotamus for Christmas.) It's the perfect compliment to our work here and I highly recommend it. 

Hax - I hope you or the nuts can help. I recently married a wonderful man who hates Christmas. I am a secular person, but love the holiday trimmings - the tree, the decorations, and Christmas music. He hates this, not with disinterest, but with active misery. He left a party last year because someone tried to give him a present! He is in other ways delightful but I am at an impasse. I knew this before we got married, but assumed he would "come around." This does not appear to be the case. I think he should suck it up and enjoy a little holiday cheer since I like to, but his feelings/reactions make it torture for both of us. I could decorate and listen to holiday music anyway but given the situation there wouldn't be much joy in that. I respect his right to feel this way but it leaves me festively un-fulfilled. I hate the thought of never having a tree again, or listening to Christmas music in the house. Any advice on how I can approach this? FWIW he did not suffer any kind of Christmas trauma and I am not trying to force him into a religious holiday, just Santa and snowmen.

"I knew this before we got married, but assumed he would 'come around.'" Is there any accounting of the suffering set into motion by this one little phrase?

Granted, living with Anti-Christmas Guy doesn't even crack the Top 500 when it comes to forms of suffering, but it's still solidly in the company of things that would have better dealt with by banishing all wishful thinking.

What you have now is a standoff where both of you are equally justified in saying, "I think s/he should suck it up and enjoy/forgo a little holiday cheer since I [don't] like it." Neither of you has a better claim on your way than the other.

So, I suggest you approach him that way, as opposed to shunting him onto the defensive with a "you should be willing to do this for me." As in: "You are just as entitled to a holiday-BS-free home as I am to my beloved Christmas tree. So, how bout we figure out a compromise that allows me a little of my joy and doesn't inflame you irreversibly? Maybe we choose a few things I can do? Or we alternate years?"

If he won't play along with so measured an approach, then I'm going to flag the "wonderful man" as unsupported by facts in evidence. 


A relative insists on hosting Christmas dinner because she has a big house and accomodate everyone. She doesn't like to cook, however, so, in spite of repeated entreaties that we make it a potluck, last year she served (I swear) frozen pizza, salad out of a bag and frozen pie. To add insult to injury she also insisted that everyone arrive several hours early so that we could catch up. After hours of aimless chatting and lousy food, I was considering conversion to Judaism. Thankfully, this year we have to dine with other relatives but we won't have a good excuse to duck her again next year. Maybe I'm just a glutton, but the traditional foods, prepared well, are an important part of the holiday for me. So what should I do? Make my own Christmas dinner the day before and resign myself to a miserable Christmas day? Insist that we do it potluck? Just say no? We live very near each other so I don't want to create a rift but Christmas is important to me. I figure if you sign on to have folks over for Christmas dinner then you should do Christmas dinner. How hard would it be to do a turkey and let all of the guests bring their favorite dishes?

Potluck it, and don't take no for an answer. But don't ask her to do anything--banish all thoughts along the lines of "How hard would it be to do a turkey ..." and accept that it is hard for her, to the point of frozen pizza. Be prepared to bring it all yourself, ideally in aluminum pans that you can distribute with the leftovers or take home in a bag to recycle. Your jones for the real food can't put out your host in any way.

My wife is an ordained minister. Each Christmas Eve and Christmas for the last few years, we (i.e. the kids and me), she has pressed us to attend gatherings at her church. This includes several services on Christmas eve, including a late evening musical event, and a big meal on Christmas Day. Are we actually obliged to attend all of this? How do we get our own family gathering back?

You communicate with your wife. What's the obstacle? Are you not expressing your dismay clearly, is she ignoring it, ...?

Hello Carolyn - I love your chats and columns. My mother-in-law is showing early signs of Alzheimers (her mother died from it after years and years of suffering and degeneration). She is still a fully functioning person but once in a while she'll not remember something big. Every year for at least the last 10 years the family has come to her house on Christmas Day. The other night when we were talking about Christmas plans she said the family has never gotten together on Christmas Day and certainly not at her house. These incidents are going to happen more frequently and I am at a loss as to how to respond. When/if she realizes her mistake/mis-memory will she appreciate it more if she is gently corrected and reminded of the correct memory? Will she feel patronized that she wasn't corrected if/when she realizes the mistake? What if correcting her starts an argument? Is it kinder to ignore memory lapses that can be ignored, or kinder to gently correct? Do you have any resources or guidance we can look to in handling these situations? Thanks.

You're asking excellent questions--and the Alzheimer's world is rich with resources for people with Alzheimer's and their families. Google can get you there when you're looking for a national org, and to get good local references you can contact a local provider of care--either Alzheimer's specific or hospice, which is just a great place to start in the search of any end-of-life counsel or information. If you have a good local hospital, that's another place to look, and you can also ask a doctor you trust to refer you to a gerentologist or dirctly to a support group. 

Carolyn, Happy holidays! I hope the season brings you bacon pants and holiday balls aplenty. If all goes right, I will be 8 weeks pregnant at X-mas. My first prenatal appointment is a week later on Jan 2. I'm having trouble deciding if I want to spill the beans to my immediate family while we're all together or wait for the all clear from the Dr. I'm leaning toward sharing the news. They are going to be looking for hints since I'm fairly newly married and of "advanced maternal age" (36). What do you recommend? I'm really excited and might have trouble not-talking about it, but so far only my husband knows.

Congratulations! I for one don't believe in the must-wait-till-12-weeks approach. It's all about your comfort level with sharing good news and bad. If these are people you'd tell if something went wrong, then there's no reason not to tell them, be it now or at Christmas. Same goes the other way: If you wouldn't want to be in the position of sharing bad news with someone, then hold off sharing your good news as long as possible (without making a complete liar of yourself).

My MIL visits our family every year at Christmas. She is a very nice woman, but after a couple of days she begins to grate on my husband, and then she gets tense, he gets tense, and they both get pretty cranky. For the past two years, their solution to the tension has been to make me the scapegoat. For example, our three small children will be bouncing off the walls, and I'll say I'm taking them to the playground and ask if anyone would like to join us. My MIL will hem and haw, say she'd like to shower/eat/whatever first and then "maybe" she'll go. A wait of unknown duration isn't possible with three kids, given that two still take naps and all are antsy. I'll explain that we'd like to go soon, press for an answer (gently), and then she and my husband will exchange looks, deep sighs, whatever. Basically, the shared feeling seems to be that I'm pushy. This happens with almost every questions I pose, from "Does having dinner at 6:30 work for your plans today?" to "I'm going to the grocery store. Do you need anything?" I never get a straight answer. And even when I just say "We're going to the playground" or "We're eating at 6:30" my MIL and husband still look aggravated as though I'm being a pushy witch. It's almost as though they are bonding through a dislike of me. I have spoken to my husband about it and he denies that this is happening. Do I need to just have thicker skin? FWIW, I haven't experienced this reaction from anyone except my husband and MIL, and only when they're together.

There might be a bigger issue to tease out and deal with here, but, given that it's once a year and contained to this one scenario, I say just do what you've gotta do, be firm in the face of their hem-and-haw show, and let them bond over how "pushy" you are. Think of it as your gift to them both, to bring them closer. In a way, it's a gift to yourself, too--you get to go to the park without them and set dinner at a time that suits you, guilt-free.

My husband has been unhappy in his job for more than five years. He refuses to take any of my advice about changing it -- Won't see a career counselor, won't go back to school, won't talk to his boss about a position change, won't visit a therapist -- and wants to complain about work all the time. I would understand 15-20 minutes of grousing/offloading each evening. But he would go on for literally hours, every night, if I let him. And by now, I know everything he is going to say. Because it's the same problems he's been having for five years. I've tried everything I can think of, but it's gotten to the point where I become annoyed literally as soon as the words "My job" come out of his mouth. This is what it feels like: It feels like he asked me to watch "The Wizard of Oz" with him every night. And I did. For a long time. But now I have seen it thousands of times, and I want to scream as soon as Toto comes on the screen. He says I'm unsupportive, and he's probably right. I hate the way I snap at him when he starts to complain. But I just can't handle it any more. What should I do?

The Oz analogy is great--I think you should sit down with your husband at a non-charged time, during the weekend maybe, and use the analogy to explain why you don't want to listen to his job complaints anymore.

You can also say: "So, yes, you're right--I am unsupportive. [The validation is important here.] I don't support  your decision to refuse to take any action to improve your job situation. If you choose instead to take concrete action to get a better job, then I am all in--you can count on me for that. Alternately, if you choose to accept that this is your job for the foreseeable future and to find ways to deal with it besides voicing the same complaints every night, then I'm right with you there, too. I'll even listen to 15 minutes of grousing. I just won't let it be the only topic we talk about, and that's what it has become."



Hi there, I'm writing in early with hope this will get to you. I'm a new mom of a pretty fun but challenging six month old boy. I am a naturally decisive person, however the anxiety I'm feeling over making the "right' decisions or being able to provide the "right" things regarding my son has been difficult to cope with. For example, since I've gone back to work I haven't been able to pump enough milk to get him completely through the day and I've needed to start supplementing with formula. I intellectually know this is fine and many babies have formula, but for some reason I'm beating myself up over it. Why can't I produce enough milk, why can't I provide what I'm supposed to for him? etc. Also with regard to other things like when to stop swaddling at night, how and what to feed him in terms of solids - I feel so worried I'm going to do something that is less than optimal that might hurt his development. I'm second guessing myself very often and starting to drive myself crazy, and I know that isn't good. Do you or the nuts have any suggestions for how to calm my anxieties so I can just do the best I can and being happy with that place? -Anxious

The anxiety generated by the formulaphobia is so widespread and so unnecessary. To quote a pediatrician on this, "It's not like you're feeding him poison." You are trying, you are doing what you can, and it's better to have a calm mother and full baby via supplemental formula than it is to have a stressed mom and a baby not getting enough food. 

As for the other stuff, it's okay to use the same general approach: Do what you can to make the best decisions for your baby, but don't drive yourself nuts trying to get everything right. Why? Not to give you something new to get all fired up about, but you'll be a better mom if you make a few "less than optimal" choices while remaining in a good mood than you'll be if you work yourself into a frenzy getting everything "right."

To reinforce this decision to go mellow vs. "optimal," seek out people who are notably calm, accepting, wry about pureed organic root vegetables, and highly skeptical of the whole idea of combining childrearing with ambition of any kind. Also put some distance, if you can, between you and anyone who subscribes to a competitive-childrearing mentality. 



There are, of course, advantages to be conveyed to your child through breastfeeding, organic pureed root vegetables, and the kind of awesome schools that attract competitive parents like sparkles to figure skating. "Chill out" as a full-time parenting creed has its pitfalls. But when you're already invested in doing right by your child to the point of self-sacrifice, then your prescription is to ease up a bit. Trust that your values will send a coherent enough message to your kid for you to let a few t's go uncrossed.

I would treat the passive-aggressive MIL the same way I'd treat a balky toddler: don't ask yes-or-no questions. Don't say "Do you want to go to the playground with us?" Say "I'm going to take the kids to the playground at 10. If you want to come with us, be ready then." Then go about your business. If you are heading out the door and she says, "wait, I want to go, I just need to shower first," say, "sorry, the kids can't wait. Maybe next time!" Then leave. Repeat as necessary.

The balky-toddler treatment has many uses, thanks. (Balky toddler--redundant?)

My husband suffered from this horrible illness and eventually passed away. I can offer a few ideas based on my experiences. Every day will be different. One day she might appreciate being GENTLY corrected, and other days, the reaction will be very defensive and can produce an even worse mood. So you have to play it by ear. Use phrases like, "perhaps you don't remember, but..." and "I seem to remember a time when...". It helps soften the blow of telling someone, who likely remembers very well details from their childhood - but can't remember breakfast that day, that their memory is dissolving. It's painful and you just have to take it one step at a time.

Thanks for this, and I'm sorry you were in a position to have to learn.

Since I began working 8 years ago I've been in jobs where I regularly see or hear real horror stories - people kidnapped into the sex trade, people whose children die of preventable diseases etc. Last week at 9 weeks my husband and I found out that my pregnancy is not viable. We are devastated, but I'm having trouble letting myself grieve. Even though I know I need to give myself some time to rest, be sad, and heal, whenever I get down a nagging voice in my head starts saying "Buck up. There are people out there with REAL problems." How do I let go of this voice and give myself space to be sad?

While I get what you're saying, I also think there's value in just not fighting yourself. If that means you deal with this through your nagging voice, then there's nothing wrong with that. If instead that means you tune out the nagging voice, then do that. Maybe your way of dealing with it is toggling between your own raw grief and your awareness of others' grief.

What I'm advising, I guess, is to relieve yourself of the pressure that comes with the idea that there's a "right" way to grieve that you're somehow failing to accomplish. You get to process this however you want, however you can, and however you do. 

Because of what you're exposed to at work, and because of the intimacy of your loss--I'm so sorry--please also consider grief counseling, even if it's just to get occasional reminders that your heart and mind are going to have their own ideas on how to manage these feelings, and they won't always agree. 

Today my husband received a Christmas card from his old girlfriend. The address on the envelope (our home) and the inscription inside the card was solely to him. Although his old girlfriend and I have not met, she definitely is aware that he is now married. Was it ill-mannered of her to completely omit a reference to me in her card ("best wishes to you and your family" etc.)? My husband tells me that she pursued him persistently after they broke up, and I think she may have been trying to stir up trouble between us (if so, she didn't succeed). Should I respond with a card from Mr. and Mrs.? Or am I just being too picky?

The detail about her pursuit of him says that, yes, her addressing the card just to him was in poor taste.

I'd say it was universally poor taste not to acknowledge the partner, since technically it is, but communication has gotten so individualized relative to the past. For e.g., it's rare you call a family's house phone anymore; you call the individual directly by cell. You don't send a letter to the family home, you send an email to the individual. The result of this is a lot of friendships of long-standing, where there's no funny business at all, where the partner is entirely out of the loop of that friendship. So, I can see a missive going to an individual vs the whole family as, in many cases, an innocent oops that stems from years of habit.

As for what you do about it: I'm torn. On the one hand, sending her a card back from Mr. and Mrs. might tell her she succeeded in stirring things up. That's an argument for deafening silence. On the other hand, that leaves some mystery, which is very appealing to someone trying to stir things up. A friendly card from both of you, written in your hand, is a lovely, polite, "Step off."

Thoughts from the nutterati? 

For the woman who feels like she is not grieving enough. It's o.k. We all grieve in our own way. I lost twin boys after they were born and I've always felt that if I handle myself with dignity and grace in public that that is the best way for me. I didn't cry publicly (I see myself like Jackie O. in this situation) and that was my way of dealing. I cried a few times privately and with my husband and 11 years later I cry privately on their birthday. This is just my way. But I also feel that tragedy is just a life lesson and part of the gift of being alive. If we didn't ever experience loss how would we appreciate what we do have? It's ok to not lose it publicly. But give yourself permission to tear up privately if you so choose.

Okay now I'm a mess. (No Jackie O in me, understatement.) This is such a beautiful and life-affirming and defiant-in-a-good-way approach to loss. Thank you for sharing it.  

Listen to it on your ipod. I think the hater of the Christmas culture should be deferred to on this one. You are both going to be out in the world during this time of year. That means he is confronted with the decorations and music he hates all the time. You can fulfill your desires by walking around a town square or going to the mall or to a friend's house. He can get away from it only by staying at home.

Good point on his ability to get away from it somewhere, thanks.

Okay, Pop's TTNBC is here, but I need to read through it and format it. I'm going to take a short break and then we'll Hoot ourselves stupid. 

Okay, hold on to your harness ...



Twas the Night Before Christmas

2012 edition

‘Twas the night before Christmas

And it’s over at last.

Endorsements and robocalls

Are fading away fast.

The stockings? Arranged

On the mantel with art.

Three are from Target,

The rest from Wal-mart.

The children were nestled,

All snug in their beds.

Using three blankets, 

a quilt and two spreads

So Ma’s in her nightshirt, 

And I’m in my briefs.

The vision we made?

Defies all beliefs.

Big noise outside.

“What’s happening,” I said.

Hitched up my undies 

and jumped from the bed.

The moon on the breast...

Some bra reference here?

No good -- I’ve used that

In a previous year.

I look in the yard.

Okay, there’s a sled.

Just like last year,

Now I’ll jump back in bed.

But no, it got noisier, 

The closer they came.

This fat guy shouted,

And called them by name:

On Huntsman, on Sarah,

On Newt and Michelle.

On Rick, Ron and Mitt,

And Herman? Ah well ...

From the ghastly debates,

Through the Iowa caucus;

Let’s hope that their ghosts

Will nevermore stalk us.

As dry leaves before

The wild hurricane fly,

Santa mooned the house

As the sled went by.

So up to the housetop,

The coursers they glided--

This line of work,

Gets Santa excided.

Then I heard something

Hitting the vinyl. 

Seems Santa’s approach,

Had lost it on final.

As I drew in my head

Before turning around,

There was Santa, sprawling, 

Flat on the ground.

That part of the yard

Was a bit of a bog

And, unfortunately,

We owned a big dog.

A bundle  of toys

He had flung on his back,

In it were trains, 

and also some track.

His eyes, how they twinkled,

His dimples, how merry,

His clothing, how ratty,

His nostrils, how hairy.

His droll little mouth,

Was drawn up like a bow.

How he got food in,

I simply don’t know.

The stump of a pipe

He held tight in his teeth.

So tightly, in fact,

That it altered his speeth.

He had a broad face, 

And a fairly large waist,

Which, jiggled, I’m told

Like a big bag of paste.

With a wink of his eye

And a twist of his head

He said “Hi” to the dog--

His name was Fred.

He spoke not a word,

But completed his job.

Then he opened the door

By turning the knob.

Then laying a finger,

Aside of his nose

(He never used tissues

When blowing his nose).

He sprang to his sleigh,

To his team gave yell!

But he slipped on the ice,

So he missed it, and fell.

But I heard him exclaim,

as he drove out of sight.

“I’m sorry, my deer, 

I’ve been gassy all night.”

Last year Christmas was at our house. We had our son and daughter, their spouses, and our grand kids all staying at our house. After everyone was in bed my wife and I were feeling romantic and were getting frisky. Our security system provides a panic button that is attached to the bedpost on my wife's side of the bed and, in the throes of passion she accidently hit it. Suddenly there was this 10,000 decible alarm going off in the house. I jumped up to run out in the hall to punch in the code to shut off the alarm but realized my entire extended family would be out there seeing what was happening and I was naked. So I had to first put on my pants first. Sure enough, everyone was there asking me what happened as I punched the code into the keypad. "It was an accident" was all the explanation they were getting. Then I called the security company and asked them not to send the cops. I then sent everyone back to their respective beds and returned to mine. My wife greeted me with, "Now, where were we?" My question is, should we do it again this year and make it a tradition?

Every year, I worry (seriously) that we can't break new ground here. 

Just wanted to get in on the Hootenanny for the first time. Last Christmas was the first time I'd been with my family in years. Mom has Alzheimers, but can still get in the mix sometimes. Middle sis has borderline personality disorder, so you can imagine that we put the "funk" in dysfunctional. So we're all brunching in the kitchen Christmas morning: mom, dad, sibs, grandkids, great-grandkids. Everything's nice and calm--until middle sis notices she's not the center of the universe. She makes a grand show of needing to make an announcement. "Hey everybody--can I get your attention? We need to take a vote on whether or not mom should have a DNR order (Do Not Resusitate) when she has her surgery next week. Me: Stunned silence. Everyone: Stunned silence. Middle sis: We need to decide if mama dies on the operating table, do we want them to bring her back or not. See: family of deer caught in headlights This brought mom out of her Alzheimer's fog and into a progressive rant that became a tirade that became epically all about how I was plotting her demise. ME? How the hizzow did this become about me? Mom literally had to be restrained from attacking me because she decided I was trying to kill her. Sadly, middle sis's manipulation lost her her rightful place as Most Important Person in the Universe that morning. Merry Christmas and pass the bourbon balls.

Well, welcome to the Hoot, and where have you been the past 10 years? Do stop by any time. 

Hi Carolyn, My husband and I have been married for 10 years. His mother has always resented our marriage and has not made any bones about it while we've been married. I try to be civil and respectful to her because she's my husband's mother, but I refuse to be her whipping boy. The holidays are coming up and I'm dreading it. I've asked her not to get me any gifts this year. I told her I had all I wanted from her. The real reason I don't want a gift from her is because she gives me things to show her constant disapproval. For example: One year she gave me a scarf her aunt has made for her 40 years prior and said, "I wanted you to have it because it's ugly like you." Another year, she gave me $50 cash and told me $45 was for my husband and I "could keep the change." One year she gave me these gawd-awful mukluks that were 3 sizes too big "because you won't wear shoes I want you to wear." Another year, she wanted to give me her dead mother's underwear. Thankfully, my SIL intervened before she did and prevented that particular holiday horror! That saying? "It's the thought that counts?" Well now we know how much and what she thinks of me as her daughter-in-law.

Would you please--pretty?--have a smartphone or small notebook handy from now on so you can record what she says for posterity? Or just posteriors like us?

My husband's grandmother was having a party at her home, back in the day when cocktail parties were very popular. Her brother-in-law Richard, known to his nieces and nephews as "Uncle Dick," was invited to the party. Nana apparently had been enjoying her cocktails quite a bit already when she noticed that her brother-in-law had arrived. And so she shouted across the room "Someone get Uncle Drink a dick."  To the family's credit, Richard was known as "Uncle Drink" from that moment on.

I'll dick to that.

You have a dog--I'm wondering if you have any tips to keep a people-loving but easily overwhelmed pup (also is a champion begger) from getting too overexcited at the Christmas parties we are hosting this year. The only room we have that would work as a "retreat" for him is upstairs, while most of the people will be downstairs. He likes to stick close to us and the action.

We interrupt the Hoot for this, because it's a quickie:

Give him an overnight wherever you usually board him when you're away. More humane for all involved.



My late mother-in-law was famous for finding the black cloud behind any silver lining. One year her Christmas card to us read, "Dear children, Do you remember your cousin James? The one who owned the restaurant? He fell asleep while he was smoking and burned his house down and they carried him out in a bag. Merry Christmas."

That one goes on the mantel!

My mother passed away ten years ago, but one of the last holiday dinners with her we remember every time we sit down before saying grace, which is reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mom was a devout Catholic, but my father was/is an agnostic (bordering on atheist). My sisters and I are a mixed bag of faith, but we all believe in something, which I think irks our dad, and I think this might have been a retaliation to it. Usually my mother would say grace or one of us kids was tapped for it. No one can agree if we assigned Dad, or if he volunteered, but he got the honor, and proceeded to say this: "Thank you, God. For disease, and for war, and for disease and for cancer and..." I don't remember the rest of it because it tuned out as we all horrifyingly raised our heads to look at him and at our mom who, at this point, had started hitting my dad on the arm and yelling to STOP JUST STOP TALKING. He was laughing and I think we all kind of let out a "hee hee" of disbelief more than anything, especially because our mom was so upset. We do laugh about it now, especially since from that point on, every holiday dinner is prefaced with "anyone wanna say grace EXCEPT DAD who is BANNED from saying it FOREVER?"  I like to think my mom breathes a sigh of relief every time we say that :)

Did she have to get up and walk around the table to hit him, or was she sitting next to him? Want to get the mental image right.

Thanksgiving this year, we visited my husband's semi-distant relatives in very rural middle America. Just before dinner, we hear fighting in another room. Two adult siblings (or half siblings, I never really got the whole story) started going at it: fists flying, screaming, hair pulling, the whole nine yards. I pretty sure things got knocked off shelves and broken. When they didn't stop, their mother called the police. Police show up, start putting on the handcuffs when one of the kids says, "You should run a check on every person here!" Turns out mom is wanted on a couple of outstanding warrants herself! All three got themselves hauled off to jail. Because there's nothing like family bonding time in the holding cell at the local station. By the way, my husband says we're never spending another holiday with them.

Maybe you should check him for outstanding warrants. 

During one of those uneventful Christmases, before grandchildren arrived on the scene, my Dad rigged up a big wooden Santa next to the tree with a remote-controlled Bull S*!t caller. With the press of a button hidden in Dad's pocket, Santa (painted with rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes and a big grin on his face) would shout one of several choice phrases. That year, and for a few years after, Dad had a very merry Christmas, entertaining himself throughout the day, by calling BS (with impeccable comedic timing) on all of us. Now I think he's counting down the days until the grandkids are old enough to appreciate the humor without getting us in trouble by repeating Santa's words in preschool.  Happy Hootenanny!

To me, this just said: "blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah remote-controlled Bull S*!t caller blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah."

3:01 p.m. I'm going shopping. 

A few years ago I joined my boyfriend's family for Christmas dinner, along with his delightfully self-centered sister. It was a very exciting year, I had just graduated from college, gotten my first apartment, first job, and (!) first promotion, and I hadn't seen his family much to get a chance to talk about these things until the holidays. So, we're around the dinner table, his sister is talking up a storm for a good half hour or so, and during dessert his parents turn to me and go "Tell us about all of your exciting news! How is the job? What is the area like?" I spoke for maybe three minutes, not even getting to the promotion part, when his sister interrupts and says "Can't we just talk about me for a minute?! Jeez."  She is two years older than me.

Yes, yes we can, and now she's immortal.

My friend 'Jane' is a lovely person with a number of health issues, including diabetes since early childhood, which heavily influenced the decision she and her husband made to not have children. Her mother in law introduced her to a table full of her co-workers at a Christmas party as 'THIS is the reason I don't have grandchildren'. M-i-L never said Jane's name or gave an indication that she was 'kidding'. The co-workers were horrified, Jane just smiled and said hello...what else could she do at that point?

Plenty of things, actually, but she wisely responded in the way that best serves the punch line.

My family has always been eccentric, but I think their crowning achievement was the Thanksgiving that I--then fifteen--brought my first boyfriend. My older cousin, jealous that I had a boyfriend and she didn't, began hitting on him. My grandmother regaled him with tales of all the men she's ever known (a lot). My aunt made him participate in a New Age ceremony with corn seed. The highlight was when boyfriend and I tried to get kissy in the pantry and my uncle burst in wearing a giant turkey costume and gobbling. These days, my parents and my aunt and uncle are divorced and my grandmother has passed away. My husband's family has very traditional holidays, yet I can't help but feel they lack some character.

How well do you remember the corn-seed ceremony? It's calling your name.

Five years ago, I was waiting for my now-ex boyfriend to pick me up to drive to Richmond for Christmas Eve dinner with his family. Four hours later, he FINALLY calls. I was fuming at missing Christmas Eve dinner. He said, "oh no, you can't be mad at me, its not my fault, I was in jail!" Apparently, he missed the distinction between a reason and an excuse.

I guess I did, too--which one was this?

OMG, I would NEVER tell this MIL to stop giving gifts. I'd truly want to know what new horrors she could stoop to. And I'd keep all the gifts. Your gift to her should be a photo of yourself wearing the scarf and mukluks in a $5 frame.

Or have a calendar made that features a different photo each month of you wearing the gifts ... bonus points for the ones not wearable, like a $5 bill  ... so many possibilities Thought you'll really be sad about the pre-empted zombie underwear then. 

Six years ago, I broke up with a guy. Four years ago, that ex and I slept together when I was passing through his city on business - I had ZERO interest in rekindling anything, but we had some wine at dinner, I was a bit lonely at the time, and it just happened. Two years ago, he was newly engaged at Christmas, I was genuinely happy for him, and I sent he and his fiance a card. Last year, he was newly married at Christmas and I sent he and his new wife a card and wedding present. I received a thank you note, and then a few weeks later, I received a long and furious note from the wife - it turns out that he had been dating HER at the time of the night four years ago, she found out a few months later, it led to great tumult in their relationship, etc, etc, etc, and she wanted to know why I insisted on so cruelly rubbing her face in all this at Christmas. I honestly had NO IDEA he was seeing anyone at the time - but this year I instituted a strict no-holiday-cards-for-ex-boyfriends policy!

A response to an earlier Q and A, but it could pass for a Hoot entry. 

My grandmother is that one upper. A few times the stories she will tell borders on the ridiculous. For example: My uncle mentioned that he was having problems with geese on his property. My grandmother then decided to tell the story about how her father was the first person to bring canadian geese into this county. Its gotten to the point that we almost goad her just to see what she will say next!

If that borders on ridiculous, then I don't want to know what ridiculous looks like. Or maybe I do, just to see the passport stamp.

One year, an uncle was tasked to say "grace" before Christmas Dinner. He was/is the kind of person who makes "holier than thou" seem like a mild compliment. Anyhow, he went on and on and when he finally was wrapping up, but before saying "amen", my then-five year old nephew, in the penetrating whisper of kids, interjected "and Thank God that is finally over."

Is this nephew is old enough now to contribute to this chat? I see a promising recruit. 

One year I wrote and told you about the concrete bust of Elvis that my cousin bought for my dad for the family gift exchange. (There was a $20 limit, she bought it on the side of the road, and his reaction was unprintable.) Well, for years, Elvis, wearing a santa hat, presided over family gift exchanges. Two years ago, when my dad died, my cousin came to the funeral and someone distracted her while the rest of us loaded Elvis into her car trunk. He now resides in her yard, and yes, she ceremonially puts the santa hat on him each year.

Not only is this a welcome follow up, but it also works as advice: If you don't like the person someone brings home for the holidays, the worst thing you can do is show how upset you are. It guarantees s/he'll appear at every holiday ever after, possibly one year in  someone's car trunk.

She was sittiing right next to him (he was at the head of the table) with their 4 daughters, my uncle and i think my cousin too. For more context, my mom was sick at the time (well, almost all my life, with Schleroderma) and was 5'1" and 80 lbs sopping wet. My father 6 foot and average weight and big compared to her, and because she was never one to spank us really, when she did raise her hand it was a Big Deal. So there she was with her tiny hand and arm hitting my dad as hard as she could on his left side while he laughed, sheepishly, by the end. I always remember my mother being strong in spirit, even moreso then

Beating him like a tom-tom then, when typically composed--excellent, thanks. 

My oldest sister introduced her future husband to the family at Christmas. He was determined to make a great impression and he proved to be charming, funny, a great conversationalist, etc. After the holiday dinner, we regathered in the living room to sing carols and to open presents. There weren't enough seating in the room to accommodate everyone, so the guys (my brothers and the future BIL) crashed on the floor. At this point future BIL has us in the palm of his hand, with even my father beaming at him as he entertained us with a funny story. Imagine future BIL sprawled out on the floor, all of us hanging on his words as he's laughing hard as he's telling his story, and BOOM! it happens: he lets go with a tremendous uncontrollable fart. The room sank into stunned silence for a few seconds before we all let out the hardest, longest, heartiest laugh ever. It was at that moment we knew he was going to fit in just fine.

"Uncontrollable," or genius?

If you skipped the Turntable room, stop by now. One word: Cartman.

So this has become family lore...the Year of the Defective Butterball. It's actually a Thanksgiving story, but I offer it in the spirit of the holiday season. One fine Thanksgiving morning, my mother woke early, as she always did on this one day, to prepare the bird and start to cook it. My folks lived in a small house with a tiny kitchen and one oven, in the days before microwaves, so Mom really needed to cook all day. Wait, I need to back up a bit. The day before this particular Turkey Day, Mom had been hanging out with her friends, Miss Hank, Miss Julie and Miss Val. They were somewhat prone to taking liquid lunches and doing really silly things (this was the 70s). On this particular Wednesday, for reasons that were never fully explained to 14-year-old me, the girls thought it would be a hoot to put Mom in black makeup (I think it was some type of police camo -- one of the girls was married to a police officer) as a joke on my dad. Apparently, you had to prep this stuff first; if you didn't, it did not wash right off. Yes, she discovered this the hard way. Oh, and she had a WICKED hangover on Thursday. TO set the scene further, there was a rec council field not too far away from our house, where football was played on Thanksgiving and announced over a loudspeaker, beginning around 8:00 a.m. and quite audible at my house. On this particular year, the announcer happened to be my dad. So, back to the story. As I said, Mom put the turkey in the oven at 9:00. At 9:15, we began to notice a rather distinctive smell. It's almost impossible to describe it. Imagine year-old deep fryer oil left out in the sun, and marinating dead fish and small rodents in it. It was worse. And by 9:30 we had figured out that this appetizing smell was coming from the oven -- specifically, the Butterball turkey my mother had just stuffed. As I said, this was 1977 or so, and in those days grocery stores weren't open on Thanksgiving. I'm not sure even 7-11 was open. Oh, did I mention that my *highly critical* grandmother (and my sweetie of a grandfather) would be over at 2:00 for dinner? And my mother was an only child, so there was no fallback family to feed us? And, did I mention my mother's WICKED hangover? And her sort-of-sooty appearance? So, we had to save dinner from total disaster. My dad arrived home around 10:00 to two daughters who were both horrified and amused; a house that smelled like a combination of every greasy spoon in the ZIP code, the dump and the wastewater treatment plant; and a wife (with a WICKED hangover) in hysterics. She immediately sent him out to find a turkey. Now, again, there were no open grocery stores. However, fortunately for Dad the kosher markets were still open. He secured us two chickens, and there was some stuffing that had not made into the ill-fated BB, so we had Thanksgiving dinner after all. I think the smell, which lingered for days, distracted my grandparents from noticing the sooty appearance of Mom's face and hands. On Friday, Mom took the bird into Giant. At first they balked at returning her money...then she opened the trash bag holding the bird. They gave her *double* her money back, and the Butterball Turkey company also sent her a refund check...and a coupon for a free turkey.

A stench, hysterics, a hangover, camo-face and a punitive grandma? If this story is wrong for this forum, I don't want to be right.

A few years ago my husband reconnected with his family and we spent Christmas weekend with them. I now understand why he shunned them for years. Christmas dinner was held in a filthy trailer in the woods, while my white supremacist mother-in-law regaled the family with new, um, research that supposedly proves that white people are descended not from apes, but from extraterrestrials who colonized the planet. My brother-in-law received a singing deer head as a gift, and I got into serious trouble for encouraging his daughter to apply to college - she should be MARRIED, dangit! My husband's nephews nearly started an armed conflict over the best way to process a deer. After that drunken, red-state-stereotype fiasco I told hubby that, Christmas or not, I was never getting trapped in that house again. So this year I went to New England for Thanksgiving with my family, from whom I spent my 20s and 30s estranged. Things have improved, but not much. My parents have always hoped that I would accomplish great things and be a credit to the family. I have two college degrees and a professional job, but I still disappoint them. They asked what I was reading these days. I had been reading political nonfiction, but I named several novels instead because I did NOT want to get into politics over dinner. The whole family pounced on me about how my intellectual tastes are unsophisticated, and they DID NOT PUT ME THROUGH SCHOOL SO I COULD BE LAZY AND AVERAGE. They lit into me about my job, which they think is a waste of taxpayer dollars. They all wanted to know why I "can't just do things RIGHT!" and why I "can't face reality" and build a more respectable life. Then - seriously - my siblings got into a heated argument about whether or not Bigfoot is real, and my mother spent an hour discussing trashy TV shows, which she obviously watches instead of, you know, reading sophisticated books. This year: Christmas dinner with Hubby and friend, then a Simpsons marathon in my pajamas.

Now this gets its caricatures and stereotypes right--perfect balance. 

There was the year that Mom first let me decorate the living room for Christmas. I ran blinking colored lights along every molding, carefully taped ornaments to hang artfully under the exposed staircase, put wreaths and lightbulb window candles in every window, draped garlands over curtains, put fake snow and more garland around the base of the tree (despite having two cats and a dog), and covered the mantle in pine garland, ribbon, bead garland, more fake snow, more lights, battery candles, several Santa figurines, some extra ornaments, a few more lights, some flinging icicle tinsel, and of course stockings, which each came with their own little wreath on the hook. The tree had already been decorated. My mother walks in and immediately exclaims "What the [heck] is this? It looks like a low-end Victorian wh*re exploded in here!" in earshot of the entire family.

Her tastes run more toward high-end Victorian exploding wh*res?

My grandmothers birthday is Christmas Eve and she will be 91 this year. She has always been very particular that she must have a separate birthday party and then christmas get together with each gift wrapped acoordingly. The problem is that she is the most ungrateful person ever. She always finds fault with the gifts or the gathering in some way. I want to skip it this year but she is 91 and who knows how many more she will have. Do I just suck it up and go?

Yes, yes, and have a fault-finding pool with other family members. She's 91--the time to mine this for humor is nigh.

When my brothers and I were teenagers/young adults, our holidays were mass confusion. Everyone would try to talk over one another and it didn't help that (when we all reached legal age) we all drank too much. I always wanted peace and quiet for the holidays and I now have that with my husband's family. What a bore. Now, I long for the days of all of us together, drinking and arguing and most importantly, laughing about all of it later and telling the stories about making glass bowls of ourselves and laughing at ourselves some more. There is no one in my family left, Mom, Dad and my sibs have all passed away, so these will just be memories for me. Except this year, I'm thinking of bringing a (big) bottle of wine, getting a snootful and picking a fight with my in laws! Ho, ho, ho!

I think that's the only reasonable solution.

One year in college when I was home for Christmas, my high-school-aged brother steams into the house in a righteous rage, with my dad chasing him trying to hold him back. "KATIE! KATIE! THEY'VE BEEN LYING TO US!" Here's the story that came out: As kids, we had a rule that we couldn't wake our parents up on Christmas until 7. One Christmas Eve when assembling presents had gone too late, mom looked at dad and said "I can't do this." And they invented what they called Santa Standard Time. Dad went all over the house and moved the clocks back, including my little watch on my little wrist (this was pre-cell phones.) So when we woke them up, it would really be 8 or 9. At some point during the Christmas buzz, Dad would drift around the house and restore the clocks. I immediately remembered how I used to always say how fast time flies on Christmas! You barely open your presents and it's already time to go eat dinner. Such a magical day. Anyway, when this all came out we were well past the age that we yearned to get up at a certain time, but Mom and Dad kept doing it because they were so amused to have given birth to a pair of dupes. Their downfall was bragging about it all over town. My brother, who worked at our church, found out when our priest, clearly telling someone a hilarious story, pointed at him and said "And it's his family!" My parents are not ashamed at raising their children amid such a web of lies, but frequently call this their finest hour. This year Dad wrote on my FB wall "Santa Standard Time is almost here!"

So much to love here--deception, self-interest, indiscretion, shamelessness, gloating. I'm a little verklempt.

When we were kids my siblings and I used to sit around the tree the night before Christmas and gaze at all of the wrapped presents sitting under the tree. One year I must have been sitting there slack-jawed because before I could stop myself, some drool ran out of my mouth. Of course my brother saw this and never let me forget it. Forevermore we call the tradition of sitting and looking at the presents under the tree "The Drooling Over the Presents."

More mental images to hold dear, thank you.

That one reminded me of my grandfather-in-law's Christmas cards, where he would tell everyone details about the family. My absolute favorite was this: "Son John, who managed to accumulate 100 excess pound of body fat, had gastric bypass surgery and is doing well!" Cracks me up to this day!

Can't imagine why Son John turned to food. 

I always worry that everyone else's Hoot stories are better, but here's mine. I have an aunt who truly gives the suckiest gifts known to humankind. She doesn't just get us things that must have cost a dollar at last year's after Christmas sale. She's also given us gift baskets of bath products...without the bath products. She's given me things that were broken...and then told me how to fix them. However, the suckiest gift ever EMPTY BOX. Actually, it wasn't quite empty; it was filled with tissue paper. If it's the thought that counts...I'm not sure I even want to continue that thought, guys.

No no, we can't have Hoot anxiety, it defies the whole spirit of this big freaky tent. Your empty box fits right in. 

For the Hootenanny: Last year my mom decided to get my nephews rubberband guns for Christmas. She insisted they were "classic" and getting hit wouldn't hurt. I was trying to convince her to give them late, after I left. So to show me I was wrong, she shot herself in the (sweatpant covered) leg to show it didn't hurt. Then she shot me in the (bare) leg and I said "ow." She said I was being a baby so I took the rubberband and was aiming for her in the chest when I hit her right between the eyes. We both sat there stunned for a few seconds when I started rolling on the floor laughing hysterically and she took the guns and decided, maybe the boys didn't really need those. I can't imagine what they boys are getting this year in the maiming catagory of toys!

I just like that the maiming toys were fine, you just wanted them opened after you left. Well played.

My husband and I had been married for a few years the first time we flew to my mom's neck of the woods for Thanksgiving. There's all kinds of crazy on that side of the family, and it's generally better to avoid it. Gram had Alzheimer's at that point, although it was very, very difficult to tell when it started, as she'd had both a selective memory and some flexibility with reality for decades. When she was introduced to my husband, she sat on the sofa in her little powder pink track suit and bunny tee shirt, and said cheerfully: "I used to beat my children with a wooden spoon. What did your mother beat you with?" The weekend went downhill from there.

Then you must share next year where it hit bottom. If you will.

A number of years ago my MIL bought me a beautiful mohair sweater for Christmas. I explained to her I'm allergic to wool and can't wear it. She told me to wear a shirt underneath and I'd be fine. Well, I did, and I broke out in terrible hives, to the point I had to go to the doctor and get steroids. I thanked her again but told her I really couldn't wear it. What did she get me the next Christmas? A lovely mohair sweater..... Forgot to mention she's my ex doesn't fall far from the tree!!

I find this useful on such occasions (after the steroids kick in)--and it's the best scene, I think, in "Dead Poet's Society." Click right ... here.

A few years back we visited my parents at Christmas. We were at a hotel, and my parents wanted my kids to sleep over so they could wake up to presents from Santa. My only requirement was that they not go to church - my parents are deeply religous and we do not align to their faith's values. Gues what - we got to their house on Christmas morning and the house was empty. They drug the kids out of bed early to take them to church, and didn't even let them see the presents under the tree! We waited, furious, until they got back. When they pulled up, my oldest threw herself into my arms, tears in her eyes, and pleaded, "please, don't ever make us go to church again!" The best part was apparently they were so terribly behaved (due to having been woken up at dawn and not allowed any food or presents) that my parents never wanted to take them again!

Heart cockles duly warmed. 

My MIL gave me as a gift, wrapped and all, a pair of 99 cent yellow rubber kitchen gloves. And it wasn't a joke.

It is now.

My sister isn't the craftiest of individuals, nor did our mom succeed in passing down the Betty Crocker gene. Needless to say her cooking incidents have been epic over the years. She once needed a cup of pimento's for a recipe and proceeded to de-pimento a gallon jug of olives. I could go on. The absolute kicker was when she pleaded to host her first Thanksgiving. Being proud to host, she collected all new recipes one of which included popcorn stuffing for the inside of the big bird. I believe it called for 3 cups of popped popcorn. She did't compute and dumped three cups of unpopped popcorn inside the cavity. Shoved it in the oven and applied heat. Needless to say three cups of unpopped popcorn is a lot...enough to explode the carcass of the turkey all over the oven. No turkey that day but we had lots of turkey flavored popcorn. I love my sister, but I've taken over the hosting of cooked meals.


My in-laws like the Xmas Gift Exchange: recipients names are randomly drawn from a hat and the budget is $25. My BIL's wife and I have a mutual dislike of each other so as fate would have it, we keep drawing each other's names. Two years ago she gave me a $2 spice pack "because she knew I liked cooking." Last year I got her an XL Tshirt of man getting punched in the face by a panda. My mother-in-law has since called off the exchange this year, which is a shame since I have the PERFECT gift picked out.


Besides time to go; my eyes are starting to cross.

So when I was little my mother would tell us to write up our Christmas lists and she'd put them in an envelope for us - no need for postage, she'd say, the post office delivers them to Santa for free. We'd take them up to the shopping center and drop them in the 'special mailbox' that was just for letters to Santa. Years later, after the Santa fantasy had been exposed, I noticed that the 'special mailboxes' were just the regular outdoor trash cans, dressed up for the holiday season. So I guess Santa never got my letters.

... But I had to get this one in. 

Thank you, everyone, for filling my heart with joy, 11 years running. If I get a chance to read the outtakes, then I'll post whatever gems I missed on my Facebook* page (link). Till then, buh-bye, have a great weekend, and start stockpiling horror for 2013.


*We're close, I think, to an alternative to FB for posting updates, but in the meantime I apologize to non-FBers for my having to use that platform.

My heart breaks for "Giving Myself the Space to Grieve." I do similar work (trafficking, domestic violence, persecution), and understand exactly this propensity to not feel entitled to be sad for myself. A wonderful book that helped me enormously is Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk. And another thing that helps is remembering that those people she is helping would feel sad for her, so she should feel entitled to feel sad for herself, also.

Just seeing this now--thanks for the recommendation. Sounds as if it's right on point.

Your advice to not take no about a potluck is horrible. If the lw wants to host a Christmas dinner, that is fine. If lw wants to attend a Christmas party at another person's house that is fine. But it is not fine to place a requirement that the host make the party fit the invitee's standard for what a Christas party should be.

Normally I'd agree, but this is family and I see taking over every scrap of the food service as a favor. 

When I was a junior in college, I was dating a guy who I thought was the Greatest Thing Ever (he wasn't). I was devastated that GTE and I were going to our respective home states for the holidays and wouldn't be spending them with each other. Just before our break started, I decided we should have some holiday-themed, um, fun. I made him close his eyes while I furiously wrapped my (nekkid) body in two strings of Christmas lights. I turned them on before he opened his eyes. Just as he was starting to take in the full effect, we heard my roommate's key in the door (we were in the living room). He dashed into my bedroom with me in close pursuit, my scurrying hampered both by having forgotten to unplug myself from the wall and the need to scramble with a rather wide stance to keep the lights around my legs from poking the opposite thigh. It was only in the moment before I landed that my flying leap onto my bed seemed like a bad idea. Yep. The impact shattered a dozen or so of the Christmas lights I was wearing. So instead of dreamy, Christmas-themed farewell-for-now fun, I had the unending joy of helping my boyfriend pick lightbulb shards out of my butt. Good times.


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Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis. The column has since gone daily and into syndication, where it appears in over 200 newspapers. Carolyn joined The Post in 1992 as a copy editor in Style, and became a news editor before turning to writing full-time. She is the author of "Tell Me About It" (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon on She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their three boys.

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