Carolyn Hax Live: Hootenanny of Holiday Horrors 2017 'There is nothing alive in there.'

Dec 08, 2017

The Holiday Hootenanny 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 has been going ever since.

Carolyn was online Friday, December 8 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.

Check out some of our favorite stories from years past:

Want answers now? Search past Carolyn Hax live chats and find answers to your questions even if she is offline by clicking here.

Hello, everybody, and welcome to the pre-Hoot portion of the show, which is our version of not decorating for Christmas until after Thanksgiving.

Carolyn – I recently broke up with someone after two years. Even though there were things that bothered me while we were together, I would convince myself that I was overreacting, he didn’t really mean it, etc. Now that it’s over, I feel like a fool for not having listened to what my body was telling me, and feel used because I stayed even after I told him what I needed and he didn’t make any changes. I’m constantly beating myself up for staying as long as I did and I’m having a really hard time moving on from these two emotions. I could really use some words of wisdom as to how to forgive myself for having been so stupid in this situation.

You weren't a "fool." The ability to listen to ourselves isn't innate, it's something we have to learn. So many other voices compete with our own--from parents, sibs, peers, pop culture, teachers, current events, our own wishful thinking--that it takes time, experience and mistakes for us to get the hang of it. It's a two part process as well: 1. identifying the voice as our own; 2. having the guts to listen to it, especially when the action it suggests is extremely difficult to do. 

A breakup certainly qualifies as difficult--as would choosing a path that others don't want you to choose, or that involves risk of failure or physical or emotional harm, or that goes against the values you were taught by your family, or etc.

So a more constructive way to view your breakup than self-flagellation would be to treat this process (and others to come) as taking exactly as long as it needed to take. You needed the two years to see the full scope of what wasn't working. Okay then. Now your job is to make sure you don't extend that time by looking backward and shaming yourself.

And the next job after that is to take what you learned with you into future relationships--not just romantic, but with friends, colleagues, family. Let it inform your limits from now on.

I'll be going to at least 1 party where the other attendees, by all indications, are inveterate huggers. I am not. How do I gracefully fend off hugs?


1. Fragile, spiky neckwear.

2. "Not a good idea--I'm coming down with something."

3. a cocktail in each hand at all times.

4. an ugly Christmas sweater that says "hug me" but with a giant DON'T in amateurish red-yarn embroidery above it. Or the giant circle with a line through it.

5. "Thanks, but I'm not a hugger."

Will post suggestions from the nutterati.

Sorry, Carolyn, but that was bad advice. The writer should NOT reply to the email. That will only encourage him. Ignore, delete, and mark the email address as spam--which it is.

Whatever it encourages can and will go nowhere beyond that if the OP simply ignores follow-up communication. It doesn't have to be treated as unexploded ordnance. 

This year, both of my parents passed away after long, difficult illnesses. It felt really weird at Thanksgiving being up in the mountains near their home and not having to cater to their schedule and quirks. I know I should miss them more than I do, but I feel like I've been mourning for several years already. Does that make sense, or am I rationalizing somewhere? Thanks

I'm sorry for the difficult years and losses.

What you say makes complete sense. It's something that has come up for years in this column in the context of breakups: Some people start processing  a breakup when it happens, and some start as soon as the relationship starts to fail. That's why some people can emerge from a divorce healthy and ready to date while others need years to regroup.

There is little practical difference when the grief is over a death. The process starts not when the loss itself happens, but when the person first feels the loss. Sometimes they're the same--sudden deaths, for example--and sometimes there are years in between the two, as with a long illness, particularly with a selfhood-depleting illness like Alzheimer's. 


Carolyn— Off topic but curious if you believe/think things “happen for a reason” and “God/higher power only gives us what we can handle” or are things just random? I ask because my mom told me some sad news about a relative. I would never be able to cope/deal with that situation. Of course, I have had tough times and disappointments that were painful but eventually was able to get through them. What do you think about the random life events or “divine plan” events debate?

Oh I think it's a complete crap shoot.

I also think the maxim that deities give us only what we can handle gets close to what actually happens, but misses by a hair.

I think the vast majority of the time, we find a way to handle whatever happens to us, because that's what life is. We wake up to whatever we wake up to and then muddle through it. So I'd write it just like that: We tend to handle whatever the deities hand us. The other version is more yay-for-you inspiring, so use that one for the cat poster.

To use your example: From the distance of just hearing it from your mom, you regard the sad news of your relative as something you would never be able to cope with. But if it had become your news without warning, part of your life trajectory, I'm betting heavily on you to have coped with it. Because that's what humans do.

Some don't, obviously--some break under the weight of what their lives become. But most don't. Think of the conditions under which so many humans have lived and now live. Think of the losses we've borne.

My husband and I are from the same city but now live out of town. Both of our parents live in the same area, albeit an hour apart. Going home to visit for the Holidays (or anytime for that matter) has become such a stressful event with the constant back and forth between both houses and both families vying for our attention. It's even more difficult this year since we now have a 7-month old daughter. Both sides wants as much time with us and their granddaughter as possible but don't seem to understand the pressure and stress that is placed on us as a result and how difficult it is to unpack and re-pack all of our stuff to go to the other house. In addition, all of our friends also live in the same town, and we never get to see them because of trying to spend equal time with both sides of the family. How can we best split our time this year without the constant unpacking and repacking and travelling an hour back and forth, so we can all have an enjoyable Holiday?

Stop trying to cater to everyone, please. It's nuts.

Instead, create a Plan that both serves your needs and gives everyone a fair shot at time with you, and then stick to it. For example: Stay with one set of parents in odd years and the other in evens. The off-year parents can drive to see you at the other parents' house. Or, stay home and have the parents visit you--all at once or in alternate years. Or, on a three-year cycle, Parents A, Parents B, stay home. Or four-year: Parents A, stay home, Parents B, stay home. Throw other holidays into the fairness mix. You get the idea. 

The beauty of a system built for fairness is that you can erase the arguments. "We're doing this. Thanks in advance for being on board." No negotiations. "Everyone's getting their time, and we're staying sane." Period.

And, when you're in town, start making time for your friends. You can even have the grandparents babysit for you while you do, so they get precious alone time with your kid and you get to keep these local friendships going. They're important.

At a work happy hour a male co-worker groped me. He later "apologized" with the qualification that I had been sending him mixed signals. I'm married, he has met my husband, I've never led him on. And when it happened I was incredibly clear that it was unwelcome. Regardless, I was afraid to tell my husband, irrationally, because I thought he'd blame me. When he found out a year later because he overheard a female friend ask me about it he was incredibly supportive, but also wounded. He was sad that I didn't trust him enough to tell him about such a traumatic experience. Now I'm trying to rebuild trust but he keeps saying he thinks there must be "entire parts" of my life that he doesn't know about. This is the only thing I didn't immediately discuss with him. Any advice for how I can work toward restoring the trust I have damaged?

Wait a minute. Instead of blaming you for the groping, he's blaming you for not telling him about the groping. What's the difference?

And yes, he had a choice here. He could have said, wow, I'm sorry you didn't feel you could trust me--and then seen that as a sign that HE had some work to do on himself. You read him not as a supportive force in your life, but as a potentially punitive one. That was your judgment, yes, but it was a judgment that *he informed* over your years together through his own actions.

If your treating him as potentially punitive had been completely unfounded, then I might see his being upset and pointing out reasons that your assessment was unfair to him.

But instead he's hanging onto this, escalating it, making it all about you and not stopping to think what he might have done to lose your trust.

So, yeah. Your read of him as punitive sounds like a direct hit. Your fear that he'd blame you was apparently rational and it's being validated right now by your his behavior.  I'm sorry.

I hope you can say this to him without sending him into orbit. Unless he responds to it with an epic aha moment, though, I think counseling--for you solo to start--would be a good idea.


Hi Carolyn - I saw the post about the recent HaxPhiles then the list of the few most recent past ones. I clicked on the "Advice for New Mom" and realized that it was me. My god was I in a haze a few months ago. So a quick update - I think that was my turning point. I broke down crying, told my husband how much of a mess I really was, he sent me to sleep for three hours and called my sister who came down to sit on my sofa and fold laundry with me. Then we started a weekly baby friendly happy hour at the brewery with our friends so I got out and I started walking more with my daughter. Since then things have indeed gotten better. By no means have things been perfect smooth sailing (WHY does no one tell you about sleep regression?!), but I'm no longer in a haze and the frantic need to stay on top of things has faded because my daughter just tried to eat the dog food and I can't stop laughing at her face. Or the dog's.

What a great update, thank you.

For the pre-horrors chat: A classmate recently bought me $200 shoes. I have told him repeatedly I cannot accept such a large gift, but he insists. His family is considerably better off than mine, although neither of us is destitute. The shoes arrive next week. Should I accept the gift and offer my profuse thanks, or continue to tell him I can't accept it?

Shoe gift question--I think I have to recuse myself. 



1. If you're uncomfortable with the gift, then refuse the gift.

2. If you're just uncomfortable with the size of the gift vs what you're able to give in return, then just give the gift you're able to give and enjoy the shoes.

3. If neither 1 or 2 seems right, then accept the shoes and send them to me.



Hi Carolyn, (Not a Hoot question, but I hope you'll consider it anyway.) Here's my story. About a year ago (January 2017), I went on a few dates with "Daniel." I had a great time and was interested in what might come of it, but after those initial few dates, he started to fade away (took longer to answer calls and texts, conspicuously left town right before Valentine's Day, became markedly less flirty when we did talk). I chalked it up to loss of interest and was unsurprised when I stopped hearing from him altogether. About a month later, he got in touch with me to let me know he felt bad about ghosting me, and that he had done so because things had gotten serious with someone else he had started dating around the same time, "Kate." At this point, he was happily in a relationship with her, and said he wished me well. Last week, he reached out to me on Facebook wanting to talk about [something involving a mutual interest of ours], and we met for coffee--not a date, in my understanding. There, I found out that he has since broken up with Kate. He didn't immediately ask me out on an actual date, but he did so last night--and now I owe him a response. On the one hand, I still really like this guy as a person; all the things that attracted me to him last year are still true (and I'm still single). On the other hand, it stings that (oversimplification alert) something about Kate caused him to choose her over me when we had both begun dating him at the same time. I'm not sure what to make of that, especially given that they didn't last. Was she really the better choice for him, or not? And if she was, does it make any sense for me to date him now (and maybe lose him again, to the next Kate who comes along)? Or am I just thinking about this all wrong? Thanks, and happy holidays!

Sounds as if you're thinking about it all right. "[S]omething about Kate caused him to choose her over me when we had both begun dating him at the same time."

Yes! Absolutely. Sounds like a great puzzle for him to help you solve. Go on the date and ask him.

Maybe after the initial wowees, most of his time with Kate was spend thinking about you.

Not to feed you any false hopes or anything. But it's possible. It's also possible you'll just  "lose him again, to the next Kate who comes along." 

I say be open about it. Nothing to lose, really.

Our first holiday travel with an infant taught us that what *we* really wanted out of the holidays, rather than trying to make things fair for our families spread across the midwest, was to just stay home and create our own holiday traditions. Sometimes, those traditions include extended family, and often they don't. We travel when the weather is more predictable, the crowds smaller, and flights cheaper. We're approaching our 8th holiday season at home, and this is working super well for us.

We're spinning holiday classics (of dubious quality) over here! :D Come join the party!

Yes, it's time. 

I also recommend, "All I Want for Christmas Is a Goat," which I've got going on Spotify as we type and which my family--my own family!!!--won't let me play in their presence anymore. 

The boss is hosting the company holiday party at their home, located more than an hour from the office and more than an hour from all employees' homes. There's no transit option and many employees do not have cars. The party takes place in the evening after a full day of work. I don't want to be ungrateful for hospitality, but a venue could have been chosen near the office, avoiding 2.5 hours in round-trip after-work travel. Is there a graceful way to bow out of this gathering, and a graceful way to suggest an alternative strategy for next year?

No, and maybe, and I was going to answer this as part of the non-Hoot Q and A but I decided it qualifies more as pre-Hoot. All of you form some Uber/Lyft pools and report back to us next year. The rides could be the best part.

A couple of years ago, I opened a gift that was puzzling, to say the least. It was a hemorrhoid pillow. From my father-in-law. I did my best to be gracious, and thank him, but I just couldn't keep from blurting out "I...I don't think this is for me." It turns out that my FIL exclusively buys off our family's Amazon wish lists, but he don't always note which gift belongs to which person. It turns out my MIL put it on her wish list for extra support for her hip while sleeping (sure). I don't want to know why he assumed it was for me.

Alternate subject line:

My MIL put a hemorrhoid pillow on her wish list

This is less about a Holiday Horror of the past and more about one I know is coming. I graduated law school May 2017 with a job offer that wouldn't start until I passed the bar. Unfortunately, I did not pass the July bar ( I found out a few weeks ago). It has been hard to deal with but I'm finally starting to feel better about it. Recently I have been interviewing for a lot of potential jobs in the niche field of law I've been working in. Some of them wouldn't require me to ever be barred. I am actually starting to feel excited about these opportunities. The problem is if I was going to retake the bar it would be in February. I likely will be starting a new job and potentially moving some time in January. Many members of my family have strong opinions that I should retake the bar but I am considering putting it off until July so I can get settled in the new job or putting it off all together. How do I handle the onslaught of people questioning my life choices when I am trying to figure out what is best for me in the short and long term?

Stop running your life choices by them.

For when they start in on you uninvited, have the carol-singing goats queued up on your phone and hit "play."

On his last two Thanksgiving visits, my father-in-law has brought an inflatable Jewish-food-themed gift for my toddler. Last year it was a beach-ball style matzah ball. This year it was an inner-tube sized inflatable bagel. I can only imagine what is coming next year.

If there isn't a gefilte float next year, I'll be sad.

My mother was never a particularly upbeat person around the holidays once my older siblings declined to come home. As the youngest, I dutifully went home each year, staying from Christmas through New Year's. One New Year's Eve, the two of us were watching the ball drop. I had just moved to DC after graduating college and was thinking about how great my life was -- in a new city, on my own for the first time, etc. I turned to Mom to say something like "Hope it will be a great year for you" when Mom popped out with "well, last year sucked and this one will suck too." Way to kill a moment, Mom. It was the last year I stayed for New Year's.

She killed the moment, yes. But now it's undead and here for eternity. 

A few years ago, first Thanksgiving with my new gas stove, I bought a really fancy turkey - organic, hand fed, massaged, read bed time stories, all of it. When I was cleaning and prepping it, I commented to my dad that something didn't seem right. He sorta nodded at me and whatever. I cooked and cooked and checked and cooked and cooked that dang bird for 6 or 8 hours, and it was still bleeding! It was only about 12 lbs, not big. NOTE: my kitchen and living room are one big open room, my dad was there every time I checked it and swore at it and muttered about the oven and all of it. Finally I pull that hecker out and get so upset I start to cry. I don't know what I've done, I clearly can't run a gas oven because I'm too stupid, I've made turkey before and I'm a failure at everything. Dad wanders over and starts poking at it. "oh well, it wasn't deveined right. I worked in a chicken processing plant when I was 17 or 18, I can tell just by looking at it. We can't eat this." YOU HECKING WHAT? WHY DIDN'T YOU SAY SOMETHING OVER THE LAST 8 HOURS? AND WHY DIDN'T I KNOW YOU WERE A DANGED CHICKEN PLUCKER? So I made him go to Dairy Queen and we had Thanksgiving burgers. The next year we found out he makes the best mashed potatoes I've ever eaten, bar none, not even restaurant potatoes can beat his. I don't know what he does and it's a karmic joke because he hates potatoes.

Christmas 2002, my whole extended family gathered at my aunt's Minnesota lake cabin for the week. Since we had everyone together, we had a photographer come out and take a family picture (the kind where you all dress in matching colors). My eldest cousin kept leaving the room in between photos and was slowing everything down, to most everyone's annoyance. After the photographer left, it came out he'd been leaving to vomit and have diarrhea. Slowly but surely, each and every one of my 10 cousins and I fell victim to similar symptoms, and we spent the night jockeying for one of the two toilets in the entire cabin. I have fond memories of my cousin fainting in the bathroom (caught by my uncle), and me puking in a wastebasket while my brother used the toilet. After the dust settled the next morning, we all packed up to go home early. My grandpa made a crack that no adults had gotten sick, and we kids should toughen up. No sooner had he walked outside to get in his car did he projectile vomit in the snow. Everyone drove home, kids all felt great but the adults a few rough days ahead of them. Turns out, we later learned on the local news, this was the great Norwalk virus outbreak of Christmas 2002, and we have a great family photo to remember it by. Everyone looks quite pale!

This isn't this year's only projectile-vomit entry. I guess I should space them out? 

This Thanksgiving, my MIL decided to provide dinner AND a show. First, she outsourced the cooking to my husband and brother-in-law as soon as we showed up. Then, she decided to watch them because they weren't doing it right. After attempting to shove herself between two tall, broad-shouldered men and getting (accidentally!) bumped, she screamed at my husband for being big and mean and scary. Then, with a ceremonious twirl of her skirt, she bellowed "I'M! GOING! OUTSIDE!" and slammed the door behind her. When she calmed down a bit and came back inside, BIL and husband were trying to solve the problem of oil pooling in just one corner of the skillet. She offered some suggestions, and when they politely informed her they'd already tried that and were going to try something else, she started crying and yelled "MUST YOU ARGUE WITH ME ABOUT EVERYTHING, EVERY SINGLE DAY, FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE????" The food tasted amazing, by the way.

Last year for Christmas, from my Mother-in-Law I received a plan text, computer print-out telling me that I could have 10 sessions in a gym of my choice for exercise classes. I was confused since I already belong to a near-by gym with a pool and I swim 3 - 4 hours a week. My face must have shown my confusion since, MiL piped up to say, "I know you swim but it's obviously not working for you so I thought you'd like to try something else." I'm not thin but I'm healthy and not looking to lose weight. MiL is rail thin but smokes like a chimney, doesn't exercise and never has. I never made use of the "gift."

Yes you did--you regifted it to us. And it fits perfectly, thank you.

It would also have been suitable for stuffing into a certain bird's orifice, but this was good too.

My grandfather died in 1974 about 6 weeks before Thanksgiving, and my oldest maternal uncle had died in 1969. Come Thanksgiving 1974, the next oldest brother decided he was the Patriarch and ought to be treated accordingly. He gets it in his head he ought to be approached coronationally and reverentially to carve the turkey. Except that there's 6 women, some spouses, a couple kids, and him in a 500 sq foot house. The kitchen was the exact size of two sheets of plywood. In all the cacophony, someone carved the bird - and to this day, no one will admit who. My uncle was so mad, he went to the gas station, bought a loaf of bread and pack of gas station bologna and sat in his car in the back yard eating dry bologna sandwiches by himself.

Thank you for "coronationally," which needed to be a word.

Tangential to holiday, but I something that's stuck with me. I spent one Thanksgiving abroad, and cooked, by myself in my friends tiny kitchen, a chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, and a pumpkin pie (they do not have canned pumpkin in northern Europe so that was completely from scratch). I was pretty proud. Later, when I was telling my grandfather and his wife (who has a bit of a reputation in our family) about this, after I detailed every single thing I made, she asked me if I made gravy. I said no, there wasn't too much time, and I'm not very confident in my gravy making skills. She then looked at me and said "Oh, so you don't know how to cook." Which, of course, she timed so that no one else heard.

Thanksgiving, kitchen hardship, green beans, intrafamily hostility: If this is "tangential," then what is "germane"?

This is really the first year that I (30 yo) have felt like an adult member of my mom's family, because I was really included in the dysfunction. At Thanksgiving this year, I was in charge of the potatoes because my uncle had to step out. They were boiled and I thought, well the kitchen is small and there's a lot going on, let me just mash them with a masher instead of doing them in the mixer like normally. When I asked my mom, she said I shouldn't because people would be upset. When I asked my uncle, he looked at me and said "it will RUIN your aunt's thanksgiving. Ruin it." I didn't know potatoes had that much power! Into the mixer they went and everyone was happy.


My spouse was born and raised another country and English is his 2nd or 3rd language. His English is great now, but was kind of shaky when we were dating and he spent Christmas with my pretty stoic, buttoned up family. After dinner, a group of us were sitting down to play games and while discussing rules, my sweetie piped up with the stern pronouncement "NO GANG BANGING ALLOWED". You could have heard a pin drop before my cousin smoothed it over by seconding the moratorium on gang-banging. My now-husband is fluent now and we still chuckle over the look of horror on my relatives' faces over that day.

Will it help or hurt the story to know what he thought he was saying?

I'm thinking hurt.

Many years ago our extended family gathered for Christmas - seventeen in all. Starting on the 23rd some fell victim to a stomach virus ... then it spread. All this food was prepared and no one wanted to eat. When a few felt better, a few more headed to bed. Cancel Christmas? There were never more than three people standing for any photograph. Our 3 year our daughter was spared the intestinal wrath so the day after Christmas we drove 2 hours to visit a beloved cousin. As soon as they cracked open the front door she let loose a great volume of projectile vomit, puddling their feet. Ahh.... Christmas memories!

Yes, space them out.


"There were never more than three people standing for any photograph." Dark horse candidate for line of the day.

Or is it the organic turkey being read bedtime stories.

Several years ago, my aunt wore her irreplaceable full-length fur coat from Thailand to Christmas dinner at my sister's house. She placed the coat in the guest room, on top of a dog crate housing the family Rottweiler (who had been banished to the crate for general family peace). In my aunt's defense, there was a blanket on the top and I'm not sure she realized what the crate was. In the dog's defense, the sides were uncovered and part of the coat fell between the slats. The dog thought it was the best Christmas present ever and proceeded to EAT IT. We haven't celebrated with that side of the family since.....

I’m the middle child — the only girl between two brothers — we all get along and like each other and our significant others and genuinely love each other. But I’m more like my dad, who my mother finds exasperating (he is, but he’s amusing). Dad and I are cooking one Christmas Day, which we enjoy. My brothers and their families are hanging nearby, all the adults have had Bloody Marys and bubbly since morning. Everyone’s festive. As the only female among all-male cousins and my brothers, I can ball-bust, and I was needling Dad and he was giving it back and we were amused at least. Mom comes up to the kitchen island, looks at the two of us and declares “ If it had just been the two of you, I’d have left long ago.”

My mom and I were working together to pick a restaurant for a mid December 'Christmas' get together with extended family. She suggested a restaurant, but when I looked it up it had terrible reviews, especially for large groups. I told her at a family get together we should look elsewhere, and gave a list of suggestions. She lost it, started screaming at me in front of everyone that I was an impossible to please witch (with a b), that reviews are no reason to not go somewhere, and that she had a sandwich there three years ago that was good! She could not figure out why I skipped that family dinner.

It was a really memorable sandwich.

Last year I hosted Christmas dinner. We had 10 people and three large dogs in our small house. My husband really wanted to see his parents on the holiday, and since we've literally never been invited to their house (we've been married 8 years) us hosting seemed logical. My in laws are not the most gracious guests. They both complained that I cooked dinner too fast and they weren't done watching TV when the meal was ready. MIL insisted on bringing dessert and brought a cake full of nuts, knowing full well that I am allergic to nuts and would not be able to eat any. FIL repeatedly would take a small taste of a dish, make a face, and put the serving spoon back. My brother asked FIL "so, how are you?" and was rewarded with a 30 minute lecture on FIL's profession. The lecture ended with "but I'm thinking of switching to daughter-in-law's profession (me) since you don't really need any skills or training for that." However, the real kicker was that my husband had a phone call from his brother, who told us that he and his wife were expecting their first child, a little girl! MIL's responded, "A girl? Oh well" and walked out of the room. At least the wine was good, the dogs behaved, and I don't have to do it again this year!

Couple years ago, I had just moved from the Midwest to Scotland (for my PhD). Was at home for Christmas. Cousin’s boyfriend was there, started talking to me, asked me about Scotland. He asked me about the weather in Scotland, I said it was mostly cold and rainy. He said, “No, it’s not rainy.” I said, “Um, but I live there. And it’s rainy.” He said, “No, it’s not. That’s impossible. It’s not like that.” I said, “Have you ever been to Scotland?” He said, “No, but I understand weather. So it’s not like that.” I said, “But I actually live in Scotland and it’s rainy.” He said, “No, it’s not.” I gave up and wandered away. A few weeks later, he broke up with my cousin by texting her and saying he was moving out of the city and they should see other people (!). So, good riddance.

Hey, Shoulda Known Better ^^ does your husband have another brother, by any chance?

One Christmas, we were gathered at my grandparents' house when my grandmother came across a magazine article about presidential trivia. A former teacher, she prided herself on knowing all the answers, except one: which president did not speak English as his first language? She was mulling over this question increasingly loudly. I was/am a nerd/trivia buff and offered my help: "Martin Van Buren. He spoke Dutch." My grandmother, who was hard of hearing, continued trying to list former presidents without a hint of having heard me. My mom, however did. And so she spoke up as well: "Mom, it's Martin Van Buren." There was a noticeable pause, during which I assume she tried to decide whether or not to properly source her remark. In this space my grandmother, who had finally heard, prompted: "Martin Van Buren?" My mom: "He spoke Dutch." Then Mom turned and gave me a wicked grin. I was starting at her, agape at the academic theft I had just witnessed. I turned to my brother for support, but he had buried his nose in his book to disguise his laughter. A few seconds later, my grandmother reached the point in the article with the answers, and immediately began praising my mom for getting it right. To this day, whenever someone in our family says something you had just said a few minutes earlier, the offended party speaks up by saying, "Martin Van Buren." This incident is so entrenched in family lore that my sister-in-law made us all matching t-shirts with good old Martin's face on them last Christmas. We proudly wore them in a family photo that became this year's Christmas card. Merry Christmas, and Martin Van Buren, everyone.

I'm flagging this for when my kids say I'm weird. (About once per week per kid.)

My late husband was never wrong; there were no accidents, someone else was always at fault. His contribution to holiday decorating was buying and erecting the tree, always with a complicated Rube Goldberg sort of arrangement to center it into the tree stand. One year I woke at 6 a.m. to the sound of a large crash that was the decorated tree going over. As everyone was asleep and no one was near the tree, I called it the Christmas miracle.

The immaculate destruction.

To celebrate Thanksgiving when I was growing up, my family and three other families always rented a big house together in the mountains for a few days. It was always great, chaotic fun. Anyway, when I was 16 and we were about seven or so years into the house-rental tradition, my friend (a year older and therefore infinitely cooler) and I commandeered a box of Franzia wine, smuggled it out to the porch, and stealthily visited the box throughout the afternoon. By the time Thanksgiving dinner rolled around, I was . . . not sober. I only vaguely remember Thanksgiving dinner itself although I do remember loudly requesting—and eating--ever-increasing quantities of mashed potatoes. After dinner, I went to my room, barfed up all the potatoes, took a nap, and tried to nonchalantly re-emerge a few hours later as though nothing in particular had happened. Wishful thinking. The entire house, including my parents, was wise to the Franzia experiment and gave me a big round of applause when I reappeared. This, dear Carolyn, was the first time I ever got drunk. I still hear about it, and I’m now 37 and married with two children. P.S., I believe it was the "Sunset Blush" Franzia flavor.

Spacing them out. And for those keeping score at home, we're at ...

Three upchucks.

If anyone is bored enough at work this year to fold this into a 12 Days of Christmas, please, have at it. You might find your partridge in a pear tree here:

Years ago my dad hosted Thanksgiving despite “having no use for holidays” because he wanted to avoid family in-fighting about who would host. It was a mess all around. My newly 21 year old cousin drank beers in the garage crouched behind a flower pot because she “didn’t want grandma to know she was drinking” even though it was legal and grandma was drinking in the living room all day. My recently-divorced uncle snuck out a window after the family dinner to meet up with a women he met THAT DAY on Craigslist, leaving his five children, age 7-17, at my dad’s house. But the most Hoot-worthy part was my aunt. My dad is good friends with a local bar owner who is widowed with no children. This woman makes a huge, free Thanksgiving feast for all the regulars who have nowhere to go. Dad sent our whole family up to eat and mingle with his bar friends while he finished the turkey. My aunt ate her plate then made two to go (she actually had to ask the hostess for foil to wrap the plates in). We took a group photo with the owner and my aunt is literally holding her To Go plates, one in each hand. After dinner my aunt made all the children pack up all the leftovers and wash dishes, all the while yelling about how ungrateful we were for not offering to do it in the first place. When we finished cleaning up, Aunt grabbed all the leftovers (which were packed in my stepmom’s Tupperware brand containers) and sent her kids out the back door to secretly load them into her car along with the two plates of food from the bar. She promptly left. When my stepmom learned Aunt had taken ALL of her Tupperware and leftovers, she left a very colorful voicemail in front of all Uncle’s children (he was still missing at this point). My stepmom has complained about the Tupperware so consistently and constantly for the last decade that whenever it comes up my dad rolls his eyes and shouts “WE CAN BUY MORE TUPPERWARE,” but they never have. Fast forward to a couple months ago and I was recounting the story to a new partner over dinner with my dad and stepmom. My stepmom leaned forward and said “You know your aunt brought an 8 ball of cocaine to that Thanksgiving and when she walked in she immediately asked me if I wanted to split it with her in the garage.” I asked “Did you do it?!” and she said “Well, I did SOME of it!” My dad, who had clearly never heard that part of the story, just looked at her and said “Well, I think you’re probably even on the Tupperware then.”

Did something bad happen? Every hootenanny starts with Pops story.

Nothing bad. I didn't start with it last year, either, to give him a break from the deadline pressure. It was always fun for him and I didn't want it to be a chore.

Every year my mother buys us all matching pajamas, which she wraps as gifts. These are the only gifts we are allowed to open on Christmas Eve, and they are required attire for Christmas breakfast and subsequent present opening on Christmas morning. My nephew was about five when he was first included in this tradition. There he sat, amid a mountain of toys he wasn't permitted to open until the next day, and dutifully opened his gift of.... pajama pants and a shirt. He promptly responded by bursting into tears and screaming "PANTS??!! I don't want PANTS!". For the next two days, we'd go to throw something away only to find the garbage had been filled by my nephew shoving his pajamas in the trash. Needless to say, next year's pajamas featured a shirt with the slogan "PANTS??!! I don't want PANTS!"

Wait--they're cool?

My MIL decided on Christmas Day evening to tell us she had cancer (it was stage zero, thankfully, and her treatment was swift). She had apparently found out in August and started treatment without telling us, but decided to wait until that day to tell us as to “not ruin the holidays.”

one Christmas morning my kids were opening presents from various out of town relatives gathered at our house. One child excitedly tore into a box from a distant aunt, shouting at the top of his lungs "I hope it's not clothes!" and found a very nice two piece outfit that was immediately tossed over his shoulder

How bout a nice pair of fammy jammies? Check the trash.

haha...I read "To celebrate Thanksgiving when I was growing up" as "To celebrate Thanksgiving when I was throwing up"

Same same, apparently.

Lord, I almost forgot. Thanksgiving dinner a couple weeks ago. My mom, dad, mom's siblings and their families, my grandmother. We were having a very pleasant dinner, and then, in lull in conversation, my aunt goes "Hey, what's a MILF?" Stunned pause, then raucous laughter (especially from my teenage cousins). Then trying to explain without actually saying the word (which my mom ended up doing anyway, because she's my mom), then having to RE-EXPLAIN, LOUDLY AND SLOWLY, to my grandmother, who is hard of hearing. Best thanksgiving moment of my life, hands down.

30 years ago, we gathered for Christmas with my husband's family, during the Iran-Contra crisis. The conversation grew animated as liquor was consumed, until my BIL's impish friend turned to me and asked me my opinion, framed in my experience as a naval officer's daughter. I answered, which set my MIL & FIL off, and the conversation headed off the rails until my MIL stood, stamped her foot, waved her scotch glass and said, "It's just like the Boer War!" We had no idea what she meant then, still don't, but we find it to be the perfect conversation-stopping non-sequitur to this day.


About 5 years ago I started "wrapping" most of our gifts in the sturdy, decorative re-usable boxes you can buy. I made stretchy re-usable ribbons for them so absolutely no waste is generated. My mom-in-law always insisted on keeping hers which was fine, I figured they'd circulate and the more people who use them the better. Except that our gifts from her never come back in them but I still thought she must be using them for other people. Last year though, when we produced her gifts, she remarked that it seemed like we were never going to run out of those "awful boxes." It turns out she was throwing them away deliberately because she thought it was lazy of me and wanted her gifts wrapped "the right way". She also said my way was ruining the joy of tearing off wrapping paper for our children. This year I'm still using the boxes but my mom-in-law will not be keeping hers!

No she will not!

I was about 30, living in my own home for the first time, and had persuaded my entire family to spend Christmas with me. While I was cooking dinner, my brother decided to help by building a roaring fire in the fireplace. Unfortunately he forgot to open the damper, and soon a cloud of black smoke was billowing through the house. There was no way to reach past the flames to open the damper, so my father scooped up the burning logs out in a snow shovel, ran through the house and threw everything into the snow in the front yard. It took hours to air out the house, so we ate dinner wearing our winter coats with the windows wide open.

Oh, I almost forgot. I wanted to share a picture of our tree this year, which we bought Saturday. The day that was seven days ago.


I think now it's officially a staring contest between me and Christmas.

My husband and I were driving up to Maine with our two kids, ages 5 and 11 months. Our son had gotten sick with a stomach virus the day before we were to leave. My good friend from college had invited us to stay at her house on our way up, breaking up a 12 hour drive. We eagerly accepted, as our son seemed to have bounced back quickly and was fine on the drive up. At dinner after we arrived, I started feeling a little sick, and proceeded to spend the entire night in her bathroom, vomiting and sitting on the toilet, mostly simultaneously. By dawn, our daughter, their son, my husband and my friend were all down with it. Everyone was so wiped out, we just slept the day away, we couldn't leave. The next morning was Christmas. My friends gingerly and gamely gave each of our kids one of their kid's presents and hid the rest for later. As a gesture of thanks, and to beg forgiveness, I cleaned both their bathrooms until as I told her "there is nothing alive in there." We then drove the rest of the way to my parent's house, but managed not to spread the pestilence any further. We remain close friends, but we no longer stop there on our annual Christmas drive, just in case.....

I think we have our chat title:

 "there is nothing alive in there."

This chat is such a nice annual reminder that I really don't have it that bad. Thank you.

We're here for you.

This Thanksgiving I planned and cooked a dinner for 10: me, husband, daughter, and seven guests comprised of my husband's family. We sat down at the table. Sister in law announced she'd recently decided to put the whole family on Atkins, and pulled out a large box of no-carb protein bars, which she passed around the table. Husband and I ate mashed potatoes, stuffing, pie, yams. Everyone else ate their no-carb protein bars. The dog got a lot of leftovers.

This might be a record--seven accomplices to a horror.

My husband's grandparents would host Christmas each year. His parents & uncle (with current gf) would travel to snowy upstate NY just in time for the big day. Everyone hosted under the same roof. Every night, there would be cocktail hour starting at 5 with pitchers of martinis, and exactly 5 tiny cheese cubes per person. This led to much drunkenness, lots of old sibling rivalry issues coming up, and only my husband and I permitted in the kitchen to help b/c grandmother didn't want those other people (her kids!) in the kitchen. Not a year went by without someone having a fight and breaking into tears (typically grandmother, who loved the martinis). My husband and I would just look at each other and say it wasn't Christmas until someone cried.

Weird--that's our motto here, verbatim.

My MIL was wailing over her mashed potatoes. I assured her they tasted good, which they did. My FIL steps in to fix (natch). He started whizzing it up with a hand mixer - you know, like you hold in the bowl to mix up meringues. I mentioned that word on the street was those hand mixers really released the starch and made the mash gummy. He looked at me steely eyed and said - my mother always did it this way, and her mashed potatoes were great. Oops stepped on a mother mine there - I beat a hasty retreat to keep all limbs intact.


Two years ago, we went to my in-laws for Christmas for the first time. Turns out they have a full day of holiday traditions and games that everyone *has* to participate in. One of those is a white elephant gift exchange, which at first sounded fine. As we got closer, we kept getting updated ground rules until we were at: "Less than $20, unisex, good for elderly and younger adults, good for single or married, no alcohol, no junk." I was stumped and stressed. Finally picked out a quesadilla maker (we always go out for mexican when we're with them) and a popcorn maker (my in-laws microwave a bag of popcorn every night). I was pretty proud of coming up with two gifts that would hit the mark with at least half of the gathering. We drove 500 miles to the in-laws. The white elephant exchange commences. My BIL got the popcorn maker which he immediately declared too big to take back on the train and handed it back to us. My MIL ended up with the quesadilla maker and was clearly disappointed and kept offering everyone to trade. No takers. So she gave it back to us the day we left, saying "We don't actually like mexican food, we just eat at mexican restaurants because that's what my sister likes." I offered her the popcorn maker and she said, "I like microwave popcorn better." We drove the gifts 500 miles back home.

A hoot that hasn't happened yet, but will certainly be fodder for future tales. For the first time, my fiance and I are going to my mom's for Christmas. My mom and I have a rocky relationship to begin with (she generally disagrees with my being an independent young woman). She doesn't like my fiance (for the record, all of my friends and my sister like him) for insignificant reasons, such as his job won't provide enough to take care of me. Hilariously my fiance and her fiance get along famously, another reason she doesn't like him. We are also bringing our very energetic but well-trained dog. My mother doesn't like pitbulls or rescues (guess what kind of dog she is!) and firmly believes that the dog will maul me at some point, utterly unprovoked. Mother has already texted me panicking that the dog will ruin the Christmas tree and refuses to believe that the dog is well-behaved. Fiance and I are looking forward to unintentionally creating chaos and worrying my mother about our life, that we are both very happy with. :) The hilarity and inside jokes that this holiday will bring are probably going to outweigh any stress that my mom artificially creates. Icing on the cake? We are driving 13+ hours each way to make this happen.

If you take back roads, you can make that even worse. 

It helps to plan.

My brother likes to wrap gifts like nesting dolls. He put my mom's earrings inside a small box and wrapped it. Put that into a slightly bigger box and wrapped it, and so on. Sometimes he uses duct tape or packing tape to cover an entire box or two. My mom will try to open the gift for 5 or 10 minutes and then throws it across the room, screaming, "I didn't want it anyway!"

How is that possible? My family seems so NORMAL right now. When did that happen? We aren't trying hard enough.

That's the only rational explanation.

My inlaws lived in an older house with old wiring, which FIL refused to repair. Around the time I came on the scene, MIL decided she would no longer cook the full turkey dinner. Instead, she ordered everything from a grocery store. This meant that much of it had to be reheated in the microwave, which invariably caused circuit breakers to trip. Thanksgiving became long periods of sitting in the the dark in the living room, listening to her swearing loudly in the kitchen, and eating lukewarm everything by the time it arrived on the table. Finally, one year she threw in the towel and decided that as long as the gravy was boiling hot, everyone could pour it on their food and have warm food that way. Did I mention that I hate gravy? The next year, DH put his foot down and we started going to a restaurant, but my friends who heard the gravy story still bring it up.

Those are true friends.

Speaking of disappointing gifts, when I was a kid I asked my parents for a toy robot. I was so excited to open a large box that looked just the right size for a robot. But no. It was a trash can. Thanks Mom.

This has just the right note of futility to be our last word.


(But I'll skim the queue just in case.)

put in stand last weekend, still not decorated. Finishing a novel, what more can I say?

Can I use that?

Way more respectable than "just not interested."

Anyway--that's it for today and this year. Thanks everybody who made it possible, and everyone you know who made it inevitable. 


Have a great weekend and hope to see you here next week.

Special thanks to Teddy for all the story wrangling, and for formatting my sad tree.

In This Chat
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 New England with her husband and their three boys.

Carolyn's Columns
Past Chats
Way Past ChatsHax Philes Discussions
Recent Chats
  • Next: