Category Archives: Christmas

Tradition transitions

In Carolyn’s Saturday column, a young woman seeks advice about talking to her (apparently long term, serious) boyfriend about how they spend their vacation time. This year, he plans to spend all of it at his family’s cabin–as apparently he has always done. According to the LW, “It is one of his favorite places on Earth, and he would love nothing more than to spend the entire summer there. The two of us went last year, and I also loved it, and am excited to go again this summer.But, she is nervous this means they won’t go anywhere else, ever, ever again. (For example: while he’s willing to accompany her on visits to her family, he offered to take a week of unpaid leave to do so, rather than shortening his time at the cabin. On one hand, wow, that’s a generous thing to do. On the other, it sort of demonstrates exactly how much it is worth to him–to the dollar–not to change his cabin plans).

Carolyn advised her, wisely, to try to see the biggest possible picture here, and to be brutally honest with herself about how she hopes to spend her leisure time and money in the future. In reply to the question “how seriously should I be taking this?” Carolyn wrote:

As seriously as context tells you to. I don’t think inflexibility on one thing is automatically a sign of trouble — especially something that you can appreciate as “one of his favorite places on Earth,” and especially when he (quickly, it seems) volunteered to sacrifice something valuable to create a little more flexibility where previously there was none.

But that simply means you need to air this out more; don’t just take your consolation week and like it. If you see yourself wanting to go to the beach with him in February some year, or whatever, in addition to your normal week of family visits, then don’t be shy — say it now, and see what he says.

If his answer is, “I have no interest in the beach, and the whole time I’d just be annoyed about my lost week in the cabin/lost pay,” then you have to take that very seriously as a prediction of life with him. I do hope he’d be that honest with you, if that’s how he feels. Speaking a truth that might make us look mean or selfish is far better than saying all the right things and having no interest in following through— yet nerves do falter at truth time.

Even if you don’t feel strongly about variety in vacations, you also need to pay careful attention to other non-cabin things he feels strongly about. When people don’t care much about an area where their partners are inflexible — say, religion — it’s easy to resolve differences by letting the ones who feel strongly have their way. Sometimes, though, the mellower halves go on to find out their mates aren’t just dug in on religion, but instead are one-person Maginot lines of entrenched positions on issues — some of which the erstwhile mellow ones do care about, a lot.

So, try to see as much of the picture as you can before you decide whether this is about a great cabin, which isn’t terribly serious, or inflexibility, which is. Make sure the “give” lines up with the “take” — not just his, but yours, too.

Makes sense, but I was amazed at how quickly many of the commenters on this column jumped all over the boyfriend, when actually we don’t know very much about his response at all. For example:  “this is all of their free time for the rest of their lives doing only what he wants. if she wants to visit friends, or go to Europe or any wish she has — it must be subordinate to his plans for their free time. sounds like a lifetime of a man who doesn’t really care for her or for pleasing her — his way or the highway — I say the highway.

Whaaa?

Carolyn’s advice was consistent with her general philosophy, which is to acknowledge and honestly deal with your preferences and annoyances in (dating) relationships, because no matter how good you think the relationship is, or how much you want it to work out, if on a day-to-day basis you don’t want the same things, and don’t make each other happy, you’re on a track to years of  resentment and misery. This means sometimes you break up over reasons that feel really petty–but actually are reflections of whether or not you are well suited for each other. I think this is really important.

But I also think it’s really important to give people room to consider and accept change, and to gradually work their way out of lifelong, beloved patterns. It sounds like this boyfriend has always spent all his vacation at this cabin. Last year they went and had a great time, so he had no reason to think about changing his plans. This year, it’s in the air that she wants something more, and while he wants to be supportive of her, he’s not willing to change his plans. I think it’s important they talk about it so he can get used to the idea of doing something different, but I also think it’s fair to give a summer or two for that transition to happen, and to come more naturally.

This situation reminds me very much of Christmas 2008. SK had just moved to Michigan, and we were engaged, but not yet married. We’d both done various versions of holiday events with each other’s families for the previous couple of years. We were talking about how we’d handle the holidays that year, and we found that neither one of us was willing to break with our personal traditions just yet. We both had expectations, with lots of emotions attached, about how we’d spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and it was really hard to mash them up. In the end we did go our separate ways for part of the holiday, and then joined up again for the rest of it.

I don’t know about for him, but for me, that year was really important. It was a chance for me to experience my childhood traditions with the knowledge that it was probably going to be the last time, or at least the last time they’d be quite that way. With that mindset, I was also able to see with clear eyes that the traditions had changed, too, and things weren’t always going to be “the same” anyway. It also gave me a chance to realize that I wanted us to spend the holidays together more than I wanted to go through the motions of the events that I thought made the holiday. I needed to do things my way that year, but it wasn’t purely selfish inflexibility. It was a turning point for me that made me ready to plan our holidays as a couple in the future.

Now, this couple isn’t engaged or married, so I’m certainly not advocating that she spend one or two or three more years just waiting to see what happens when summer vacation time rolls around. But if they are together for the long haul, I guess I would just add to the converstion that the seemingly stubborn decision of one year, even if it seems hard and fast (and reduces one party to piteous weeping), can be the beginning of the conversation, not the final word.

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There’s nothing like a hootenanny for the holidays

Gentle readers, it’s been a long time.  I realize the last month or so has been pretty lame, A-Little-Help-wise.  Things have been busy and exciting around here, which means they’ve been absolutely dead around here. It’s not likely to get much better before Christmas, but things will pick up again in the New Year!

In the meantime, I want to remind everyone that it’s almost time for Carolyn Hax’s annual Holiday Horrors Hootenanny!  Each December, in the weeks before Christmas, Carolyn turns one of her live chats into a festival of Festivus fiascos.  Don’t miss the fun–and her dad’s annual “Night Before Christmas” parody.

As a bonus, this year I submitted a holiday horror story of my own (you can too!), so there’s that to look out for.  I don’t know whether it will be posted in the chat or not, but if you follow along, take a guess at which catastophe is one of the ghosts of A Little Help’s Christmases past.

Happy holidays, happy flurries, happy shopping, happy parties…happy happy.

Out of Season

Carolyn totally re-purposed an excerpt from her December 23 Christmas chat in today’s (or really, tomorrow’s) column.  She does this pretty regularly, expanding upon questions answered on the fly in her live chat by formalizing them in her column…used to bug me (I’ve already read this!), doesn’t anymore.

But this one? This was explicitly about driving from one parents’ house to another for Christmas.  I even already blogged about it! She’s simply replaced the word “holiday” with “visiting” throughout:

Dear Carolyn:

Any tips for surviving driving my sister from one parent’s house to the other this weekend? It’s a three-hour trip and she commandeers my radio, criticizes my driving, and generally drives me nuts every time we’re in the car. Plus, she’ll be really late, and want to stop at every Starbucks we pass, which will make her have to pee. I’m anticipating the three-hour drive will take roughly 4.5 with her in the car. How do I do it so we arrive at parent No. 2’s house with me still in the visiting spirit?

Anonymous

Read this, appreciate how funny it is, and treat yourself to a foofy somethingorother-uccino at one (if not all) of the stops.

This is all fine, I suppose.  This doesn’t really have to be a holiday issue.  Though it was way funnier when it was, and mixed in with the context of everyone else’s family disasters.

I guess I just don’t see the point.  It’s one thing when a complicated proble requires a nuanced, complex answer, and truly benefits from a more intensive treatment in the column than Carolyn can spare in the live chat.  I’ve seen examples like this before.

But this one is clearly for entertainment only.  She doesn’t have much to say about it.  And it was funnier with Santa hats and eggnog in the landscape.  With the number of letters Carolyn surely receives each day, I guess I just don’t get why she bothered to revive this one, which already had its moment back in December.

Pick a card, any card…

This complaint to Amy Dickinson is amusingly timely, since it was published over the weekend, as I was having this exact experience myself:

Dear Amy: I found out that my husband’s side of the family is yet again having a “gift exchange” in which we give a gift to the person whose name we’ve picked out of a hat.

There is one rule — no gift cards. I am not fond of this idea, but in past years I’ve exchanged a gift despite my objections, and kept quiet.

All relatives are adults, and I can’t see the purpose of giving a gift to a person whom I do not really even know and see only once a year.

I would much rather pool our money or donate it to someone in need. I’ve made this suggestion, but no one wants to mess with their tradition. I understand that the grandparents get joy out of seeing all of us open our gifts and then pass them around, but we are adults. Isn’t this a bit childish, or am I just being selfish? How can I get out of this silly tradition?— Bothered


Dear Bothered:Not only do I approve of your in-law family’s gift exchange tradition (especially the “no gift cards” rule), I am tempted to try to marry into the family myself in order to participate in it.

Drawing names is a great way to cut down on the number of gifts exchanged; it also gives you an opportunity to get to know the person whose name you’ve drawn.

When you draw “Aunt Myrtle’s” name before Christmas, you have an incentive to do a little research with other family members to try to figure out what she would like to receive. When Aunt Myrtle opens her gift in front of others and expresses her delight at your thoughtfulness, this forms a connection between the two of you that will last beyond Christmas Day.


Bothered’s wish to donate the money to an organization or people in need is certainly in the right place. It’s a worthwhile thought at a Christmas (and any time of course) where every person is buying for every person, the floor is covered wrapping paper, the bellies bloated with pie, and the excess of it all starts to get a little nauseating. But I agree with Amy that drawing names so that each person buys only for one other person is a great way to drastically decrease the madness, while keeping the “silly tradition” (that goes WAY beyond Bothered’s husband’s family) of placing gifts under the tree and opening them together. Indeed, often the idea of such a name draw is to ease the financial strain on each family member–leaving enough in their pockets to make a charitable contribution that season, if they choose to.

Bothered seems to be missing the point that, typically, a name draw gift exchange isn’t an add-on to a gifts-free Christmas, but a welcome relief from every person bringing a present for every other person. Would she find buying gifts for 17 people she doesn’t know well and sees only once a year preferable to buying for one?
If even a single gift seems wasteful to Bothered, certainly she could mention to the person who has her name, “I think the efforts of the ASPCA are so important and underfunded, and I would be honored if you’d make a contribution to their organization as a gift to me.” She could even find out what causes are important to her assigned recipient, and make a contribution to that group (though in this case it’s important to honor the recipient’s cause, not the giver’s pet project).
I spent this weekend in Ohio with SK’s family, where they have virtually the same tradition. They, too, have only one rule, but it’s a different one: there’s a $35 limit on each gift. Unlike in Bothered’s family, in SK’s, gift cards are allowed–though I wish they weren’t. Basically, everyone winds up trading $35 gift cards (another explicit rule of the game is that you don’t have to spend $35–or anything–on your gift, but when all you’re giving is a piece of plastic that required no thought or effort, it seems cheap to go under the limit, and no one does. SK’s brother received a $25 gift card and a $10 bill.)
I’m not excusing myself in this case–I wound up with the name of SK’s uncle, to whom I’ve barely spoken before. At his wife’s suggestion, I got him a Home Depot gift card. Were gift cards “outlawed,” I really have no idea what I would have gotten him instead–but it would have been neat to learn more about him: what teams does he cheer for? what does he do in his spare time? What projects is he working on around the house? Having spent just a day with him and his family, I have several ideas of things that might have made funny or useful gifts–what might I have come with if I’d actually tried, instead of taking the easy way out?
Then again, of course, the reason many givers turn to gift cards in the first place is that recipients are hard-to-please, and letting them shop for themselves turns out to be the best gift. How sad, though!
There were enough creative, thoughtful, and reasonable gifts in our mix (most of them rule-breaking, going above and beyond the name draw) to make opening gifts a lovely and festive occasion: homemade soaps, adorable sweaters craftily plucked from the thrift store, a book of wedding photos, a pine cone Christmas ornament put out by the national wildlife foundation–for every ornament purchased, a tree is planted, etc. I rather wish they’d ALL been that way. Shopping can be overwhelming and exhausting–not to mention a huge financial burden!–but when you’re only buying for one, I think it’s worth taking the time and making the effort to get to know something about that person, and trying to come up with a gift that will show you, um, care.
And to get back to Bothered’s question….no doubt, Christmases can get way out of hand–but her husband’s family sounds like they’re doing a decent job of keeping things reined in, and focusing on being thoughtful and family-minded at the holiday. (Bothered doesn’t mention what her own family’s tradition is re: gifts).
Claiming silliness and overkill when the tradition is to give and receive a single gift once a year seems excessively self-righteous and Scrooge-like to me.

My favorite Holiday Hootenanny Event

This was my favorite, non-traumatic moment from Carolyn Hax’s Holiday Hootenanny. I hope that one day I can be this kind of parent to my children:

The Breakfast Stocking: This isn’t really a holiday horror story, but just a testiment to my parents’ cleverness.
When I was a kid, my family would have big blow out parties on X-mas eve (all the family and extended family would be there). Naturally the adults would get drunk and send the kids off to bed before the raunchy caroling became too raunchy for our ears.
When we (the kids) would wake up on X-mas morning, there would always be a stocking on the pillow next to each of us — filled with breakfast pastries, cereal, fruit and a little note that basically said Santa wasn’t going to stop by the house until noon-ish, and until then, we were to watch TV VERY quietly and feed ourselves from our X-mas stockings. If we woke our parents up, then Santa wouldn’t stop by the house.
Needless to say – we were very quiet… and all of our parents and guests had time to nurse their hangover in peace.
It wasn’t until I was married, and spent my first X-mas with my husband’s family that I realized that the X-mas stocking wasn’t supposed to be filled with breakfast foods…

Carolyn Hax: Brilliant.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Kill Time, Not Family

I love, love, love, love and want to be Carolyn Hax. Her “holiday hootenanny,” as anticipated, brought me much joy and muffled snorting during at work.

Enjoy! (better with eggnog).

We wish you a Merry Christmas!

One of my family’s extra special holiday traditions is listening Kathy and Judy’s “Merry Medical Christmas” show (on WGN, radio 720, the voice of Chicago, obviously) on our drive out to the grandparents on Christmas Eve (which is a merry medical Christmas in and of itself). In this annual special, Kathy and Judy read out loud “real” (some of them are fairly dubious) Christmas letters that listeners have received and submitted, relating in horrific detail a year’s worth of medical procedures. Extra points for the use of words like “drainage,” and anything related to the gastrointestical tract.

I treasure this tradition, and so was delighted to learn today that Carolyn Hax has her very own version, the Holiday Horrors Hootenanny, which this year is scheduled on Dec. 12 ( I discovered it today when I stumbled onto today’s transcript of Carolyn’s live chat (yes, I’m slowly venturing out of the obsolete world of the daily column). I’m assuming the event will be part of her chat session? Or perhaps a digest will run in her column? Alas, I was unclear on the details.

Here’s a sample…..more holiday horrors to come!:

iPods: Man, I’d trade my sister-in-law for that one [me here…this refers to an earlier contributor who complained about his sister-in-law walking around with her ipod cord strung up her shirt, through her cleavage, to her ears. Ok, over and out]. Mine is so completely New Agey, it’s painful to watch. Last Thanksgiving, she communed with the spirit of the turkey that was sitting, cooked, on our table. She told us that the turkey was happy to have given its life for our meal; that it was satisfied that its sacrifice made our holiday more special.

More special, indeed.

Carolyn Hax: Wait wait wait–we need to save these for the Holiday Horrors Hootenanny. Which, as it happens, Elizabeth and I just scheduled for Dec. 12. Mark your Advent calendars.