The good folks at boston.com are doing a "Meet the Parents" guide to the holiday season, and asked me to pass along some tips. I've done an article on overall holiday survival here, but what about that special little circle of ... specialness that you're in when the stress of meeting your significant other's parents coincides with the stress of the holidays? These 16 tips will help!
1. Get the intel from your significant other. Really, you can consider this Tip 1 through 10, it's so crucial. Your sweetie should be able to tell you where their family falls on the sacred-to-secular and formal-to-casual continuums of holiday observance. Find out, also, if there are any behaviors or conversational topics that must be avoided at all costs, or idiosyncratic traditions you should be prepared for.
2. Don't shoot yourself in the foot. Regardless of how thoroughly your sweetie may have debriefed you, there may well be a bit of wackiness that got left out of the 411. Also, people are gloriously inconsistent--the poshest Brahmins might break out truly hideous Rudolph sweaters on Christmas day; the most resolutely secular families might still have a longstanding cultural tradition of midnight mass. So don't snark on any holiday practice until you are positively sure that your sweetie's family doesn't participate in it: the kind of sureness only several years of joint holiday festivities can give you.
3. Bring a tradition of your own to share. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, they say. Well, Mr. Improbable and I are in a big ancient Rome kick at the moment, and one thing the Romans did was to trade customs and household gods like mad. It's one of the reasons their empire lasted so long. So don't just be a meek little conformist--really do like the Romans do, and share one of your own holiday traditions. Bring your recipe for latkes or your DVD of "It's a Wonderful Life" and welcome your sweetheart's family into your world.
4. Be prepared for the basic questions. Given your particular givens, you can expect certain questions to crop up, from "What are you majoring in?" to "How did you meet?" to "Do all your children have the same father?" Talk with your sweetie in advance about how to handle any sensitive questions--including questions that might not even sound "sensitive" to you but have a lot of family baggage attached to them. And you'd better both have the same answer if you're asked if you plan to get married.
5. Pay attention to everyone. If it's a big family gathering, it might be tempting to spend all your energy impressing the potential future in-laws, or hanging out with siblings and cousins your own age. Big mistake. Make sure you pay a lot of attention to the older generation, the little kids, and the household pets. Not only will this make a good impression on everyone else, but the elderly, children, and animals are a lot less likely to be judgmental or pass on gossip about you, so time with them is both well and safely spent.
6. Ask for holiday stories. The best way to get out from under the microscope is to turn the focus of attention around. Ask about the antique angel statues from Europe, the plaster-handprint ornament, the Israeli menorah. Ask about best and worst Christmas presents, New Year's parties, Thanksgiving recipes. Play Studs Terkel and get the stories flowing.
7. Be loyal. If the stories start to become embarrassing to your sweetie, say, "Oh, dear, I think I'd better let Sweetie tell me these kinds of stories in his/her own good time" and then change the topic. Unfortunately, many families enjoy cutting their members down a peg when said members show up with a new love interest. If your honey has ever implied--or straight-up told you--that their family doesn't treat them with respect, find out how they want you to deal with that before you enter the fray.
8. Don't get involved in intrafamily disputes. Aside from loyalty to your sweetie, you are Switzerland. You have no opinions about the election, the appropriateness of oysters in stuffing, the season finale of "The Shield," Sarah Palin, or the latke-hamentaschen debate. Not if any of those topics are the source of bitter internecine warfare, you don't. Smile, stay above the fray, and when urged to pick a side, make it clear that you have well-informed opinions--and a well-informed ability not to get sucked into others' longstanding family dramas, too.
9. Be gracious about accommodations. If you'll be staying overnight, and you aren't married, and the parents want you to sleep in separate bedrooms, go along with a smile, even if you're in your 50s. And no sneaking into each others' rooms, either. Show some respect, and let the enforced separation stoke your Yule log for when you're safely nestled in back home.
10. Get some alone time with the sweetie. Make a run down to the grocery store together to get the half-and-half that Mom forgot, or take an after-dinner stroll around the block, or some such. If you're with the family for more than a couple of hours, you'll definitely want to check in with your sweetie to make sure that you're doing okay and they're doing okay, and to reaffirm said sweetie's identity as a desirable grownup person.
11. ... for the purposes of conversation only. Affirm your sweetie's desirability verbally. You do not want to get "caught." You really, really don't.
12. Bring a shareable gift. There's usually no need to bring gifts for every single person--if that's really expected, sweetie should inform you and help you shop. Bring a nice gift that the family can share--a DVD or CD, a board game, a basket of homemade baked goodies, whatever your personal style is.
13. Help with chores, but remember no means no. Pitch in when it seems appropriate, but if you are shooed out of the kitchen, stay shooed. Some people are territorial about their kitchens, and "help" around the house can sometimes be more trouble than it's worth. If it turns out that your sweetie's mother is the kind of person who will volubly insist that she doesn't want help, and then turn around and badmouth you for not helping ... well, you needed to find that out sooner or later. Now you know. Merry Christmas.
14. Don't drink too much. Drink slightly less at your sweetheart's family Christmas dinner than you would at your office party. You do know you should never have more than one or two at the office party, right?
15. Don't eat too little. This is not the time to be dieting. Breaking bread with others is a primal way that humans signal social acceptance and conviviality. Nibbling lettuce is not.
16. Have fun. For all this advice--be yourself. Either the relationship won't work out and it ultimately won't matter what these people think of you, or else it will work out and they're going to have to get used to you as you are. So don't put on an act or contort yourself into someone you're not in order to fit in. Be kind and helpful, tolerant and a good sport. But don't feel the need to be a pathological pleaser or put your personality on hold for however many hours or days the celebrations last.
Now, everyone: what are your tips for--and even better, stories about--surviving a holiday-season first meeting with the parents?
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