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Holiday advice, part II

Posted by Robin Abrahams  November 27, 2012 11:42 AM

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More from my "Surviving the Holidays" piece:

Don't Do Things That Make You Miserable. You'd think I wouldn't have to say this. But many people seem to stress themselves out no end over the holidays. Maybe your bubbe used to make perfect golden latkes for Hanukkah, and now every time you try to grate the potatoes the way she did, you wind up with bleeding knuckles and a foul temper. Buy a mix, already. Your family might whine at first, but in the long run, they'll realize it's nicer not to have their potato pancakes served by Raging Bull. So if the earlier sunsets and the whispers of frost fill you with horror at some dread holiday chore approaching, try not doing that chore this year. Skip it altogether, pay someone else to do it, or foist it onto the hobbyist calligrapher in your family who actually likes addressing Christmas cards.

Communicate Holiday Plans and Expectations Well in Advance. This is particularly important if you are in a new relationship. Decide at whose house various festivities will be held, who will do what chores, how religious or secular things will get, how extravagant or minimalist present-giving should be, and the like. Interfaith couples often have it easier with this one, because they realize that they will need to discuss and negotiate in advance. People from similar backgrounds can take their traditions for granted, leading to unpleasant surprises when Calvin expects everyone gathered around the Thanksgiving table to say grace and tell what they're grateful for that year, and Marianne expects them to keep their mouths shut and watch the game.

You should also pay attention to friends' levels of holiday enthusiasm. Some people just do the holidays to a far greater degree than others. Jenny Jingles assumes that she and Franny Frosty will exchange presents, because haven't they been each other's support system and best friend all through that awful first semester of law school? But Franny has never in her life bought a present for anyone other than her immediate family and is horribly embarrassed when Jenny shows up with a snow globe purchased just for her at the Cambridge Art Fair. Franny could have avoided this awkward situation if she had noticed Jenny's impending Christmas cheer and suggested that they treat each other to a nice holiday lunch at Harvest instead of getting presents. And Jenny could have been more attentive to the fact that Frances never once mentioned the holidays in a context other than that of much-desired time off.

Regarding that first principle -- "Don't do things that make you miserable" -- I'd nowadays add the more positive endorsement "Play to your strengths." If you love to cook and bake, put your efforts, and your budget, into that. If you like the decorating, the entertaining, the volunteer opportunities -- whatever, do those things, and do them fully and well, and let the rest go. 

Salon had a good article about "rightsizing" the holidays by Mary Elizabeth Williams: 

I am happy when I am in the kitchen baking gingerbread and am delighted when I find something weird on eBay that my daughters will get a kick out of and wouldn't miss riding on the vintage subway cars for the world. I love those parts of this time of year, so they're the ones I hang on to. They're the ones I want my children to treasure. Almost everything else is optional. You have your list, too. It's not about rejecting the holidays, Scrooge-like. It's about keeping things right-sized in an out-of-proportion time. It's about letting go of the fear that you'll be judged as a not good enough provider or parent or lover or friend, or the one who missed that epic party. 

And PeaceBang bangs a similar though more spiritual note in her own Survival Guide

Don't try to do the stuff you're not into doing. My old college roommate Mary is a genius at tying bows so she has a lucrative side business at the holidays doing up wreaths. If I had to make even one professional-grade bow I would be in deep trouble. But I'm really awesome at helping people pick out gifts and at sneaking up on people and doing a special tiny Christmas miracle for them and I love doing that. Do what you can do, and what you're good at. If all you can do this year is change the sheets on your bed once a week and keep reasonably clean until the whole season is over, do THAT. Maybe you're not feeling good at anything right now. You don't have to be. Maybe you could just be good at extending compassion toward yourself. How about that?

Wise words. I don't care for cynical or rabidly anti-consumerist hipster holiday hate. But a move to make the holidays--Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years--more human-sized, more customizable, is a good thing. 

What parts of the holidays do you emphasize, and what parts have you let go of?  

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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