Help! My In-Laws Are Ruining Our Family’s X-Mas Tradition.

Advice on manners and morals.
Dec. 22 2011 7:02 AM

Santa Baby

A grownup throws a tantrum over changing Christmas traditions. Plus, Dear Prudence handles your holiday hassles.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

Get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week; click here to sign up. Please send your questions for publication to prudence@slate.com. (Questions may be edited.)

Due to the holidays, there will be no live chat with Prudie the week of Dec. 26. She’ll be back to chat live on a special day: Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012, at 1 p.m. at Washingtonpost.com.*

Dear Prudence,
Since my brother and I were little, we've spent Christmas Eve at home with our parents. When my brother got married, he and his wife continued the tradition and came over to exchange gifts. But a couple of years ago everything changed, because my sister-in-law's parents and siblings came over saying they were just there to drop off gifts, but they stayed the whole evening. I was incredibly uncomfortable, because they're complete strangers to me (except for one of the siblings, whom I knew from high school and never got along with, which only makes it worse!). The next year, my sister-in-law invited all of us to Christmas Eve at her house, so yet another year I was uncomfortable. Now she plans to host again, and not only am I dreading it, but I'm so mad about it that it makes me cry. Christmas Eve has been ruined! Am I wrong for not wanting to spend the evening with my brother’s in-laws? Should I just learn to accept it, or should I stop celebrating Christmas Eve?

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—Blue Eve

Dear Blue,
There you are in your bedroom the night before Christmas, wearing your footie pajamas and trying to sleep. But you can’t because your presents are under the tree and if you get up early enough, you might even get a glimpse of Santa on his way back up the chimney. So you and your brother slide down the banister, only the banister topples over because you’re both adults and it can’t hold your weight. As much as we may want to hang onto rituals that made us feel safe and loved, time marches on and circumstances change. A tradition that can’t accommodate this reality is one that is going to stagnate and die. Your brother’s marriage, instead of splitting up your family’s Christmas celebration, expanded it. His in-laws may have mostly been strangers to you, but if you keep getting together with them, you’ll get to know them well. Either your parents didn’t have the wherewithal to insist that they host the celebration, or they’re actually relieved to have the duties taken up by the next generation. They may also be grateful that their new daughter-in-law is not demanding their son abandon them in favor of her parents. As precious as Christmas Eve may have been to you, and while you quietly mourn the passing of your childhood, you should step up and embrace your family’s new celebration. If you want to have a cozier gathering, perhaps you can suggest a Christmas Day brunch with your immediate family. But understand that if you do, your immediate family now includes your brother’s wife.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence: Family of Scrooges

Dear Prudence,
I've been estranged from my brother for almost 10 years. We got along well as kids, but in adulthood, he began to torture the family emotionally. We walked on eggshells around him for years, then he married a woman much like him, and years of incredibly cruel letters sent to all of us followed. We were each individually attacked for manufactured transgressions, and all manner of outlandish accusations were made. Eventually, our long-suffering and very forgiving elderly father became the main target. We could no longer endure this and made the painful decision to break off contact. Then my brother and his wife split up. A tenuous relationship between my parents and brother followed. My sister saw my brother last summer for the first time in years. She reported he was subdued and distant. I feel terrible guilt for being the last holdout to make peace with him. Although I feel sick at the thought of seeing him again, I think of him often and worry about him. This year a stack of presents arrived from him. I feel like I should acknowledge the gifts and wish him well, but I don't want to give the impression that I now want to talk to him. My husband says I should just stay silent. What would you recommend?

—At a Loss

Dear Loss,
Something went terribly wrong with your brother. Given that he at last is appearing to try to make amends, I hope that means he has gotten a diagnosis and some medical help. Finally, after years of paranoid accusations against all of you, he is reaching out to try to re-establish ties. It’s interesting that he seems “subdued.” Maybe that means he’s on medication, which sounds like good news. Sometimes, agonizing as it may be, people do have to cut off contact with loved ones, if only to protect themselves. But such decisions, once made, do not have to be permanent edicts. Perhaps your brother’s divorce has allowed him to reflect on the loss of his family and has prompted him to try to make some improvement in himself. If so, then he deserves the benefit of your being willing to reassess your need to remove him from your life. A stack of presents is a peace offering. In response, you don’t have to invite him over for a week. But it seems unnecessarily cruel not to at least thank him. You can write a cordial, brief note back to him. Since you do miss him and think about him, let him know that. Perhaps you, too, can establish a provisional détente with him. If he starts lashing out again, you will have to go back to silence. But this is the beginning of getting your brother—difficult and imperfect as he is—back again.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I live far away from my family and really look forward to spending the holidays with them. However, I do not want to go to Catholic Mass with them. I am not religious at all and feel like a hypocrite going through the Catholic aerobics. My family members are all CEO Catholics (Christmas and Easter only) and I don’t know why we have to do this ritual when no one seems to care about religion the other 363 days of the year. However, my mother will take it badly if I don’t go, and my father would appreciate me not upsetting my mother. I would much rather start a new tradition, like playing a family game and just enjoying one another's company. My parents admire my independence of thought in every other area of my life, but my not being onboard with the religion thing seems to really hurt them. What should I do?

—Ex-CEO Catholic

Dear Catholic,
Your parents may show up at church only twice a year, but on those rare occasions, your mother is simply not going to think that staying home and playing Parcheesi is an appropriate substitute. You’ve got the wrong idea about your hypocrisy in going to Mass even though you’re not religious. If no hypocrites entered places of worship, attendance would plummet. If you go, it’s perfectly fine for you to get lost in daydreams, or to think, “I do like the music, but the rest of it is a load of hooey.” Going to church on Christmas and Easter is meaningful to your mother, so you don’t have to call her out because she’s getting a pedicure the other 50 weekends a year. You can view accompanying your parents as a matter of honoring people you love. If you decide setting foot in church is a violation of some principles you hold sacred, then without making a big deal about it say, “Mom, I’m sorry, I’m just exhausted and I’m going to stay put on the couch this year. Thanks for understanding.” But it sounds as if you’re more flexible than that. While the religious “aerobics” won’t do much for your body or soul, the warm feeling it will give your mother if you go will make this workout worthwhile.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence:
My sister and I are both adults around 30 years old and are at a loss for how to address a holiday-gift situation. For Christmas we inevitably receive a check for $30 from an aunt and uncle who live in a different town, whom we see for a few hours on Thanksgiving with little other contact during the year. Granted, as a kid I would have been excited as heck to get $30 in the mail. However, while I appreciate the gesture, now it seems rather silly. Do adults give cash to other adults? My older sister agrees with my sentiment. I also have to go out of my way to send a thank-you card, which I hate doing, although I accept it’s a necessity. How do you ask someone to stop giving you money?

—Aren't We Past This?

Dear Aren’t,
Your aunt and uncle may be caught in a bit of a time warp and for the sake of their own wallets should have dropped the check once you two became adults. But they may also feel they would hurt you if they cut this tie. Little do they know, you curse their generosity because their gift requires you to spend—oh, it must be three whole minutes of your life—writing, addressing, and stamping a thank-you note. These sweet people underwrite the cost of a lunch at a nice restaurant, so think how churlish you sound about them. If you know they’re experiencing financial difficulties, you could have your parents speak on your behalf and say that they shouldn’t send money they can’t afford to relinquish. If that’s not the case, just wait for that inevitable day when these old people are no longer around to write you that inevitable check and the yearly torment ends.

—Prudie

More Dear Prudence Columns

"Big Love: I met a great woman online, but I'm not attracted to her body type. Is our blooming connection doomed?" Posted April 21, 2011.
"I'll Have What the Toddler's Having: Dear Prudence advises a woman whose partner eats only unsophisticated kids' food." Posted April 14, 2011.
"Dating a Cyber Snooper: My boyfriend hacked into my email and now uses my sexual past against me. Should we break up?" Posted April 7, 2011.
"A War of Words: I'm proud of my Marine brother. What do I say when people denigrate the military?" Posted March 31, 2011.

More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts


"My In-Laws Should Be Outlawed: Dear Prudence offers advice on overly critical, criminal-minded, and cringe-worthy in-laws during a live chat at Washingtonpost.com." Posted April 18, 2011.
"Baby on Board: Dear Prudence advises a mom weary of rude subway riders interfering with her baby's commute—in a live chat at Washingtonpost.com." Posted April 11, 2011.
"Let's Tie the NOT! Dear Prudence advises a reader whose mate is reluctant to wed, even after five years and a baby together—in a live chat at Washingtonpost.com." Posted April 4, 2011.
"Awkward Family Photos: Dear Prudence advises a reader who accidentally sent sexy self-portraits to her in-laws—in a live chat at Washingtonpost.com." Posted March 28, 2011.

Correction, Dec. 22, 2011: The editor's note at the top of this column originally listed the wrong date for the next Dear Prudence live chat. It will take place on Jan. 3, 2012, at 1 p.m. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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