Emily Yoffe, who dispenses advice as Slate's "Dear Prudence" columnist, was online at Washingtonpost.com to take readers' questions about holiday-related quandaries. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Emily Yoffe: Happy holidays everyone! Okay, let's try to get some of the bah humbug out of the season.
Washington, D.C.: With the economy the way it is, my wife and I had to immediately cancel all gifts to each other (The kids' gifts were purchased mostly over the summer). I'm in the middle of home repairs/improvements which will be complete by the weekend in time for the holidays. Given that there's no time at all to come up with a thoughtful poem and my wife will not consider the home improvements as a sort of gift, what can I do that's both free and doesn't take up time I don't have?
Emily Yoffe: I'm not quite understanding your agreement—no presents for each other, except your wife expects a present? Since it sounds as if a poem will do, hit the anthologies, find a love poem that expresses what she means to you, especially during these tough times, hand copy it (but don't pretend you wrote it!) and attach a rose.
Alexandria, Va.: I am a Muslim man who is dating a Christian lady. She has invited me to spend Christmas with her and her family this year. I have never celebrated Christmas and would feel uncomfortable celebrating it now. When I raise the issue of not going, she gets upset and her feelings are hurt, which makes me just want to give in so that she is happy. How can I handle this? Knowing that this will be an issue every year, and an even bigger issue if we ever get married and have kids. Help!!!
Emily Yoffe: If you're thinking about getting married, you need to work this out before you do—and certainly before you have kids. The question of what religion to observe is not just a Christmas issue, but it's particularly loaded then. But your attending your girlfriend's festivities does not mean you are abandoning your own religion, just that you acknowledge she has a different faith, and you are happy to share this happy occasion with her.
Oak Creek, Wis.: Dear Prudence, how can I get my three bosses to stop buying me a holiday gift? It's not that I don't like the joint gift, it's just that then I have to buy something for the three of them. Their incomes greatly exceed mine, so buying three gifts of a quality I think they would appreciate really is a strain on my pocketbook. I would feel awkward receiving a gift but not giving. What do you suggest?
Emily Yoffe: Your bosses do not expect you to reciprocate on the same level—they know what you make and that you're their subordinate. Simply write them each a note expressing your thanks. You could attach it to a small box of fudge or a gingerbread cookie.
Huntsville, Ala.: How do I get out of these stupid office holiday celebrations without looking anti-social? There is a holiday party for everything—the org, the dept., the workgroup, the team, the contractor group, and a December birthday party outing. To top it off, we have to pay for our meal ourselves or bring in a dish. Do they not realize I have a family I need to provide for? Bah humbug!
Emily Yoffe: A group of you have to get together right away and declare a holiday policy (although it may be too late for this year). One general party, and another for a group in a specific division is fine, but a month long series of celebrations, at which you're expected to supply the victuals, is ridiculous. Once you've made an appearance at one or two, you can politely decline the rest.
Ellicott City, Md.: What is the real etiquette with attendance at holiday office parties? Newspaper and online articles seem to indicate that attendance is de riguer, but less than half of the company attended my office party this past weekend. Is my office atypical?
Emily Yoffe: See the letter above. I'm wondering if you may be the victim of office overkill with people feeling, "I just can't attend one more office event!" But if you are having THE office party, you're right, people should make every effort to attend.
Washington, D.C.: Ugh—parents and in-laws and siblings are already fighting over the 72 hours I have "at home." I also want to make time to see friends with whom I get together every year. How do you deal with guilt tripping relatives, particularly the moms?
Emily Yoffe: There's nothing more festive then being forced to enjoy the company of relatives for 72 hours straight because IT'S THE HOLIDAYS! You do have an obligation to your family—Christmas does mean more than spring break. But families have to be flexible enough to understand that people grow up, create families of their own, and required attendance just increases the desire for a prison break. Before you go home tell your family (Mom) that you've scheduled a couple of visits with old friends and alert her when you'll be gone, then explain you'll be around the rest of the time. If she knows what to expect there may be less drama.
Memphis, Tenn.: I finally got up the nerve to ask my boyfriend of almost two years if I could join him in visiting his small, close-knit, east-coast family for the annual Christmas pilgrimage. To my delight he said yes but is concerned about his mother, who just had a heart attack in the fall and is still not "herself" though is home and recovering. I know she'll try her best to be a hostess as is her nature, but I'm no ordinary house guest and she doesn't need to impress me. I'd like to make myself useful even though I've never celebrated Christmas myself. How to best show her that I'm game and incidentally that I'm daughter-in-law material? She and I have met and she does seem to like me.
Emily Yoffe: I'm a little worried about the relationship if after two years it took "getting up the nerve" to see about spending the holidays together. The best thing you can do is not try to impress your possibly future mother-in-law that you desperately want her to be your mother-in-law. Relax! Enjoy yourself. Ask how you can make yourself helpful, then do so. If you're not allowed to help, then play with the little kids or offer to take the dog for a walk. Don't make this into an audition for family membership—your tension is all anyone will notice.
Washington, D.C.: What do I do when I receive a gift from someone I have no plans on getting a gift for? I have a very tight budget. I also do not want to start a trend of giving gifts to people that I don't feel close to. If they feel I am close to them, I appreciate that, but I am not going to fake that we are closer than I actually feel we are!