Advice columnist Dear Prudence answers readers' holiday conundrums.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Dec. 8 2008 5:48 PM

Holiday Survival Guide

Advice columnist Dear Prudence answers readers' Christmas conundrums.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

I will write a thank you note. That's as far as I will go; am I terrible?

Emily Yoffe: Write a gracious note and let it go.

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Suggestions for Washington D.C.: A handwritten gift certificate for a foot massage, complete with baby oil.

A handwritten gift certificate for a candelit bubble bath, either 1. solo, with you keeping the kids away from the bathroom for one whole hour. Or 2. bubble bath for two, if the kids are old enough to understand the bathroom restriction.

A promissory note for one month of the chore she dislikes the most.

I'm sure you can think of one or two other things along this line.

Emily Yoffe: See these good suggestions for the husband with no time and money and whose wife, after agreeing to no gift, wants a gift.

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Philly: Hello—last Christmas, I gave all of my husband's family members cute (but inexpensive) ornaments with some homemade cookies. I don't have a lot of money so I am planning on giving the same family members either a collage of family pictures, a frame, or other small items. Money is tight, as we all know. However, last Christmas my mother-in-law gave me a very expensive gift—I know it was ten times as much as I had spent on them because she left the price tag on! I feel like this big, nice, expensive gift has sort of upped the gift ante, so to speak. Should I get something a little nicer for the mother-/father-in-law? Money is an issue for me but is definitely not an issue for them. Help!

Emily Yoffe: Resist the temptation to enter into this potlach ceremony. This is the hospitality tradition of some Northwest tribes (I believe) where they bankrupt themselves by exchanging ever more elaborate gifts. Stick with your plans, and don't act defensive or embarrassed about the gift imbalance.

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Fairfax, Va.: Hi Ms. Yoffe. I am a student, so obviously on a budget, but I have noticed that gifts I give to my brother (usually DVDs or CDs since he never gives my family any idea what he wants) get thrown away by his wife. This has happened several years in a row and I'm frankly pretty tired of throwing money down the drain.

Emily Yoffe: Why not make an agreement that the adults will only get gifts for the children and not exchange gifts this year? Even if they don't agree, you can declare this is what you have to do this year, then stick with it.

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Washington, D.C.: To Alexandria, Va.:

As a Catholic woman who has dated non-Christian men (and who has non-Christian friends), I thought I would offer one perspective. When I invite others to holiday celebrations (Christmas, Easter, etc.), my goal is not to convert them or have them take part in any overtly religious activities. Rather, I want to spend time with them and share the holidays with them. I assume the same thing when others invite me to their religious events. If what you are concerned about is overt religious celebration, perhaps you can make a compromise—joining her family for the Christmas gathering but not going to church with them. She might be upset because she feels that, by not coming to the gathering, you are snubbing her family.

Emily Yoffe: This is in response to the writer who is Muslim and is uncomfortable about spending Christmas with his girlfriend's family. You are exactly right—don't look at sharing the holiday as a conversion event, but enjoying someone else's (someone you love, presumably) tradition.

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Capitol Hill, D.C.: Do you have any suggestions for how to dis-invite relatives who have declared their intent to crash chez moi for the Inauguration? I have told them that it will likely be cold, there will be a shortage of port-a-potties on the Mall, no large bags will be allowed on the Mall, if you live within two miles of the Capitol you have to walk (stay off public transportation), I have three cats and four litter boxes, bars will be open till 5 am, there will be no smoking in my condo, and other things that would dissuade any rational person. So far they are still coming. Help. Thank you.

Emily Yoffe: Normally I am in favor of just flat out telling friends you don't want to play host to that that while you'd love to see them, this simply isn't a good time. For many people this Inaugural is not a normal time, but an historic time. I think you should be flexible on this and open your home for a few days. So what if they get stuck freezing on the mall looking for a porta-potty—you will be home all cozy and curled up with the kitties.

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Washington, D.C.: My husband doesn't want us to spend money on gifts, which is fine, but he already bought me a purse. I was going to buy some tickets to his favorite team at a venue within driving distance and an inexpensive hotel room so we can stay overnight, but he says he doesn't want it. For my sports (and music) fanatic husband, what can I get him that isn't too expensive, but that still gives him SOME type of gift?

Emily Yoffe: If the sports fanatic has said no to this gift, he really wants no gift. So see a previous list of suggestions—you can delete bubble bath and give your husband a gift certificate for a massage (from you), or make his favorite meal, etc.

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Cincinnati, Ohio: My sister flies to my house every year for Christmas. Last year, we drove to my parents' house in the Detroit area for the actual holiday. My parents' house is a mess—crammed with stuff, nowhere to sit, and, now that their dog has cancer, it smells like urine. My sister wants to go to their house again this year, and my stomach is in knots at the thought. I've done everything I can to get their house cleaned up, but it never works. My parents could come to my house (they have many times in the past), so it's not a question of leaving them alone on Christmas. What can I do? She doesn't understand how awful it has become.

Emily Yoffe: It sounds as if your sister just can't let go of the idea that Christmas means coming home to your parents house, even if the dog is peeing on the Christmas tree. Since your parents have agreed to Christmas at your home previously, they sound as if they are more than happy to pass on the hosting responsibilities. So simply make an executive decision and tell sis and the parents it's Christmas at your house this year, and make the arrangement to get your parents there.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm dreading the holidays "back home" because many members of my family are very racist, and they know my politics and know I voted for Obama. I'll hear a lot of really awful things. My Mom (an Obama supporter) can't stand any kind of discord, and has asked me to just keep my mouth shut. I feel that my nieces and nephews should see and hear an adult who thinks differently from their parents. Am I right?

Emily Yoffe: Not getting into political squabbles for the sake of a placid holiday and letting openly racist remarks pass are two different things. On the other hand, are you possibly reading racism into remarks that are simply critical of Obama? If family members complain they wish McCain had won, just shrug it off—he didn't after all. But for racist remarks go ahead and say something like, "Uncle Stan, I find those kind of comments deeply disturbing. It's fine that you don't like the President-elect, but I wish you would keep your remarks about him civil."

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Chicago: What do I say to my mother-in-law when she comments on my real or supposed weight loss. I have lost a few pounds—somehow it isn't really noticeable to anyone but her. The problem is that she then tends to remark that she's never had weight problems. I usually lie and deny that I've lost any weight. Is there a better way to handle this?

Emily Yoffe: Ah, the annual passive-aggressive weigh-in. It doesn't sound as if your mother-in-law is really that interested in whether you've lost weight, she just wants everyone to register her marvelous shape. So disarm her. When she comments on your weight loss just smile and say, "Thanks for noticing!" When she adds how great she looks, keep smiling and say, "Louise, you have always had an enviable figure!"

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Phoenix, Ariz.: Hi Emily!

I'm a middle-aged lesbian. My parents have never liked my partner or taken our relationship seriously, even though we have been together for 25 wonderful years. The holidays are especially stressful and I tend to visit my parents alone for a few days before Christmas. Their health is failing, however, and I feel pressured to be with them on Christmas eve and day. I'd like my partner to attend (she is anxious to, by the way) and give family togetherness another shot before it's too late. Any suggestions?

Emily Yoffe: Just try being honest. Don't get into the past, but tell your parents you're looking forward to seeing them, but the holidays are meaningful to you and your partner as well. Say that the best way to make everyone happy is for all of you the spend the time together. If your parents don't outright refuse, then do it. If they make a fuss, then explain you won't be able to spend as much time with them as you would like because you're not going to leave your partner alone for the whole holiday.

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Maine: I have gotten a lot of negative responses from people who have asked about my family's Christmas plans. Because my husband's office is closed for much of the holidays we tack on some vacation days and take an extended trip to see his parents who live rather far away. The drive is no fun, but once we get there we are able to have a nice, long visit with my husband's family who we don't see as much a we'd like. It's a good place to visit, we all get our own rooms and the kids get to spend a lot time with their extended family. However, many people have been saying to me, "How can you do that to your kids, they should be home for Christmas." Sure, there is part of me that would like to just stay home, but family is important to us and these plans are working for our family for the time being. How do I respond to the negative comments without being overly defensive?

Emily Yoffe: There are people in your life who make you feel defensive for having a wonderful time with your in-laws? Who are these people? Why are you listening to them? If you find yourself discussing this issue with any of these people just say, "I am so blessed to have wonderful in-laws and lucky that we have enough time off so that the kids can really spend time with their grandparents." Then change the subject!

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Christmas Blues: My youngest (age 21) sister has a deep, deep anxiety regarding all things holiday-related. It has increased over the years to the extent that she will hide in her room during all family meals, movie watching and "let's go look at the lights" type activities. I would really like to make sure I spend time with her over Christmas, but in ways that respect her anxiety. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks.

Emily Yoffe: Your sister needs to see a doctor. If she hides in her room for family meals, she has crippling anxiety or possibly other disorders. Get the family member closest to her help her seek help (she may be unable to take these steps herself). There are wonderful medications and therapies that can help her conquer this and rejoin life.

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Re: Inauguration: I have to disagree with you heartily on the Inauguration question. It's historic, yes, but it's not ever permissible to just invite yourself to someone's house. Sounds like they decided they'd crash at his/her place, and that was that.

Emily Yoffe: I know what you mean, but usually when you don't want to host family members you can say, "There's a Motel 6 not to far from me that serves wonderful hard-boiled eggs at breakfast." There's no Motel 6 available in this case. I say let them crash. They'll be spending most of their time caught in a huge crush anyway and out of her hair.

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Reference: The Office Party: I straight up told my coworker that I wasn't going to an office holiday party with those who talk about me behind my back the rest of the year! She told me to get into the festive spirit and let her know of three occasions when she talked about me! Yes Virginia, there is a Bah Humbug!

Emily Yoffe: Hoo boy, if everyone refused to attend an office party with anyone who ever talked about them behind their back we finally, finally would end the tradition of the office party. Everybody talks about everybody at the office. Given the tone of your note, there may be a reason people talk about you. Your co-worker is right—lighten up, and not just at this time of year.

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Los Angeles: Dear Prudie,

Love your advice! Look forward to it each week. Here's my dilemma: Every Christmas for the past 12 years, I have sent out cards with a funny Christmas letter about our lives over the past year. I really enjoy writing it and many friends tell me they look forward to my letter every year. This year is different because my husband's mother is terminally ill. She may not even make it through Christmas. I'm at a loss as what to do. If I send the letter do I mention my mother-in-law, or just what our family has been doing? If I do not include a letter, how do I respond to those who want to know what happened to the letter? I don't want to gloss over this sad time in our family, but I don't want to dampen anyone's Christmas cheer with a sad letter. My husband says he can't even think about Christmas right now.

Yours faithfully,

Sad Writer

Emily Yoffe: I know we're all supposed to cackle at the Christmas letter, but I love them. But there is no obligation to try to write something worthy of David Sedaris every year. You can write some of the fun, happy things that happened to you, then in another paragraph you can say 2008 has had its painful parts as well because your beloved mother-in-law is gravely ill. Write a few words of tribute to her and say that you feel so blessed to have had her in your life for so long. You will not bring people down—they will be touched, and you will probably move them to appreciate their loved ones more.

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Mixed-Language Family: I am spending Christmas with my boyfriend's family for the first time. In addition to his parents, his two married brothers, their wives, his unmarried teenage brother, and the wives' mothers will be present, making for quite a tribe. My boyfriend and his brothers grew up in a Spanish-speaking country. Most of us (including myself) are bilingual, but some people only speak English, and some only speak Spanish. We are spending several days with them, so I expect to engage in lots of different activities with different combinations of people. When is it appropriate to speak English and when is it appropriate to speak Spanish?

Emily Yoffe: It sounds like you're in for a busy, fun holiday. It also sounds as if there are no hard rules in this Spanglish household. What people need to do is keep in mind the linguistic abilities of everyone. If the conversation is all in Spanish, or English but there are people in the room who are being left out, then recommend you switch. But it sounds as if in this group anyone can move on a find a conversation to join.

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Durham, N.C.: I have a group of friends who get together at Christmas and do a gift exchange—everyone brings one gift worth about $25 and then the fun ensues. Except that I'm a grad student and I only spend about $25 on family members (each, not total). I'd rather just give each of them a little homemade goodie. I've successfully avoided the party in the past, but I'm tired of coming up with excuses for not going. I don't want to end their fun, but I don't want to have to put out another $25 as the cost of playing. What to do?

Emily Yoffe: Just explain to the group that you'd love to come, but the entry tab would bust your budget, so you're going to give cookies. It may inspire everyone to lower the gift fee. Or if they are really fanatics on this $25 gift tab, say you'd love to join them, but when the gifts start being exchanged, you'll happily watch as a spectator.

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Washington, D.C.: My boss gave me a generous gift certificate to a high-end spa as a holiday gift. I truly appreciate his thoughtfulness and have already given him a thank-you note with a box of his favorite gourmet cookies. The problem is that even the least expensive services that the spa offers significantly exceed the value of the gift certificate. Money is very tight for me and I don't see being able to come up with the difference during the next few months, before the certificate expires. What should I do? He has already asked me when I plan to schedule my "spa day"! I also really hate to think that he has wasted his money. The certificate is addressed to me personally, so I can't even give it to someone else who has the means to pay the difference.

Emily Yoffe: You need to contact the spa and explain your problem. Surely if your boss gave you a "generous" gift certificate that would cover a pedicure at this place. Talk to the manager about how you can take advantage of this gift. And usually such gift certificates are good for a year—if yours has a short time-line tell them you need it extended. Sounds like you have a nice boss.

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Inauguration (again): Wow, I usually agree with you, but you got it way wrong this time.

You're telling the poster that she has no right to her own privacy, just because she happens to live near a place where an interesting event is occurring?

Let's leave alone the argument of "it's history"; that is irrelevant. Someone else's desire for free accommodations never trumps your right to say no. Period.

"I'm sorry, I just don't have room for guests." That's all you owe them. They can't get a room someplace? They can if they're willing to pay enough. They're not willing to pay enough? Then they can't come. The same holds true for my desire to go to Paris.

Emily Yoffe: Lots of people are mad that I said let the family crash for the Inaugural. Okay, tell the family, "Sorry if you care enough about this event, go to Craig's list and find someone else willing to have you. I hear rooms are starting at about $500 a night."
You're right, no one can invite themselves. And people who live in desirable cities have to be firm about not being taken advantage of year in and year out. But is saying no to a few days of family visiting for this specific occasion really worth all the years of resentment it will engender? I say make an exception. (But if Obama gets re-elected, no crashing in 2012.)

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Worst office party Christmas gift: used, empty pepper grinder. I kid you not.

Emily Yoffe: I'd love that gift! My pepper grinder just broke!

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Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone for your fascinating holiday dilemmas. Best wishes for 2009!