As someone raised in the South by poor rural farm women, I can’t remember a single situation where I wasn’t warned in advance not to embarrass the fuck out of my elders by being an unkempt, ill-mannered garbage child.
Every Christmas growing up, my mother forced us to play against her in Trivial Pursuit. As the only adult in the room taking on four girls under the age of 15, she knew age alone would guarantee a victory. That made the game zero fun even after I picked up on the fact that 95 percent of the questions for the Baby Boomer edition could be correctly answered with either the Beatles or Ronald Reagan. Still, the game would erupt into a fight anyway when Mom started asking us for hints — usually about some Cold War thing we couldn’t possibly know yet. It tortured my sisters and me, I threw a fit, and the day was miserable.
But as I got older, I figured something out. I could avoid the fight and save Christmas by calling it out long before it ever happened. Sure, I’ll play Trivial Pursuit, but if you start doing that thing where you demand hints so you don’t lose, I’m out. It was awkward, and no doubt it’s an insufferably annoying quality in a person (ahem, me), but I will tell you: It worked.
People don’t know what to do when you call them out for exactly how they are, letting them know you can hang with them, but not a particular strain of their bullshit. It pisses them off but it also kind of embarrasses them.
Some people consider it awkward and unpleasant because it’s confrontational, which nobody likes. But another way to look at it is this: It’s setting proper boundaries for what you’ll put up with.
I think of this as Christmas nears alongside a study that outlines the top fights families will have on the big day. It’s a survey of 2,000 adults, about half of whom have children under 18, and it was conducted by a British mattress company. But what the hell, these top 10 fights people typically have at Christmas ring true to me:
- Deciding what to watch on TV
- Fighting over the Christmas dinner
- Someone having too much to drink
- People constantly on their gadgets / social media
- Deciding who is doing the washing up
- The mess after the presents have opened
- Trying to get new toys/ gadgets to work
- Playing board games
- Children moaning about their presents or not getting something they wanted
- Children moaning about being bored
Holiday/family fights may seem like they’re about dumb things like slicing ham, or your cousin on his phone watching porn during caroling, but they are really about something else: how you made each other feel 15 years ago by accident.
You never even realized you were doing it. It might not even be your fault. But you’re both still mad about it! This is the stuff of long-simmering resentments, generations-old blood feuds, profound disappointments, festering wounds.
Still, most of this stuff can be avoided by setting boundaries in advance.
I channel my own mother and give my child strict warnings every time we’re going into a situation whose expectations are different from, say, sitting at home naked eating pizza. Going into a playdate? Don’t you dare forget your pleases and thank-yous. Don’t demand anything. You will treat their toys and home with the utmost respect.
Children moaning about not getting what they wanted on Christmas? Easy. Tell them if they complain about any gift it will be taken away immediately and given to a child in need.
Children moan about being bored? You just got two gifts taken right out of your hands, buddy.
Arguing over what to watch on TV? Pick a movie in advance, freaks! Don’t tolerate whiny selfish behavior from children, and let everyone know in advance what to expect.
The beautiful part is, you can do this with adults, too!
Deciding who will clean up? That’s easy, too. Tell whoever doesn’t lift a finger that you know this year they’re going to try to pull that bullshit, but this time, you’re on to them and it’s not going to happen.
Tell them in no uncertain terms that this year, So-and-so is doing this and So-and-so is doing that, and and if they can’t help out, they don’t need to come. If this person isn’t a nuclear-family member, even better! Just make that phone call or send that email outlining what your expectations are before the first dirty plate lingers on the coffee table.
Let everyone know that this year, you’re not to grill Pam about when she’s going to have a baby, because it’s rude. Even if you’re the guest, tell the host in advance that this year, if Uncle Bob is there and starts his grope-y shit, you’re leaving! Better yet, call Uncle Bob yourself!
All it takes is reasonably anticipating the specific bullshit of the event, and running interference before that hot air balloon ever gets off the ground.
Sure, you could also talk to someone you usually fight with before you fight to address the issue and try to resolve it, but that assumes both parties are sincere and reasonable and the situation is some sort of two-way street where you want to hear how they feel too. You don’t. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel here. You want them to stop being pathologically themselves for four goddamn hours.
Oh, you could try to hash it out. But trust me: You won’t. You’d need years of therapy or family counseling to make a break in this case, so save yourself the time, the frustration and the disappointment. Skip the feel-good part and go right for the no-nonsense news: This year, you won’t be putting up with that.
Think of it more as a kind of pre-fight fighting. I say pre-fight because it’s forcing the fight before the fight, only none of the high-running tensions are present. It’s unlikely to explode into anything too terrible. The worst thing that will happen is that someone will think you’re a bit of an asshole, but that designation will, at long last, come with a generous helping of respect. Or hey, maybe they will refuse to show up this year. In which case, score!
But best of all? It creates the distinctly bad feeling in the other person that you expect them to be difficult — which, if nothing else, makes them act nice just to prove you wrong. People are funny like that. And yes, that makes it sound like you’re getting what you want because of spite. Make no mistake: You are. And when this year’s holiday goes smoother than ever, you’ll realize that it is one of the best Christmas gifts you ever got.