WHETHER DECEMBER IS RULED BY Snow Miser or Heat Miser — or, in classic New England style, both in rapid succession — the winter holidays are a perfect storm for etiquette mishaps. There’s: Food! Money! Religion! Family! Travel! Gift-giving! Booze! Parties! And all of this following a thoroughly miserable 2016, a year so horrible that one can divert a potential political argument by asking the fulminating firebrands which life-shaping childhood hero of theirs — from David Bowie to Gwen Ifill — died this year.
In etiquette as is in medicine, prevention is better than cure. If it’s possible to avoid the annoying people or awkward situations entirely, do so. Whoops, you’re so sorry, you do love getting together with your dear neighbors the Rulesbounds for their annual Monopoly Marathon, but it just won’t work out this year! The upside to December’s packed social calendar is that you can beg off with great plausibility.
There are two groups of people, though, who are difficult to avoid: work colleagues and family. Work-related holiday socializing is tolerable as long as you think of it as work, only with extra candy canes. Don’t expect to enjoy it. You’re not about making friends. You’re about keeping things professional, which can be a great hedge against awkward situations.
Family, of course, is where it gets complicated. Family doesn’t care about keeping things professional. Your own family can take you right back to who you were when you were 7, and other people’s families are mysterious dark continents of abstruse customs and unknown dangers.
Here are two things that happen frequently during the holiday season:
Other people push your boundaries unreasonably. When this happens, if you push back, there will be an awkward moment, regardless of how witty or empathetic or logical your pushback may have been. That awkwardness is not your responsibility.
You push your boundaries unreasonably. Christmas is such a cultural catchall that no one, not even Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg working in tandem, can do All the Christmas Things: bake, roast, diet, budget, splurge, shop, wrap, donate, volunteer, host, guest, indulge, reflect, carol, pray, decorate, deliver, photograph, craft, curate, post, commemorate. Decide what you want to do — and that list can change from year to year — and don’t let other people’s celebrations serve as some kind of judgment on you.
On to some more specific problems!
> On the first day of Christmas, a stranger yelled at me: “ ‘Happy Holidays’ is way too PC!”
Anyone who responds rudely to a holiday greeting is being a jerk — although clarifying that you don’t, in fact, celebrate the holiday you’re being wished a good one of is not a rude response. (A pedantic one, perhaps, but if you can’t cope with a bit of pedantry here and there, you’re not going to enjoy life in Boston very much to begin with.) If someone gets angry at your preferred holiday greeting, smile broadly and reply, “Oh, well, don’t have happy holidays then! It was only a suggestion.”
> On the second day of Christmas, my colleague offered me: Some cookies that were not gluten-free.
Holidays are hard on those of us with restricted diets — so much sugar and gluten and alcohol and meat! Hosts may not be able to accommodate your needs during a busy season, but no one ought to be pushing forbidden goodies at you, either. Decline the bacon-wrapped scallop or the champagne cocktail politely. If someone aggressively presses holiday treats on you — “Eat the gingerbread man! Eat him!” — play goalie on the behalf of hypothetical others. “I’m not hungry at the moment, but, good grief, how do you think that would make a diabetic person feel?”
Do your own baking and cooking of Christmas goodies only if you get pleasure out of doing so. A halfhearted job at decorating or card-choosing is acceptable, but nobody cherishes dry, puffy chocolate chip cookies (my personal specialty) just because they are made with love. In the entire history of solstice holidays, there has never been such a wonderful array of prepared food as in the current age. Take advantage of it.
> On the third day of Christmas, my neighbor gave to me: A present that I did not foresee.
Someone shows up with a gift for you, but you have none for them. You, Hapless Recipient, now have three options. You can (1) tell the Guileful Giver that you have a present for him or her, too, squirreled away in another location, and conduct a quick and panicked shopping spree and present the belated gift. You can (2) keep a pre-wrapped stash of small treasures — candles, ornaments from a local craft fair, bottles of wine, easily regiftable munchies — ready to go for just such emergencies. Or you can (3) thank the G.G. sincerely and get on with your life.
Option 1 fools no one. If you can lie convincingly about the existence of a present and then find one, on short notice, so perfectly apropos that the recipient will never suspect your shopping was a last-minute endeavor — well, if you’re that insightful and resourceful, how did you get taken unawares in the first place? Option 2 is good for the workplace or a volunteer group or if a neighbor comes by with a tin of cookies. Go with Option 3 if the relationship is close or the gift is a special one. (“Special” doesn’t mean expensive; it could be a sentimental photo or book or hand-knitted mittens.) When you can’t match the personal meaning of an unexpected gift, it’s crass and slightly unkind to try.
The card gap is the lesser manifestation of the gift gap and is something no one should worry about. People who send cards do it because they like to — or out of a sense of grim obligation, but that’s hardly your fault or problem. If a card sender also values receiving cards, game theory predicts that after a year or two of sending you cards and getting none in return, the Sendersons will strike you off their list. Game theory has no prediction about whether the Sendersons will silently judge you — but this is also not your problem. For some people, the opportunity to silently judge others is one of the great pleasures in life. Don’t deprive them, ya big Grinch!
> On the fourth day of Christmas, my uncle gave to me: Some socks I’d given him in ’03.
Regifting (wrapped, recently acquired) items is a sensible practice, but never regift in the same network! Regift office gifts to your church friends, church-friend gifts to the neighbors, and so on. My mother received a tin of brownies one Christmas that had originated in her own kitchen. (They were still good: Her habit of sealing the tins with packing tape kept baked goods fresh as well as making the tins easily identifiable.)
When you have to buy for someone you don’t know well, an easily regiftable present is the way to go. If you hadn’t planned for a present to be regifted, but you realize too late that you made a bad choice — the sweater’s too big, the board game too childish, the picture frame too ornate — own up to the misfire and let the recipient know that he or she is free to regift or return.
When you’re the recipient of odd or inappropriate gifts, cover your lack of enthusiasm with questions. Not the questions that are probably swirling in your brain, but anodyne questions like “Did you get this locally?” and “Have you used these before?” and “Did you make it yourself?” Pretend you’re Ira Glass or Terry Gross. It also helps to memorize a list of objectively neutral but connotatively positive words, like “bold,” “fancy,” “tasty,” “unusual,” and “unique.”
> On the fifth day of Christmas, my parents gave to me: Macy’s basement in its entirety.
If your parents give you too much stuff — especially if they give your children too much stuff — know that you are not alone. Take to the Internet and you will find validation and support galore, along with a distinct lack of solutions, because there aren’t many. Communicate your desires, provide photographic evidence of your small apartment, offer alternatives of craft supplies and charitable giving and “experience gifts,” suggest that the toys live at Grandma’s house where the kids can visit them. It might work. Some will still give too much. You aren’t obligated to keep things you don’t want or can’t use. (If people deliberately give your child a gift they know you are opposed to — a violent video game, too-mature book, toy gun — dispose of it, and you do not need to write a thank you note.)
You don’t have to match your family’s Big Givers present-for-present and dollar-for-dollar, if Big Giving does not match your budget or values.
> On the sixth day of Christmas, my daughter said to me: “How does Santa come when there’s no chimney?”
If your kids believe in Santa — or if they tell you they do, because kids will pretend to believe long after they’ve stopped because they think their parents expect it — other kids might spill the beans. If your kids don’t believe in Santa, they may inadvertently freak out a classmate who does. It happens, and it’s nothing for adults to get upset about. If your kids are post-Santa or non-Santa, have a talk about how to maintain their own intellectual integrity vis-a-vis flying reindeer without “yucking someone else’s yum,” as the saying goes.
If you get peppered with questions about Santa that you are not ready to answer, by your own child or, heaven forbid, someone else’s, turn the tables and ask: “What does Santa mean to you?” or “What do you think?” rather than stating your own opinion. This strategy works equally well on adults who want to have a political conversation.
> On the seventh day of Christmas, my Facebook showed to me: A party that did not include me.
No matter how hilarious you all look in your ugly sweaters and plush antlers, don’t post pictures of other people on social media without permission. Try to keep an eye out for shutterbugs if you’re the host — especially if not everyone in your online circle of friends got invited to the bash.
If you uncover online evidence of a party you feel that you should have been invited to and weren’t — one that you go to every year, say — address it with the host after the holidays if it still seems appropriate. With so much new invitation technology and different people on different platforms, it’s easy for a desired guest to slip between the cybercracks and not get an invite.
> On the eighth day of Christmas, my houseguests did for me: Nothing! — quite egregiously!
If you hate hosting holiday parties or family gatherings because you’re the one doing all the work — stop! You aren’t one of Santa’s non-union elves. The host is the captain of her ship, not its swabbie. Make it a potluck, assign chores to family members, cut back on the decorating and ritual-organizing. If Aunt Ginny complains that you’re forgoing some family tradition, ask her if she’d like to be the one to, say, get the kids making popcorn strings this year, since it means so much to her. Instead of asking people what they want — to eat, to watch, to do — offer them choices preapproved by you, and allow them to pick.
> On the ninth day of Christmas, my mailbox gave to me: An invite saying “dress festively.”
There are black-dress-and-champagne-and-white-lights holiday parties, and there are knit-sweaters-and-s’mores-and-singing-Santa-statues holiday parties. If you show up for one kind in attire more appropriate to the other, be your most vivacious self and everyone will assume that you have an even better party to go to afterward, and that’s the party you dressed for.
When in doubt, follow the Star Trek rule: Wear black dress pants and a red shirt, and be the first one to leave.
> On the 10th day of Christmas, my mother asked of me: “Have you ever thought of rhinoplasty?”
People get questions over the holidays, sometimes about their families, sometimes from their families. If co-workers or neighbors ask you about your plans to “see your family” over the holidays, and family is complicated or unhappy for you, “Not this year” is all you need to say. If they push it, use the defending-others shtick: “You realize some people have complicated or traumatic family backgrounds? It’s not the kind of thing you ought to push people about.”
Questions from your family usually have to do with life plans, frequently involving desired grandchild production quotas. Much as you remove offending food from your mouth the same way it went in — fingers or fork — you respond to an offending question in the same manner it was addressed. Private, intense questions get private, intense answers. Questions bawled out over the dinner table don’t deserve a serious answer — respond with the most nonsensical reply you can. “When are you going to start having kids?” “The next time the Cubs win the Series.”
> On the 11th day of Christmas, my bae introduced me: As his “friend” to his Gramps and Grammy.
Think twice about spending the holidays with family, if family does not accept your sexual orientation or current partner. Don’t even think once about dragging your partner into a den of people who won’t accept him or her and then actually sleeping there. Get a hotel room or an Airbnb to preserve your sanity and privacy. Be honest with your partner about your family’s biases. The worst bigot is a surprise bigot!
> On the 12th day of Christmas, exhaustion gave to me: Vacation plans for January.
As you sit through endless Yankee Swaps and Secret Santas, let your thoughts drift, drift to the gloriously dreary and socially bereft months of January and February. All those long dark nights, so few obligations. Plan a spa day, plan your dream vacation, plan the party you want to have with the people you want to invite, plan to binge on Netflix in your jammies. Joy to the world, in December! Joy to you, in January!
Robin Abrahams writes the Globe Magazine’s Miss Conduct column. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.