Much as we love the holidays (and we do), hosting a holiday dinner can be … well, a bit of a minefield. After all, one person’s idea of a fun activity, delicious dish, innocuous comment or appropriate topic for discussion is never going to be exactly the same as the person next to them. And for whatever reason, the same types of guests seem to pop up every year. So, here’s how to make your holiday get-together go as smoothly as possible. We’re not guaranteeing an evening full of comfort and joy, but you should be able to get through without any broken dishes.
The drunk uncle
There’s always one relative who takes the concept of “holiday cheer” just a little too far. And whether they get belligerent, morose or just super celebratory, it’s no fun dealing with someone who’s intoxicated to the point that their behaviour gets a little messy. If you’re hosting, one good way to help discourage over-drinking is to have activities available for people to do, so they’re not filling empty down time (while you’re slaving in the kitchen) with multiple glasses of booze. Photo albums, silly board games or Mad Libs can all keep folks amused. Pre- and post-dinner, make sure there are lots of carby snacks available so no one’s drinking on an empty stomach. And if someone shouldn’t drive home? Make sure you’ve got the spare bed made up, or a taxi number handy.
The political zealot sibling
You were raised in the same household, so why are your sib’s political views so wildly divergent from your own? Whether you’re a straight-laced conservative or a progressive liberal—or something in between—chances are, you’re going to disagree with someone. If you think politics, religion or any other big topics are going to be a source of conflict, it may be easiest to approach the problem head-on with a friendly acknowledgement of your differing views, and an agreement to stay away from controversial topics. There’s nothing wrong with not engaging, and most zealots will stop when they see they can’t get a reaction. There’s also nothing wrong with saying, gently, “I don’t think that’s appropriate dinner conversation,” and leaving it at that.
The surly teenager
Your godson was a joy to be around last year, and this year he’s been replaced by a moody, sullen, phone-obsessed zombie who communicates through eye rolls and huffy sighs. The good news is that your once-bubbly godson will likely resurface once his hormones release their stranglehold on his brain in a few years, but until that happens, keep your interactions light and ignore any behaviour that isn’t blatantly rude. Remember, you’re the adult. Don’t take it personally, and avoid drama if you can.
The perfect stranger
Your brother has a brand-new girlfriend, and he’s brought her to your annual holiday get-together. She knows no-one, no-one knows her, and you’re a little worried how she’s going to react to your family’s tradition of playing drunken Pictionary well into the night. Never fear — in this case, it’s probably a question of her being more scared of you than you are of her. One great way to get a stranger into the thick of holiday fun is to ask them to help out in the kitchen for a bit (isn’t that where all the best parties happen, anyway?). You’ll get a chance to chat in a casual way, and they won’t feel like they’re being given a rigorous interrogation by the Spanish Inquisition.
The surprise vegan/gluten-free/paleo guest
Preparation is key to avoiding this particular guest. After all, there’s nothing wrong with vegans. But someone whose dietary restrictions you weren’t aware of ahead of time can mean serious awkwardness as they try to join in the holiday cheer with only a plateful of steamed broccoli. If you’re hosting, call around to make sure you’re aware of everyone’s needs and suggest that someone whose diet is limited bring something to share that they know they can eat. And while you don’t have to change your entire menu to accommodate a single guest, preparing something they can eat will make them feel welcome. (Need some suggestions? Here are five gluten-free, vegan, egg-free, lactose-free, nut-free recipes that still manage to be delicious.)
The inappropriate elder
Your grandmother’s reached the ripe old age of 90, and she thinks that gives her license to say and do whatever she likes (usually in a louder-than-needed voice). As with the surly teenager, feigning deafness is probably the easiest path to take. You aren’t likely to change your grandmother’s behaviour in the space of a single family dinner. If you feel like engaging, but don’t want to respond to her barbed comments about your weight/relationship status/hair colour, ask her about her own memories or favourite holiday celebrations. That should distract her from asking you for the four-hundredth time whether you’ve gained five pounds. Another fun tactic is to come up with the most outrageously responses you can to her barbed comments. For example, if she bemoans your lack of a partner, simply smile and tell her you’re so desperate for a mate that you’re planning to marry your cat. Try to do this completely deadpan. At the very least, it’ll make you laugh.
The interfering in-law
Whether they’re offering you “helpful” advice on your cooking or your kids, an in-law who pokes their nose in where it doesn’t belong is about as welcome as a still-frozen turkey at dinnertime. While it’s tempting to snap, ignore or otherwise dismiss their help, take a moment to reflect on why they’re getting in the way. Chances are they’re hoping to be involved in some way, or they genuinely think they’re helping you out (and don’t notice that you’re gritting your teeth). Help yourself by giving them specific tasks to do. Ask your father-in-law to carve the turkey, perhaps, or ask your mother-in-law to help pass the hors d’ouevres. If there are kids around, enlist their help in distracting the in-laws. Ask them to put on a little skit, or play the piano.
There’s always one guest who just doesn’t help out, doesn’t contribute to keeping the conversation going, doesn’t appear to exist except to take up room on a chair and vacuum in holiday goodies. You can’t force someone to pitch in, of course, but consider the possibility that they’re not helping because they’re simply not sure what to do, or don’t want to get in the way. For these types of guests, get over the idea that being a gracious host means not asking for help. Instead, give slothful guests specific, clearly defined tasks, like slicing tomatoes for the salad, feeding the cat or sweeping the front steps. If there are kids around, ask your resident sloth to read to them, or play a game with them.