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A Beginner's Guide to Hosting Family for the Holidays Without Melting Down

How to practically and emotionally deal with bringing the festivities—and your relatives—to your place.

by Jennifer Peepas
14 December 2019, 6:00am

Illustration by Hunter French

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

If everyone's coming to your place for holiday celebrations this year, congratulations on reaching this adult-ass milestone. Your prizes for hosting your family: so much cleaning, even more grocery shopping, and, for maybe the first time, an unflinching look at your chair situation, in case you need to borrow some from a neighbor or make an emergency visit to the thrift store.

Fortunately, there is also a bonus prize: You get the opportunity to discover how you like to do holidays. Your family has its traditions, but what are the special things that you like most about the season? What are the things you wish people would do to welcome you "home" when it's your turn to be the guest? You get to make those things happen, on your turf. Here’s your chance to be the kind of host that won't have people researching "survival tips" for how they'll "get through" holidays at your home.

Practical Concerns

Figure out how people will arrive at and navigate your home.

Are you a "shoes off" or "shoes on" house? People need to know (ideally, ahead of time!). Does the bathroom door tend to stick? Warn guests they'll have to yank it hard to shut it all the way (and make a little sign about it). Where can people park? Where's the best spot for smokers to step outside for a minute? (If there isn't one, set one up!) Is it OK if people root around in your refrigerator and help themselves, or do you prefer to be asked? If people are staying overnight, do your best to make their sleeping spot comfortable and private. Giving everybody (INCLUDING YOURSELF) a little space for naps and quiet downtime will make the family togetherness all the sweeter.

Prioritize "Be Our Guest"–style thinking more so than a "We Are Family" mindset.

If you're hosting family: You've known these people all your life, and it's easy to assume you already know everything about what they like and dislike, but what if you asked your family the same questions you'd ask any houseguest who was staying with you for the first time? For example:

  • "What do you like to eat for breakfast? Do you take coffee or tea? What do you like in it?"
  • "Do you have any food restrictions and/or strong preferences I should know about?"
  • "I tend to go to bed around [time] and get up at [time]. What's your schedule like nowadays?" (From there, you can figure out stuff like, "First one up, please make coffee.")
  • "Are you a morning or a night shower/bath person?"
  • "Is there anything you'd especially like to do or see when you're here?"

Maybe your assumptions will turn out to be correct, but it's still nice to ask. Your tastes and routines have probably changed since everybody last lived under the same roof, so think of this as a way to both make guests comfortable and get to know your family better in the here and now.

Eat, drink, and be (more) merry (and less awkward).

Your job as the host of a feasting-focused occasion is to ensure that there is enough food—and a variety of it that guests with different needs can eat. (If people bring food for everyone to share, ask them to label what they bring clearly in recognition of those needs.) If you're serving booze, make sure there are also non-alcoholic drinks front and center so people can choose them easily and without comment or undue attention.

If you're an enthusiastic cook, play the hits! You do not have to painstakingly recreate, from scratch, every deep-cut nostalgia-dish that has ever graced a holiday table during your lifetime, nor do you have to find a way to "wow" everybody with the most gourmet versions of everything. Stick with what you can easily afford and reliably execute, and take people up on their offers to help or bring a dish to share. If you're not much of a cook, go full potluck, make a restaurant reservation somewhere, or (if you can afford it) take advantage of the many grocery stores and restaurants who cater.

If someone tries to tell you, "It just won't be (holiday) without (food you actively hate or weren't planning on making)," answer with, "Great idea! I won't be able to put that together, but I'd love it if you brought some, thank you!" If they want it badly enough, they'll handle it. If they don't, I promise you: The holiday will still happen as scheduled.

Maybe food- and body-shaming are family traditions, but this is your house, and your rules. If the "should you be eating that?" or the "why aren't you eating that?" brigade starts up, step in with, "Everybody is the boss of their own plate, and nobody else's." This is also one of the rules you can discuss ahead of time—tell guests with bad snack track records that, in your house, everyone is free to decide what they want to eat and how much, and no one else may criticize it or make them self-conscious.

Emotional Concerns

Make a guest list of people that you feel good about welcoming.

As host, you get final say on the guest list. If you truly can't not invite certain people, set some ground rules for yourself in advance and loop in trusted guests ahead of time who might be willing to take rotating Difficult Person Attendant shifts or help you swiftly contain any asshole outbreaks. "If Difficult Relative gets drunk and hostile like last year, I'll get Cousin(s) to corral her and drive her home." "I’ll ask Sibling to keep an eye on the punch bowl, because if That Cousin tries to put apple cider vinegar in all the drinks again, we will have WORDS, and possibly PISTOLS at DAWN.”

If a known serial jerk bounces early or stays home because they can’t manage to behave themselves for a few hours in your space, please reject the idea that the party will be “ruined” somehow by their absence. You can make a welcoming place for everyone by both giving and expecting kindness, not by enabling people who refuse to show any and calling it "polite" to overlook their disrespect of others.

Set house rules for keeping the peace, even if the words "rules" and "party" feel weird anywhere near each other.

In your house, your rules apply, which hopefully doesn't mean vengefully limiting your aging parents' screen time if they don't finish their vegetables. What it does mean: You get to set the tone and expectations for how people behave in your space. It's easy to be nervous about setting ground rules—you may want to skip that part, because, Why can't everyone just relax and be chill? But it's the host's job to think about things ahead of time.

Communicating house rules is about respecting your space and your guests' comfort as well as your own. You're even more equipped, as a host, to shut down rude and offensive discussions and redirect conversations into happier and safer waters. You're the one who can pull people aside ahead of time and remind them to use your sibling's correct name and pronouns, no excuses, or leave. (If Grandma can understand that Dwayne Johnson and "The Rock" are the same person and that some of the people she went to high school with go by Mrs. DifferentLastName now, she can adapt to this.)

Remember that "should" is the enemy of good.

If you host a holiday gathering and everyone who shows up has enough to eat and drink and a place to sit, and is safe enough, and warm enough, and has a time that registers between "pretty OK" and "quite pleasant, actually," please know: YOU'RE DOING GREAT. You do not have to fill every moment with magic. You don't have to schedule constant moments of togetherness or stage-manage a series of escalating photogenic celebratory acts culminating in a show-stopping closing number. You do not have to dazzle people or go broke trying.

You don't have to delve deeply into all your issues and history with your family in order to spend a little time with them in late December. You don't have to "fix" your family by throwing the perfect party! This is a holiday, and even the fun parts are enough work already.

In all things: You don't have to faithfully recreate a greeting card or holiday movie idea of what this is supposed to be like, or capitulate to what your family thinks you are supposed to be like. Make some house rules about being kind; figure out food, drinks, and how to make people comfortable; open your doors. That's enough, and so are you.

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