Dear Sensible Midwesterner.
I host Christmas dinner each year, inviting my parents and their respective spouses, my sister and her family, and my husband’s family. I usually spend several weeks planning the menu, seating, decor, and activities, so that everyone has a good time and the celebration is seamless. Recently, however, my sister and step-mother have taken to arriving very early to “help” (which ends up being a hindrance), and have begun reorganizing my seating arrangements and even changing the order of events without consulting me. This year, my sister suggested she create a printed program so everyone can be aware of the order of things. I am very offended by these actions, since I have already put a great amount of effort in the planning. How can I prevent this intrusive behavior at the next Christmas dinner?
I’m so glad you wrote in. It’s best to think through the next holiday season now, when the highs and lows of how things went this year are fresh on everyone’s mind. Take notes, people, and resolve on those changes.(Fewer presents, more caroling, taller tree, hot buttered rum rather than egg nog, have everyone come at 3 instead of 4—whatever the change is that would have made this year better, write it down!)
As a fellow planner and can-be control freak, I sympathize with you, I really do. But as a sensible outsider who doesn’t know the personalities or specifics, what is clear to me is this: despite all your planning, everyone is not having a good time.
Planning family holiday celebrations is a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun. Preparing for the celebrations is part of the joy of the season for many of us. Your sister and step-mom want to be involved in how your family celebrates Christmas. The gracious, loving, and holiday-spirit thing to do is let them.
Next year, before you begin all your planning, send out an email or make a call to them, saying you’re beginning your preparations and would love to have them help. Leave that door open. I have no idea if they truly want to help plan things, or are just the type of people who want to do stuff the day of. If the former, great, now you have some help. If the latter, leave stuff for them to do. Why not let them set up the seating arrangement? Why not let your sister print up programs and have a say in what happens when? Are any of our plans so delicate and perfect that they can’t stand a bit of in-put?
Yes, you’re the host, and the menu, seating, and activities are all your prerogatives. No one here doubts that, but we might insist that it’s not terribly gracious of you to insist upon that quite so strongly. You’re hosting a family event, and that is a wee bit different, especially if you want things to be as “seamless” as possible.
It seems to me there is enough true malice and ill-intention in this world to be offended by without looking for it, especially so close to home. Maybe your sister and step-mom are trying to sabotage your plans, but I doubt it. Why not assume their early arrival is because they want to spend more time with you and/or want to contribute to the celebration? Why not see good will when at all possible, and look extra hard when it comes to family?
On that note, I assume you’re intentions are good. I assume all this planning you do really is so everyone will have a good time, not just so you can control everything (which may well be part of how it’s a good time for you). The thing is, large group celebrations are never perfect for everybody; they involve compromises of all sorts. Your compromise is going to need to be to warm-heartedly loosen your grip on Christmas dinner. Be a tad less perfect and planned, and allow other people their part. Let your step-mom arrange a game, ask your sister to set the table (and let her do it wrong if that’s how it goes), and be grateful that you have what sounds like an extended family of step-people and in-laws who all want to sit together and eat Christmas dinner at your house. That, Frustrated!, is no small thing.