Frustrated! (at Christmas)

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?


Dear Frustrated!

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.

How to Seat the Engaged

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

What is the correct way of seating at a formal dinner for a couple who are not married? They are engaged. Should they be seated together or separately?

Yours Truly,
Wondering How to Seat the Engaged

Dear Wondering How to Seat the Engaged,

People don’t tend to like the answer to this question. Well, they’ll like the answer to your specific question, but they don’t like that it’s the exception to the rule.

Engaged couples are, traditionally, seated together. Newlyweds, too. Old married folks, however, are, again traditionally, seated apart. The theory is that if you’ve been married awhile, you actually see a fair amount of one another and have plenty of opportunities to chat, so when you’re at a party you might enjoy talking to someone else. Not that you don’t enjoy your spouse, mind you, just that if you were going to talk to them all night you might as well have stayed home.

Personally, I’m a fan of this practice. I like the fresh audience for my most amusing anecdotes, if nothing else. And what’s more fun than the ride home exchanging highlights from separate conversations you were able to have?

Experience in voicing this point of etiquette and personal preference, however, tells me that people will argue quite vehemently against this practice. They want nothing more in the whole wide world than to spend even more time with their spouse. If everyone at the party wants to sit in pairs, that’s exactly what they should do. When they come to my house, though, I’m going to gently encourage them to sit four feet apart and see how things go.

Solo at Lunch

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

Should a staff member’s boyfriend be invited to a staff holiday lunch? Married team members are asking their spouses.


Solo at Lunch

Dear Solo at Lunch,

Who is and isn’t invited to a gathering is up to the host. Full stop. Polite hosts tend to do their inviting along some principle to avoid hurt feelings (all first cousins to the wedding, for example, not just the favorites).

As a modern person, I’m a big fan of the “plus-one” invitation, especially for work events parading as social occasions. This lets individuals decide who, if anyone, they bring along to events. To my mind, if any of the team members on staff get to bring someone, everyone should get to bring someone.

That said, I’m not the host. If you have any say in who’s getting invited (it sounds like you don’t), I say lobby for either everyone being allowed to bring someone or keeping it to just the team members (honestly, work events tend to be a bit of a drag for those who don’t work there, so keeping it just to co-workers is the kindest thing you can do for your loved ones).

If, as you signature suggests, you are an unmarried person who wants to bring your boyfriend but isn’t being allowed to, there isn’t much you can do. The should and shouldn’t of it all is moot. Show up with a sparkling clean attitude (leave any chips off your shoulders), be the life of the lunch, connect with your co-workers’ spouses, and get on the party planning committee for the next event.

To Email or Not to Email?

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

My husband and I are hosting a cocktail party for about 16. We are planning to do appetizers and cocktails, no dinner. Some people offered to bring something. My husband wants to send an email out to all saying: “Some of you offered to bring an app.  If you’re interested in bringing something, here’s what we have so far so we don’t duplicate.” I feel that would put people on the spot to bring something. Maybe they just wanted to bring a bottle of wine and not make anything.

Would love some advice on this. Thanks.

To Email or Not to Email?

Dear To Email or Not to Email,

First, I beg you to make it as crystal clear as possible when inviting people that this is a cocktail party, with defined hours that do not include dinner. I’ve never understood vaguely worded invitations, and the only thing worse than eating before what one thinks is a late drinks party only to find a full buffet laid out, is to arrive at what one thinks is a dinner party to find only nuts and nibbles for sustenance.

That was not your question, just my call out to anyone hosting a holiday gathering: let people know what kind of gathering it is! It’s easy! Cocktails and snacks from 5-7 pm. Dinner at 8. Dinner and board games at 6. Whatever it is, state it and give a time.

Should your husband send a mass email? Nope. Not unless he just wants to amend the invitation to make it a potluck. Do you want people bringing anything at all? A cocktail party menu can be a delicate balance, and perhaps you’d rather oversee the whole thing yourself, in which case simply tell people, “That’s so generous of you, but we have the whole menu planned, just bring your lovely selves to enjoy it!”

If you wouldn’t mind some random canapés at your soirée, respond with, “That’s so kind of you! We’d love to have you bring something. Just so you know, we’re serving [a couple key dishes or the overall theme of the menu goes here]. See you [day of the party]!” If they want more info or direction, they’ll ask for it.

Write these individually, not in some giant cc’ed mess. Copy-and-paste is a friend to us all, as long as we remember to change the names throughout.

FIL’s Chewing Is Driving Me Crazy

My husband and I live with my father-in-law (paying reduced rent; his gift to us as we save for a house) and we often eat dinner together. My husband is an occasional open-mouth chewer but kindly stops when I remind him how crazy it drives me and now mostly does it briefly to tease me (in fact he didn’t do it at all until we started living with his dad).

His father, on the other hand, always chews every bite with mouth agape, unless we have a guest over. For that reason I think he’s aware on some level how icky it is (and also because when I was first dating my now-husband and we had dinner with him sometimes, he did not do this), but doesn’t seem to care for our family dinners. It is a full-on wet, lip-smacking sound, and it is driving me bonkers! I do not want to ask my sweetie to say anything to his dad because he is not bothered by it, but I’m uncomfortable just asking straight out if he knows he does it or if he could please, please stop! I get so distracted that I cannot eat my own food and try to wolf it down before he starts.

I’m in a weird zone of not being guest enough to warrant good manners but not being familiar enough to say, Hey dude! Dinner is really delicious tonight, but would it be alright if you chewed with a closed mouth?

What are the better words? Is there another way? Should I ask my husband to mention it, which might cause my father-in-law less embarrassment (but I think my husband might buckle and admit that I’m the one with the problem, which would also be weird)? Should I leave it alone? He is doing us a very generous favor, having us in his home!

FIL Is Driving Me Crazy

Dear FIL Is Driving Me Crazy,

If you’re asking for a polite way to ask your father-in-law to chew with his mouth closed… I can’t help you. If you’re wondering how to ask the person who is generously letting you stay in his home to practice better table manners at his own table, again, I’m not your girl.

That you think he can tell the difference and bring better manners to bare in some circumstances would gnaw at a person; instead of thinking it’s a simple question of effort that he’s not making your behalf, may I suggest that you see it as a sign that he is comfortable about you? Sometimes reframing these things helps.

If act you must, however, I have a suggestion. It depends greatly on the personalities involved, so only you will be able to judge whether the outcome could conceivably be positive.

You say, in the most self-mocking manner possible, “I know I’m beyond fussy about certain things, but would it be possible for you two to chew with your mouths closed?”

See how you rope your husband in there? Keep the blame off one person? Let them team up? If you have a decent, friendly, sometimes joking relationship with your father-in-law, this may well work. You bring it up as a ridiculous request, they can mock you about it, and, hopefully, since they’re grown-ups with some self-respect, they may become more aware around you.

Only you know the players well enough to say if this might work. It is equally possible that your father-in-law will feel shamed, or straight-up embarrassed, and carry that slight around inside for the rest of his days, never feeling relaxed around you again—something, based on your description, it sounds like you now share. Only you can say whether the risk is worth it.