Dear Prudence

How Do I Stay Sane Through the Holidays?

Slate’s advice column roundup for the most wonderful (and miserable) time of the year.

Photo illustration of two children engaging in tug of war over a present.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by jacoblund/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The holidays are teeming with sugar, booze, and way too much family time. To get you through these fraught days, we’ve rounded up the best of Slate’s holiday advice through the years from Dear Prudence, Care and Feeding, and How to Do It. Questions are reprinted below.

Dear Prudence, Emily Yoffe, September 2015

For most of my life, my sister “Crystal” and I have never had a good relationship. For as long as I can remember, she’s always been horrible to me, criticizing everything from my choice in movies and music to how I act in public. Her attitude is actually a joke between some friends and me. My family has acknowledged her behavior toward me, but their way to keep the peace is to tell me that since I’m the oldest, I need to be mature and ignore it. For the last several years, I’ve lived far enough away that going home during the holidays was a financial burden. However, I recently moved closer, and now the pressure is on to come home for the holidays. Prudie, I’m in my 30s and have discovered my best holidays have been spent with friends, food, beer, and bad horror movies. It’s not that I don’t want to go home; it’s just my desire not to deal with Crystal outweighs my desire to see my family. Last Christmas saw me emptying my brother’s liquor cabinet. What’s a nice way to tell my mom I’m not coming home for Christmas?

Your parents held your childhood hostage to the terrible conduct of your younger sister. It doesn’t matter that you were older—there needed to be rules in place about how people behaved toward each other in your family. Perhaps your sister has some kind of personality disorder—these can be intractable and resistant to treatment. But it doesn’t sound as if your parents even tried to figure this out; they just allowed her to express her obsessive jealousy and disdain. Revealingly, she never grew out of it, so you’ve been expected to suck it up on holidays and subject yourself to her shredding—even if you recognize the ridiculousness of the source. Sure, your parents are torn between their daughters, but shame on them for putting the burden on you. You tell your mother that holidays are supposed to be joyful events, and all the joy is stomped out for you because you’re expected to be treated by your sister in a way you would never allow anyone else to treat you. Tell your mother that since you now live closer, you will be seeing her when your sister is not there. So you can visit with your family on less fraught holidays—enjoy your tension-free Arbor Day visit.

Gift Advice From Slate’s Wisest

Enjoy Slate’s Holiday Advice From the Experts series from our beloved advice columnists:

• Daniel Mallory Ortberg offers advice (and gifts to yourself) for spending the holidays alone.
• Keep your sanity intact this holiday season with Jamilah Lemieux’s self-care tips.
• Pet columnist Nick Greene offers the best pet gifts.
• Nicole Cliffe recommends classic gifts for children of all ages.
• Rich Juzwiak from How to Do It gives the rundown on unconventional gifts to spice up your relationship.

Dear Prudence, Daniel Mallory Ortberg, 2015

My problem is that the holidays are the only time that everyone gets together. It is crowded, hectic, and fun. Except my sister insists that her autistic son be involved in all activities with his cousins. He is sensitive to noise, flashing lights, and can melt down into tantrums that leave holes in walls. Last year, he threw a lamp into a TV while several of the boys played video games. My sons will do puzzles and spend time with him but have asked me why they are being punished by having to “babysit” him all the time. I keep biting my tongue, but how do I tell her I think she is the problem here?

There are, I think, two issues here. One is safety—if your sister’s son is getting violent and throwing things at the holiday gathering, your main concern should be calmly separating the children and making sure that everyone is unharmed. If he threatens himself or other children, it is absolutely appropriate for you to end playtime and for your sister to help calm him down.

The other is whether or not you should accommodate a neuroatypical child’s needs when you see him once a year. I think that is not only reasonable, but a good thing to do! Surely you want your children to be comfortable around, and friendly with, all types of people, regardless of their neurological makeup. Explain to them that being with their cousin while not playing video games for a few hours is not a punishment. Your sister’s not asking you to rearrange your whole world, she’s asking you to include her special-needs son (who it does not sound like is included in many things) once a year. This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate empathy and compassion. Don’t miss it.

Care and Feeding, Nicole Cliffe, 2018

My youngest daughter, who’s 9, has a strong tendency to crash and burn after big fun events (birthdays, holidays, trips, etc.) and a really tough time resuming “normal” life. Having finally figured out the pattern, any advice on how to soften her recovery from Christmas this year?

Ah, yes, Christmas and MDMA are so similar in this respect: The comedown is tough. I recommend tapering a bit: Boxing Day (Dec. 26) is not a “thing” in the U.S. like it is in Canada, but there’s no reason you can’t make it a little special with a new tradition or two, like going for a family walk in the snow, cooking a particularly loved meal, maybe taking a trip to the bookstore. Nothing splashy or expensive, just something nice and comforting. Staying busy over the next few days will help a lot and will keep her new toys and books feel fresher longer.

There is also a Berenstain Bears book called Too Much Birthday that describes this feeling in great detail, if you think it might help her to talk about it? You know her best!

Merry Christmas and happy Boxing Day.

Dear Prudence, Daniel Mallory Ortberg, 2018

My daughter-in-law enjoys knitting and crocheting. For her birthday, my husband and I gave her a generous gift card to a local yarn store, for which she thanked us and seemed very pleased. Imagine my dismay, however, when six months later for our anniversary she gifted us with a lovely bedspread, which she told me she made with yarn purchased from the gift card! I told my son that we’d in effect paid for our own present and that he needs to communicate to his wife how improper and stingy this move was. He refuses, saying that her labor and time were also part of the gift. We haven’t spoken much since except to discuss our grandchildren, and our DIL has been outright cold. I’m considering writing her a letter directly explaining why this was an improper gift and expressing my sadness that her own parents didn’t teach her gift etiquette. My husband wants me to drop the whole thing and pretend like it never happened. Prudie, I don’t like the idea of moving on as if nothing happened.

But nothing did happen. You received a thoughtful gift that cost more time than money. That’s it! If someone gives you a present you don’t like, you smile and say, “Thanks, how thoughtful,” and then stash it in the back of your closet. You don’t ask your kid to complain to the gift-giver via backchannel. It’s fine if you like to give expensive presents—and can afford to do so—but that’s not the only way to show someone that you care. Even if you don’t like knitwear, your daughter-in-law spent countless hours over the course of a half-year working on something very detailed for you, and you say yourself it was a lovely bedspread. Whether she got the yarn with the gift card you gave her or spent her own money is beside the point; you’re acting as if she re-gifted something when that clearly wasn’t the case. Your daughter-in-law’s gift was thoughtful and intricate; yours was financially generous and relatively generic. There would be no reason to compare the two if you hadn’t insisted on doing so in the first place.

You are grown adults with plenty of money; if there’s something you want for yourself, go ahead and buy it—this kind of petty scorekeeping around gift-giving is barely excusable when little children do it. Writing her a letter to express “sadness” that her own parents didn’t teach her proper etiquette would be wildly inappropriate, out of line, and an unnecessary nuclear option. And it’s a guaranteed ticket to make sure you see and hear about your grandchildren way less than you do now. You still have time to salvage this relationship—don’t die on this hill. Let it go, apologize for your churlishness, and take yourself shopping if you want a pricey gift this year.

Dear Prudence, Emily Yoffe, 2011

I live far away from my family and really look forward to spending the holidays with them. However, I do not want to go to Catholic Mass with them. I am not religious at all and feel like a hypocrite going through the Catholic aerobics. My family members are all CEO Catholics (Christmas and Easter only) and I don’t know why we have to do this ritual when no one seems to care about religion the other 363 days of the year. However, my mother will take it badly if I don’t go, and my father would appreciate me not upsetting my mother. I would much rather start a new tradition, like playing a family game and just enjoying one another’s company. My parents admire my independence of thought in every other area of my life, but my not being onboard with the religion thing seems to really hurt them. What should I do?

Your parents may show up at church only twice a year, but on those rare occasions, your mother is simply not going to think that staying home and playing Parcheesi is an appropriate substitute. You’ve got the wrong idea about your hypocrisy in going to Mass even though you’re not religious. If no hypocrites entered places of worship, attendance would plummet. If you go, it’s perfectly fine for you to get lost in daydreams, or to think, “I do like the music, but the rest of it is a load of hooey.” Going to church on Christmas and Easter is meaningful to your mother, so you don’t have to call her out because she’s getting a pedicure the other 50 weekends a year. You can view accompanying your parents as a matter of honoring people you love. If you decide setting foot in church is a violation of some principles you hold sacred, then without making a big deal about it say, “Mom, I’m sorry, I’m just exhausted and I’m going to stay put on the couch this year. Thanks for understanding.” But it sounds as if you’re more flexible than that. While the religious “aerobics” won’t do much for your body or soul, the warm feeling it will give your mother if you go will make this workout worthwhile.

Dear Prudence, Daniel Mallory Ortberg, 2016

I am 19 years old, and a few months ago I came out to my parents and siblings. Everyone has been very accepting and loving. The problem is this: My younger sister told my uncle and aunt that I am a lesbian. (It was not done maliciously.) They’re top-of-the-line homophobes. They told my grandmother, who is now banning me from Christmas festivities that we celebrate every year.

I told my parents to just go without me and, while reluctant, they would like to go just to smooth things over. As we get closer to Christmas, I am getting depressed at the thought of being alone for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I could go to my friend’s house, but that seems pathetic. Please help!

It is not pathetic to spend Christmas with friends. I have several friends joining me and my family for Christmas this year, and I can’t wait for them to get here. I’ve spent Christmas with family in the past, and I’ve spent Christmas with friends in the past, and it’s always been meaningful and joyful.

That said, I think it’s fine if you want to tell your parents that you’re feeling hurt about the prospect of being “banned” from this year’s family celebration because you’re gay. You don’t have to ask them not to go (although I’m inclined to think that they shouldn’t), but you can still be honest with them about how you’re feeling. It sounds like they care about and support you, and I think they’d want to know if you’re having a hard time. Even if they still decide to attend, you might feel better for having stated your feelings out loud to them, and they might be able to offer more meaningful support if they know you’re struggling with this.

Dear Prudence, Emily Yoffe, 2008

I’m dreading the holidays “back home” because many members of my family are very racist, and they know my politics and know I voted for Obama. I’ll hear a lot of really awful things. My Mom (an Obama supporter) can’t stand any kind of discord, and has asked me to just keep my mouth shut. I feel that my nieces and nephews should see and hear an adult who thinks differently from their parents. Am I right?

Not getting into political squabbles for the sake of a placid holiday and letting openly racist remarks pass are two different things. On the other hand, are you possibly reading racism into remarks that are simply critical of Obama? If family members complain they wish McCain had won, just shrug it off—he didn’t after all. But for racist remarks go ahead and say something like, “Uncle Stan, I find those kind of comments deeply disturbing. It’s fine that you don’t like the president-elect, but I wish you would keep your remarks about him civil.”

For updated advice for the Trump era, read this 2016 piece from John Culhane on whether it sets a bad example to argue about Trump in front of the kids.

How to Do It, Stoya and Rich Juzwiak, 2019

I’m a gay man in his 20s who comes from a big family in Texas with two brothers and three sisters. We are scattered around the country, and we rarely see each other as a group except every Thanksgiving and Christmas, when we return to our rural hometown. These meetings tend to get raucous and involve alcohol. The conversations also can get very personal. My brothers and my sisters tend to talk about their dating and sex lives, and we usually don’t spare a lot of detail. For example, we call one of my brothers Giant Joe because, well. This has occasionally taken partners (and in the case of two of my siblings, spouses) aback when they first visit.

This year, for the first time, I will bring home a guy, “Jack.” My family has known I am gay for a long time, and though my parents are religious, it was mostly a blip in our big crazy family. But I am also the only gay one, and in the past, there have been a lot of “questions” about how that works in the bedroom (“Are you pitcher or catcher,” etc.). I know that sounds bad, but it makes me feel included, and I find it funny. “Jack,” however, is incredibly shy. I have told him my siblings tend to stay up late after dinner and will probably get more personal than he’s used to—he’s from a conservative family—and he shrugged it off. But I don’t think he really knows what he’s in for.

Should I tell my family to put a lid on it this year, which might single out Jack and me even more? Should I just let Jack experience my family, crude jokes and questions included? I’m not sure how to navigate this, and I’m getting nervous.

Rich: What do you think about this? Is family suppressible?

Stoya: I’m not sure family ought to be suppressed.

Rich: It could be futile even to try. He says asking them to put a lid on it might single him and Jack out more, which I assume is based on some kind of experience. So unless there is evidence to the contrary as well—an instance in which they exhibited the ability to handle a newbie with care—I’d tread lightly there for fear of waking the bear that is made up of our writer’s family, collectively, like Voltron.

Stoya: Or he’d feel weirder being the exception. …

Read their entire chat about this letter here.

Dear Prudence, Emily Yoffe, 2014

My in-laws are kind, delightful people, and I enjoy spending time with them, except on Christmas. Their family tradition is for everyone to take turns unwrapping gifts. Last year, we unwrapped gifts for almost two hours, stopped for lunch, and then unwrapped gifts for another hour after lunch. Each person receives a modest number of gifts, so it’s not quantity that is causing the problem. The recipient is expected to carefully unpackage and read product instructions before moving along to the next gift, and, when there are no instructions or awkward packaging, the recipient will wax poetic for 10 minutes about how the sweater reminds them of their deceased grandmother’s beloved cocker spaniel, etc. My husband agrees it is out of hand, but we don’t know how to politely speed things along. Any advice, or do we just need to keep quiet?

This year you two should insist going first. Then give each other Fitbits, put them on, explain how you both are so excited about getting into better shape that you’re going to use them right now—then sprint out the door and don’t return until the excruciating performance-art project “Endless Unwrapping” is done. Your husband needs to have a talk with his parents and say the gift exchange needs to be speeded along, that an hour is more than sufficient (insanely so) for this, and he’ll be in charge of keeping things moving. If your in-laws insist on this torturous ritual, it’s perfectly fine for you two to say you’ve got to stretch your legs, then don’t make a return appearance until it’s time for lunch.