Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. For this week’s Thanksgiving edition Dan Kois, a Slate writer and editor, will be filling in as Prudie. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
My partner and I celebrate Thanksgiving with their family. Their aunt and uncle host and cook the meal, which they love to do. The issue is that their aunt and uncle are not clean. They pet their dog while cooking and don’t wash their hands. They drop food on the floor and put it back without telling anyone. They cough on the food. The dishes they use are “washed,” but still have food crusted on them. The list goes on.
It seems like they’ve gotten worse over the years. With COVID and the fact that guests have contracted norovirus multiple times in the past after the meal, I just can’t do it anymore. I’m totally grossed out at the idea of eating their food.
How do we deal with this? They won’t give up hosting—and it would still be a problem if they did anyway because they behave this way in other people’s homes. They do not handle criticism well and have a “whatever, it’s fine” attitude about cleaning, in general, so my casual attempts at mentioning food safety have gone nowhere. I don’t think they’ll change their habits no matter what we say, they’ve been like this forever! Thanksgiving is a big deal in my partner’s family and despite the lack of cleanliness, we love getting together with them. We love this aunt and uncle, we just don’t love eating with them. Is there any way to handle this without just saying goodbye to celebrating together?
—Dirty Little Secret
I have scoured your letter, as thoroughly as you might scour a plate, for evidence that any of the other extended family members, the cousins, parents, and nieces, are as grossed out by the situation as you are. After all, they have, I presume, attended Aunt Grimy and Uncle Muck’s Thanksgiving dinner much longer than you have. Is your opinion shared by any of the other guests? For that matter, is it shared by your partner, who has also been attending Thanksgiving for quite some time? (Your letter employs the royal we quite cannily.)
Perhaps your partner’s beloved aunt and uncle are exhibiting truly dangerous food-prep faux pas you have not mentioned: using the turkey baster for nefarious purposes, or allowing the dog to stuff the turkey. But what you describe as “gross” seems to me totally normal home-chef behavior—a little messier than is perfect, but basically par for the course. You’re not going to get COVID from a little dog hair, and you’re just as likely to get norovirus from your toddler cousin as from the chef. The very structure of a Thanksgiving dinner—family arrives from near and far, each unit potentially bringing their local flus and COVID strains—makes the holiday home a petri dish of contagion, irrespective of how clean the dishes are. That’s the price we pay for seeing the people who are dear to us—the people who continue to love us even when we bring home a partner who walks straight into the kitchen and starts casually critiquing our cleanliness.
You have three options. You could stop going to Grimy and Muck’s. You could volunteer to take everyone out to a restaurant for Thanksgiving, after diligent research into the health grades of every nearby eatery. Or you could suck it up and deal with it. I recommend arriving early, rolling up your sleeves, and volunteering to wash the dishes to your satisfaction. Keep your comments to yourself.
How to Get Advice From Prudie
How do couples decide where to spend the holidays? I (she/her) got engaged to my fiancé “Fred” in May, and after going home to our respective families for Christmas the past four years, we’d like to spend December 25 together for the first time. My family is about a two-hour drive in-state, while Fred’s family is a six-hour drive a few states over, so we can’t split the day.
My own plans have always rotated since I have divorced parents, and we’ve always done Thanksgiving with each other since neither side is passionate about it (2018 was with my dad and stepmom, 2019 Fred’s family, 2020 stayed home for COVID, 2021 Fred’s again). Both households feel strongly about Christmas though, with special traditions for Christmas Eve, and we each have a sister who’s die-hard about family time for the festivities. We also have December birthdays that ought to be celebrated too while in town—Fred’s mom, my mom, and myself. We plan to promise whoever doesn’t get the day itself that they get Thanksgiving this year, and next year we’ll be with them, but Fred and I both feel terrible about disappointing whoever doesn’t get the first rotation. Is there anything we can do to make this easier on ourselves and our relatives?
—Holiday Travel Tension
Congratulations on your engagement! Fred sounds great. What you are describing here is an extremely basic, standard, non-dramatic holiday-splitting decision of the sort faced by almost every partnered couple I know. I promise you that everyone in your family—even the die-hard sisters—already understands that you will be spending some holidays with them and some elsewhere. No one will bat an eye when you tell them “We’re spending this Christmas at Fred’s house, and next Christmas at your house.” Honestly, they might not even care about Thanksgiving, and you might consider proposing, instead, a family vacation as a Christmas replacement.
But will you be OK with that? Because if this question belies your own anxieties about spending Christmas away from your homestead, lots of people split up the Christmas season just fine, especially in the early years of a partnership. Might Fred’s family, for example, be excited to welcome you on Christmas evening, after you spend Christmas Eve and morning in your hometown? It would require some rejiggering of those traditions, of course—something that, again, most normal, loving relatives would be happy to do, in order to see their beloveds during the holiday season. Bonus: Flying on Christmas Day is often quite cheap.
But my overall advice for you is, whichever route you take, have faith that your families will understand that with love and commitment comes a different set of considerations at holiday time. Perhaps one day you’ll have children, and will want to host the holidays yourself, which will involve a whole new set of traditions. That will be fine, too.
Or maybe someone will be a huge jerk about it. If so, tell them Prudie says they’re being a moron.
I have a very large, very close extended family. My parents both have several siblings and normally everyone (spouses, in-laws’ families, family friends, etc.) is invited to every holiday gathering. Our family always splits holidays the same way. For example, Aunt A does Easter every year, Uncle B does the Fourth of July, Aunt C does Thanksgiving, etc. and it has been like this for as long as anyone can remember.
My parents always do Christmas. Obviously, the last two years were a bit different. Most of my relatives took COVID very seriously, so naturally, holiday plans were canceled and we did small celebrations with immediate family and had a group Zoom call after dinner. My parents unfortunately believe COVID is some sort of hoax and didn’t host Christmas only because they were angry that no one else did their assigned holidays.
This year though, with most people vaccinated, holidays have resumed, and Aunt C will be hosting Thanksgiving at her house for the first time since 2019. I thought everything was fine and the plan was we were all going there, but my mother called me and my siblings and told us we were forbidden from going to Aunt C’s house for Thanksgiving because she hadn’t done it for the previous two years and it “wasn’t fair.” She also said she wasn’t doing Christmas this year or “ever again” because the last two years were canceled, and only her immediate family will be invited over for Christmas.
I tried to get to the bottom of her thought process, such as that my parents are getting older and maybe don’t want to host as many people, but I don’t think that’s the case because at this point even though it’s held at her house, my siblings, cousins, and I, and our spouses, do all of the cleaning, cooking, and prep work before and after. The event is just physically held at my parent’s house because they have such a big space. My mom is still insistent that no one goes to Aunt C’s house for Thanksgiving, and that if we go, we won’t be invited to her house for Christmas.
I’m torn. I love these family gatherings, and my kids and even my wife are really looking forward to Thanksgiving. The last two years/holiday seasons have been tough for us because we’re all so close. I think my mom is being a brat and I can’t believe she just wants to sit at home with my dad by themselves on Thanksgiving rather than seeing the rest of the family. Do I go to Thanksgiving and get banned from Christmas or tell my mom to get a grip?
Let’s go ahead and make a Dear Prudence holiday rule: It is bad behavior to use a holiday invitation as a way to reward or punish a relative. That is not what holiday invitations are for. Holiday gatherings are about spending time with people we love while getting mildly hammered on nogs. (I recommend the Puerto Rican coquito, el rey of nog-like cocktails.) Anyone who extends, withdraws, or refuses a holiday invitation as a way of getting back at someone else is violating the spirit of all winter holidays and sure needs to grow their heart a couple of sizes, stat.
Your mom needs to get a grip, and unfortunately, you are the one whose opinion she is most likely to take into account because you’re the one whose presence likely means the most to her. Do not allow her to hold your holiday season hostage to her anti-vax, anti-Christmas nonsense. Tell her, very sweetly, that you understand that she is upset, but that Thanksgiving, and your family—her family!—are important to you. Tell her you hope she comes to Thanksgiving and changes her mind about Christmas. My guess is that, faced with the idea of not seeing you and her grandchildren on either holiday, she will change her tune.
If she doesn’t, you’ll have choices to make in the future, with a mom who’s proven herself to put her own conspiratorial beliefs above her family. That will be difficult on all sorts of fronts, I expect, not just Christmas. But don’t allow her to hijack the holidays; you’ll just be leaving yourself open to further threats down the road.
What is the verdict on unvaccinated families and the holidays? We are visiting my in-laws for the holidays. They are vaccinated (yay!) and their daughter and her family are vaccinated (yay!), but their son’s family is not. Last year, we absolutely refused to spend the holidays with the unvaccinated family members due to our own kids being under 5 and ineligible for vaccines. Now our kids are vaccinated, but I am still uncomfortable knowingly spending time with unvaccinated people. Plus, we are trying for a baby and are experiencing secondary infertility so our doctor recommended continued mask use in offices, enclosed public spaces, etc. Should we “create drama” by wearing masks and social distancing from the unvaccinated family members? Refuse again? Or what? If I am being uncompromising, I’d like to tell them I still don’t feel comfortable (and I am not sure I ever will—this family knowingly endangered others, including Grandma who is undergoing cancer treatment. It is so hard for me to not view them as deeply selfish). Generally, I am respectful of other people’s choices even if I vehemently disagree, but this is still a wrench for me.
—How Do We Live in This Post-COVID World?
How do we live? We make a series of guesses based on incomplete evidence, in the absence of a supportive social and political structure. That is to say, just how we have been living since March of 2020.
Your doctor has told you to wear a mask in enclosed spaces. If you truly wish to convey to your unvaccinated family members your respect for the scientific consensus, you’ll follow those instructions, not to cause drama, but because your doctor advised it. Perhaps your brother-in-law will be a pain about it; a serene “We trust our doctor” is the only response you owe him.
But I also urge you to follow Prudie’s Holiday Rule: Don’t use holiday non-attendance as a way to punish relatives for past infractions. I understand your frustration about the past few years; many of us feel it with regards to the people in our lives who have behaved badly. But holiday get-togethers have always been about hoping the people we love will find their best selves, and that we will as well.
My husband has invited his father and stepmother to our house for Thanksgiving week. He felt bad and told me right after he invited them. They are his only family left, and I understand that he wants our toddler to get to know at least one grandparent (I have no parents). I made all the plans on how to get them here, bought the plane tickets, and figured out the logistics.
Here is my issue. My husband’s dad was an abusive man who made his childhood miserable. The stories he told me about his childhood makes me very upset. I experienced my own abuse and was put in foster care, but he never was. They did not talk for 20 years and were not invited to our wedding. However, after having a child something shifted in my husband and he wants to give his father another chance. Besides not letting my toddler be alone with him, I have a hard time masking my emotions. How can I get through a week of letting them live in our house, knowing what he did to my husband? I already cringe after he ends every call with “I love you so much.” My husband doesn’t respond back, but it’s just all so awkward.
—Can I Punch an Old Man?
What a heartbreaking situation. We often wish we could go back in time, find our loved ones as the children they once were, and protect them. You know, and care about, the harm done to your husband by his father. You feel a reasonable and healthy desire to defend him from this person, especially as you couldn’t when he was a boy.
Yet your husband has far more reason to resent this man than you do, and it is your husband who took the initiative and extended the invitation. It was important to him. (You, for some reason, did all the logistical work; consider encouraging your husband to do some of that crap!) You owe it to the man you love to encourage his attempt to rebuild bridges.
Try to keep an open mind about this visit. People can change a lot over decades. You will no doubt be fully alert for signs of trouble, ill intent, or abuse. But try to be just as alert for those signs of change and evidence of goodwill. Be proud of your husband; it’s a brave thing he’s doing, and he deserves your support and love. The time may come when you can protect him as you couldn’t, back then. But you may also get to watch him rebuild a relationship that matters to him.
Thanksgiving is the only time I spend with both of my adult children and their spouses. (We all live in different states.) My daughter, “Mary” has always believed that I favor her older brother, and when he was younger he believed I favored his sister. Practically since birth, Mary has always demanded a lot of attention. My son is a very quiet person and found her constant demand for attention overwhelming. I did my best to give each child what they needed and to be as fair as possible. As adults, I go out of my way to be fair. If I help one buy a car, I give the same amount of money to the other.
Yet my 30-year-old daughter is always looking for, and pointing out ways, she sees me favoring her brother. Some examples she’s given are if I am greeting them and I hug him first or if I make coffee and pour him a cup first. I want to enjoy the only time we all spend together without walking on eggshells. I’ve tried talking to her about this for years but she believes what she believes. Last Thanksgiving, when she brought it up I jokingly replied that she was wrong; I love the dog best! I’ve spoken to my son, DIL, and SIL to see if I am doing anything to perpetuate her belief and they have all assured me that I am not. I want to enjoy my holiday with my kids without worrying about who gets pie first. Is there anything I can do or say to make my daughter believe I love them all best?
—The Dog Is My Favorite
Dear My Favorite,
No, there is nothing you can do. She has made up her mind. The mischief-maker in me wishes you simply told your daughter, “I used to love both of you equally, until you became such a pill.” Better, perhaps, to simply think that, and instead say, at the first claim of unfairness, “You are much too old to be obsessing about perceived unfairness. Stop making my holiday unpleasant, please.”
Your dog sounds great. Give the dog the whole pie.
Thanksgiving has always been a huge source of stress for my mother, and I don’t have one memory of her actually enjoying it. Since my brother and sister-in-law moved, my house is the only one feasible to hold everyone (five siblings, spouses, and all the kids). I told everyone I would be catering the meal, but they would be welcome to make a dessert or side dish. Reactions were extremely mixed.