Every year, there’s a sense of anxiety that accompanies the cooling weather, return of televised football and proliferation of creative vegetable casseroles. We’re referring, of course, to that unmistakable combination of awkwardness and heartburn that is a family holiday: the interesting meals, uncomfortable conversations and kindred togetherness of Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers.
There’s a reason Chevy Chase made a successful career out of portraying family gatherings. Coming together with your own relatives, extended family and in-laws can get a little dramatic.
In an effort to alleviate the winter anxiety and help make this year’s gatherings more enjoyable, here are a few keys to surviving the holidays at home:
Master the greeting
You walk in, scope the room and approach the first of several dozen relatives you haven’t seen in a year. Do you extend a hand for a handshake? Is it appropriate to open your arms for a hug? What about a simple fist bump?
Although etiquette varies from family to family, follow these basic guidelines to minimize the awkwardness of initial physical contact:
The Hug. This one is most acceptable for family members of the opposite gender. As a rule of thumb, the older the relative, the more likely they are expecting a hug. (If they’re over 75, you’ll probably also find yourself on the receiving end of a wet cheek kiss, so prepare.)
If you’re not a big “hugger,” try to approach each family member very slowly. You can use those extra seconds to read body language and ascertain if the person is bringing a full embrace—or if a friendly side-hug/back-pat would suffice.
The Handshake. Visiting in-laws for the first time? Want to make a good impression on your new father-in-law and his tough-guy brothers? Have an emotionally distant cousin you never really speak to anymore? Good news! You can’t go wrong with the handshake. It’s versatile, formal and, most of all, safe. Of course, if you have grossly misread the situation and need to quickly abort the handshake and demonstrate the desired intimacy, there’s always the …
Handshake/Hug Super-Combo. This one is for the unsure moments. Extend the hand for the shake, but as you approach, if the look on their face is telling you, “Really—a handshake?” quickly grab their hand and throw your other hand around their back, embracing firmly. It’s always good to say something in their ear toward the end of this maneuver (preferably something that ends with the word “bro”), like, “So good to see you, bro!” or, “Merry Christmas, bro” or, “I hardly recognized you with that sweet mustache, bro!”
The Kiss on the Cheek. Generally try to steer clear of this one. (Though if you’re confident enough to actually touch your mouth to another family member’s face, more power to you.) Exceptions to the “steer clear” rule: 1) Your Thanksgiving dinner coincides with a big fat Greek wedding; 2) Your in-laws are in the mafia.
Know your food
Along with awkward greetings and uncomfortable questions, another hallmark of holiday family gatherings is the massive consumption of homemade food. Staples of these Viking-style feasts include everything from creative casseroles (at least three of which are required to contain marshmallow as a primary ingredient) to excessively layered cakes to a turkey weighing more than several of the children in the family.
But unlike in years past—when your job was just to show up and not misbehave like your unruly cousins—now that you’re an adult, you need to contribute to the dinner spread. If you’re like many twentysomethings getting their real world feet under them, cooking extravagant side dishes is probably not your forte. But if you’re going to make it through the holidays, you need to master at least one dish, even if the extent of your culinary knowledge stems from watching Man vs. Food.
Here are some easy suggestions:
Macaroni and cheese with—wait for it—cut-up hot dogs! Any competent adult can throw together some Easy Mac, but adding a little something extra shows you know what you’re doing in the kitchen. Just slice up a couple of dogs and stir them in with the mac-and-cheese. Your family will be impressed.
“Ramen Surprise.” Boil the Ramen (any flavor will do, but picante is an especially delicious and unexpected choice), then add the “surprise” ingredient—you guessed it—cut-up hot dogs!
Entenmann’s cake. Here’s the key on this one: Take it out of the box and put it on a dish you own. They’ll never know it’s not homemade.
Turducken. Want to be a real hero at your holiday gathering? Nothing feeds a hungry family like a chicken-stuffed-inside-a-duck-stuffed-inside-a-turkey.
Avoid the Clark Griswold Meltdown
There’s a reason family holidays have a reputation for inducing stress. Inevitably, the combination of traveling, preparing lavish meals and seeing people you’ve known your whole life for the first time in almost a year leads to anxiety.
Even so, the last thing anyone wants is to be the one who has the public meltdown in front of the entire family. We’ve all seen it go down: A conversation starts off innocently enough—about political preferences, the economy or your recent string of unfortunate life decisions. Then, out of nowhere, it goes too far. Dishes are slammed, old arguments are rehashed and a series of regrettable things are said in front of the elderly and small children present.
No one wants to be that guy. Sure, it might feel good to get some things off your chest (a la the Festivus airing of grievances), but in a few years’ time, your little outburst will be remembered more as a joke than a confession. (“Remember that time Uncle Steve freaked out and threw the turkey down the stairs after everyone complained that he’d undercooked it? That was hilarious!”)
This holiday season, if you feel the stress mounting and you know you’re just minutes away from completely wigging out, take a deep breath, walk to the dessert table and tear into an unnaturally large piece of pumpkin pie. You’ll feel better.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all had the grand illusion of ditching—to forgo the travel and the stress and the family drama, to just chill at home, put on the Macy’s Parade and eat some takeout Boston Market. (Similar to the little-seen Tim Allen vehicle Christmas with the Kranks, where he and Jamie Lee Curtis decide to skip Christmas with the family and go on a Caribbean cruise. As you may have assumed—because this is Tim Allen—hilarity fails to ensue.)
But ask anyone who has missed a holiday with their family and they’ll tell you, it’s just not the same. Christmas and Thanksgiving without family ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Even if you’ve always considered these gatherings, with their requisite awkward greetings, uncomfortable questions and sketchy side dishes, a necessary evil—and sometimes a source of yearlong dread—once you’re away from it, you’ll remember more than the painful drama. You’ll remember the laughter, the love and the inviting smell of fresh, homemade food. In the end, holidays aren’t about you and your comfort zone. Family is about the good and the bad—it’s about being together no matter what.
In a way, the holidays are like a lot of things involving family—there are plenty of moments of awkwardness and goofiness, but when you’re away from them, you realize most of the memories are good ones.
That’s the thing about families; too often, you don’t realize how much they mean to you until you’re apart. This Thanksgiving and Christmas, relish the awkward moments and try to laugh at the drama. Enjoy time with your family, even if it means eating that marshmallow casserole.
This article originally appeared in RELEVANT magazine. It’s only a piece of the whole thing, so to read more and about a million (not really) other great (really) articles, you should probably subscribe. Plus, subscriptions make great stocking stuffers.