Home for the holidays -- whether you like it or notby Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
This time of year is chock full of traditions, like singing Christmas carols or frying up latkes. Then there's the annual ritual that puts so many on edge: the family gathering.
St. Paul, Minn. — This is the time of year when society expects families to spend time together. They can exchange presents if they choose. Or spin dreidels. The one thing they're required to do, though, is launch insensitive inquiries at one another. Or at least that's what it can seem like.
"You get tired of being asked the same questions, you know, like, 'Why aren't you married?' And you have to stifle the reflex to want to ask people why they aren't divorced," says St. Paul's Jim Leinfelder, who says awkward family interactions are as much a part of the holiday season as spiked eggnog and cable TV marathons of "It's a Wonderful Life."
And he's certainly not alone. Abbi Allen of Minneapolis finds herself fielding the same bothersome questions year after year after year.
"Well, there's definitely the vegetarian question: 'What do you eat?' It's like you've ruined their meal in a small way. Or if you bring your own vegetarian things, it's like having diabetic candy when everyone else is having real pie. It's like, 'Ewww.'"
For many, dietary interrogations are merely the beginning. There are also the judgments disguised as questions, like, "Just how long does it take to get a bachelor's degree these days?" or "How much do they pay you at that volunteer job of yours?" Then there's the always popular, "Now, when will you be starting a family?"
There are, of course, those who make a concerted effort to avoid uncomfortable conversations, those who vigilantly sidestep common hot button topics like religion or politics. But evading controversy isn't as easy as it seems.
"I just wasn't aware of how far religion and politics extended into the lives of certain family members. So even when I think I'm on a safe topic, it turns out it's not."
That's Lisa. She didn't want to give her last name for fear of hurting her family's feelings.
"There are so many different personalities at the family get-together that anything could be a false move. You know, it would be a big success if somebody left with no tears or tantrums happening."
If you think Lisa's under pressure, imagine the anxiety Abbi Allen feels when Advent season rolls around.
"We have a slideshow."
Every Christmas, Abbi and her siblings are each expected to present a narrative of what they've done over the last 12 months -- complete with pictures.
"It's really hard when you bring a boyfriend home and you say, 'Uh, you have to prepare a presentation for this.' It would be much easier to bring some fruitcake, but you have to put together a PowerPoint for this. It's awkward."
"It's cool in theory, but you're always feel like it's a sibling throwdown. I've got this one brother who's just golden. And I hate having to go after him because he's like, 'I went to Belize and built this building. And this is my girlfriend in Africa who's saving the world.' And then I have to come up."
Allen says she may wear a power suit during this year's presentation, just to kick things up a notch.
Like screaming children on Santa's lap, the uncomfortable family gathering is a holiday tradition that's likely here to stay.
But with just a little planning, says Jim Leinfelder, you may be able to dodge your relatives' most annoying rituals.
"If you're worried about being asked a lot of annoying questions, you should arrive armed with some peremptory questions of your own. Like, 'What's going on with you? Are you still doing this? Are you still doing that?'"
If the conversation still turns to, say, your weight or your finances or just what the heck you're doing with your life, consider Abbi Allen's advice.
"The best thing to do is create divisional tactics. There's the imaginary cell phone, like, 'Oh is that my phone?' And then I wander off saying, 'I think it's my phone.' Or try becoming very fascinating with something, like, 'Is that a cyst on my dog?' Or bowel pain, 'My stomach, I got to go.' You'll find anything that's just a little awkward."
Then there's Lisa's approach.
"After stressing out for seven or eight years, I thought, 'I could just not go. What would that be like?' And as it turns out, it's pretty good."
Some people like to be home for Christmas. Lisa - she's opts to be there, as the songs goes, only in her dreams.
"I love my family. It's just I love them better away from the holidays."
- All Things Considered, 12/22/2008, 5:50 p.m.