If you’ve made as many trips around the sun as I have, your holiday gathering experiences have run the gamut from wonderful to unbearable.
There are times when getting together provides great comfort and joy – the chance to relive childhood memories, regain the closeness with your siblings that perhaps you’ve lost over the years, and reconnect in a Hallmark Channel kind of way.
Other times, however, you wish you had a chainsaw so that you could cut through the drywall, race to the nearest vehicle, hotwire it, and then head to parts unknown.
Once you’re several states away you start a new life, and ultimately join the federal witness protection program.
Thing is, you don’t know from one visit to the next whether you’ll remember it for all the right reasons or all the wrong ones.
It’s a crapshoot, depending largely on your mood, the mood of those around you, and how long the gathering lasts.
So with Thanksgiving over (mine was great, thanks) and Christmas coming soon, I’ve decided to put together a list of four “holiday life hacks” for your next meeting with kith and kin.
I’m not saying I’ve utilized all of them in the past, but I’m not saying I haven’t.
CHOOSE THE TOPIC OF CONVERSATION
You probably already know that it’s never, ever a good idea to discuss politics or religion at get-togethers, especially when you’re confident your feelings do not align with many others in attendance.
That being the case, it’s important to control the narrative. I’ve found that discussing the Paedophryne amanuensis is a good way to steer the conversation in a non-controversial direction.
“Hey, Scott,” screams Aunt Willadeene, who hasn’t seen me in 43 years. “Lord, I haven’t seen you in 43 years. You’ve grown!”
“Indeed I have, Aunt Willadeene,” I say. “But you know who hasn’t grown? The Paedophryne amanuensis.”
“The Paedophryne amanuensis.”
“Is that your wife?”
“Oh, no, my wife is Paedophryne Mary. Paedophryne amanuensis is a species of frog from Papua, New Guinea. It’s less than half an inch long and generally considered the world’s smallest known vertebrate.”
“Is that so?”
“Yep. It was discovered in 2009 by a herpetologist and his assistant … the helpertologist.”
“Well, I’ll be. Changing the subject, but I just bought a 50-day survival food bucket from that TV evangelist, Jim Bakker.”
“You know what doesn’t need much food to survive? The Paedophryne amanuensis.”
At this point Aunt Willadeene will move on to the next relative, and you can be sure she won’t be sharing the story of Paedophryne amanuensis. Thus, you can tell it all over again when Uncle Leonard waddles your way.
PASSING THE TIME
At good family gatherings, you have so much fun you lose track of time.
At bad family gatherings, time stands still.
When you’ve run out of things to say and are bored to tears, you have to seek out other options.
Back in the old days I’d smuggle a book in, which serves a couple of purposes. One, you have something to read and two, if there are children around it gives you a chance to gather them in one spot and have story time.
I still remember the looks on the little ones’ faces a decade or so ago when I read them excerpts from Sylvia Path’s “The Bell Jar.”
Fortunately most of us now have smart phones, so if the evening gets too mind-numbing you can do everything from watch a ballgame on your sports app to argue on Twitter with someone you’ve never met and never will meet to buy a used couch on eBay.
But always make sure your phone is charged before you go to any party because if it runs out of juice, you’ll have to figure out something else to do until it’s time to go.
Once when my phone died, I stared at a painting of a duck for more than an hour.
KNOW WHEN TO GO
How long to stay? This has been cussed and discussed since the first Neanderthal family picnic 40,000 years ago when the Jones side of the clan cut out early because they promised to take the kids skull bowling. You don’t want to be rude and leave too quickly, but you certainly don’t want to hang around for hours and hours.
In some instances, I don’t see anything wrong with walking in with your own go box, making a plate, waving at everyone, and then leaving. Less is more, in my opinion.
For some reason I’ve had trouble convincing others to get on board with this, so I find myself staying much longer at any given party.
Two to three hours is the standard minimum I’m told, but in virtually all cases you’ll find couples who’ll “signal” each other when it’s time to go. Perhaps it’s a wink or a tug of the earlobe, or maybe you’ll just ease your way to the exit and then apologize for having to leave so soon.
My signal is to get in the car and drive away.
It’s abrupt, but efficient.
BRING YOUR OWN TRASH CAN
It’s unconventional, but it can be your best friend.
When you arrive at the gathering you might be bringing food, gifts or both, so sometimes if you’re seen with a small trash can people won’t even notice.
For those that do, all you have to say is, “Well, there’s gonna be wrapping paper everywhere and so many paper plates, I just figured we’d have another place to put the garbage.”
But that’s not what it’s for – not at all.
No, sometimes family functions are so full of dysfunction that nothing you can say or do will save the day.
So once Aunt Willadeene starts arguing with her daughter about religion and Uncle Leonard begins yelling at his son about politics you simply drop some paper into the trash can and toss a match onto the paper. This starts a small, contained fire which creates a diversion that startles everyone. Those who are arguing will immediately quit so they can tend to the blaze.
Once it’s doused you’ll be long gone because you slipped away during the chaos.
I hope your next holiday gathering is the best ever, and there’ll be no reason for you to utilize any of these hacks. But they’re available if you need them, and I hope you’ll consider them my gift to you.
Yet if you only remember one, make it the trash can.
When dealing with families, sometimes you have to fight ire with fire.