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Carolyn Hax: Holiday hostess chafes at uneven workload

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Dear Carolyn:

Our family includes 20-plus people, most on my husband’s side. For years my mother or I hosted Christmas, and my husband’s mother or sister hosted Thanksgiving. Five years ago, my sister-in-law announced she was neither attending nor hosting Thanksgiving. Her family of four still attends Christmas, as does my husband’s brother’s family (seven people) who live across the state. My mother-in-law is now too old to host.

This leaves my mother, 72, hosting the smaller gathering every Thanksgiving (inviting my mother-in-law) and me hosting every Christmas for 20-plus people.

I’m having trouble with why my sister-in-law can’t have us over for Thanksgiving. She doesn’t work; I have a career. Her children are grown; mine are still living at home. I am happy to host Christmas, but I think she should host Thanksgiving instead of my elderly mother. I don’t think absenting herself from Thanksgiving means never having to reciprocate for Christmas.

Part of the reason this burns me up is that my husband’s family has always treated me like I’m “difficult” and my sister-in-law is the “nice” one. I think I’m being pretty nice, having everyone over when they never invite me anywhere! Is there anything I can say to try to get her to step up? AM I being difficult?

Anonymous

No, just a bit myopic.

I certainly understand your frustration. But you’ve essentially roasted this down to, “I’m stuck with Christmas, so stick her with Thanksgiving” — when that’s treating things as compulsory that aren’t, and making decisions for others that aren’t yours to make.

Your sister-in-law had every right to quit Thanksgiving. It’s her time, her kitchen, her choice. Before you argue that it wasn’t all about her since it heaped the work onto your mom, remember: Your mom didn’t have to step into the breach. She could have said instead, “Maybe it’s time to downsize/go to a restaurant.”

I appreciate that busting a “We do this every year!” tradition is sacrilege to some people, and heartbreaking particularly for heads of family like your mom and mother-in-law. I also get your scapegoat concerns.

But none of these changes the fact that your sister-in-law doesn’t make you cook, you choose to. You have, perhaps reflexively, determined it’s more important to keep accommodating 20-plus guests than it is to invite blame for canceling Christmas.

Know this: You are just as entitled to quit Christmas as your sister-in-law was entitled to quit Thanksgiving. If you don’t want to quit, then own that; don’t distribute blame.

What I also suggest you don’t touch with a 10-foot turkey baster is the idea that your sister-in-law’s employment, maternal responsibilities and status in the family — on their own or relative to yours — have any place in this discussion. Her choices are hers to make, and yours are yours, end of story.

In fact, you’ll get a lot further in your quest to rid yourself of the “difficult” tag if you can get to the point where you can say to your sister-in-law, in all sincerity — even if you never speak the actual words — “I don’t blame you for opting out.”

Holidays are microcosms of life. You figure out what you want, gauge what others want, try to reconcile them, then attend the result in good cheer.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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