Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence': The holiday edition
Monday, December 14, 2009; 1:00 PM
Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, was online Monday, Dec. 14 to take your questions on manners, morals and more.
This week Emily answered all of your burning holiday questions and prepared you for the office parties, holiday get-togethers with your in-laws and gift-giving conundrums that await.
A transcript follows.
You may also read previous Live Q&As with Prudie.
Emily Yoffe: Welcome to the holiday-theme chat. Let me warn you that you should take my Christmas advice with a grain of latke since I'm Jewish. However, I was raised in a secular home and grew up with Christmas trees, stockings, and Santa. So even though I no longer celebrate Christmas, I do have wonderful memories and some understanding of what the day means.
Minneapolis, Minn.: Hi Prudie,
We got terrible news this week. Our 4-year-old lab is dying of metastatic cancer. His time left with us is measured in weeks. I'm absolutely heartbroken; he's young and I thought we had a lot more time.
We've been planning to go to my Mother-in-Law's for Christmas for several months. But she's several hundred miles and an 8 hour drive away (provided the weather's good). I'm not sure I want to put the dog in the car and drive him all that way, not to mention risk having something terrible happen while we're guests in her house.
Her suggestion is to leave the dog in a kennel. Prudie he's dying! I don't want to leave him alone in a kennel, on Christmas. She thinks I'm being irrational - "he's just a dog" but I feel like I have many more Christmases to spend with her than my pooch.
What do I do?
Emily Yoffe: You don't say your mother-in-law is refusing to host the dog. If she is amenable to it, and the dog is good on car rides and can sleep most of the way, that might be the best compromise. Failing that, perhaps you and your husband could be apart this Christmas and he can return home, while you take care of the dog.
I understand how wrenching this is for you, but you are pretty far away from your mother-in-laws, and it would be a huge disappoint to her not to see at least some of you for Christmas. And while you may assume you have many, many more Christmases ahead with her, as you know from your own situation with your dog, you can never predict what will happen. I agree a kennel is out, but try to find a way to care for your dog and not leave your mother-in-law without her family at Christmas.
Washington Post-land: Our paper carrier kindly gave us a Christmas card (he can tell we celebrate Christmas from the type of bricks on our house, I guess, or maybe from the shingle color) with an addressed return envelope for a gift for him. The return envelope seems crass to us . . . we recycled it. Bah humbug.
Emily Yoffe: He's not selecting you because he knows you celebrate Christmas. Our house says we don't and we got cards from all our carriers (we get three papers a day). I gladly write a check (I give them $75 each) for their excellent service. Your newspaper carrier gets up in the middle of the night every night, no matter what the weather, and has a paper on your doorstep every morning. He or she deserves a bonus. If the return envelope seems crass, your bill should have a line on it where you can write in an amount for a tip.
The way the industry is going, your carriers might have to find another line of work one day -- so appreciate what they do for you now all year.
Bethesda, Md.: Dear Prudie,
My husband's family refuses to make plans before any major holidays, often waiting until a day or two before the "big day" to decide at what house to congregate. It's usually ours.
For six years I've been trying to roll with it, but now that we have children, it's gotten really hard to do. I often wind up being given two days' notice to prepare a holiday meal for 10 people, while juggling my family's plans - which are always set weeks in advance and somehow always get trampled because of his family's lack of planning.
Now Christmas is coming again. I've had it. I've asked my husband to follow up with his family about plans but have gotten no responses. I've told him that I think someone else should host the holiday. Is it acceptable to flat-out refuse to host my in-laws if they pull their usual routine again? I'm feeling willing to go to them (all local, btw), but I really don't want to host them anymore unless they can give us ample notice like normal human beings.
- On Strike
Emily Yoffe: Have they not caught on that this Christmas thing happens every year, oh, around December 25th? What with the, "Surprise! Christmas at your house this year! And boy, are we hungry." You have time now to put out the word that you can't -- and won't -- host this year, and that someone needs to step up. The family should then divide up the cooking duties so no one's Christmas is ruined. If you already have plans with your own family, go ahead and keep them. If your husband's crew can't get it together, they should stock up on the frozen turkey dinners so that they all don't go hungry.
Houston, Texas: Dear Prudie, My parents are divorced and both have been remarried for years. My step-mother unfortunately falls under the "wicked" category and made our teen years very challenging because she "didn't want to raise any more children." Over the years the relationship between my father, my brother and myself has been strained. We still see him on occasion and tend to get together briefly for birthday lunches and Christmas. Every year I struggle with what gift to give them. I hate for it to be impersonal considering he is my father, but I do not know him very well anymore, so it becomes difficult to pick a gift. What would you suggest a daughter get her father that she hardly knows and sees 3 times a year?
Emily Yoffe: It's a subject for another time, but I have long wondered about mature men who, after getting divorced, decide to try again with someone who resents and wants to wish away the children from his first marriage. Are these women that good in bed? What would prompt a man to put a new wife ahead of his relationship with his kids?
But, in answer to your question, I think there are two ways to go here. One is before the Christmas lunch to have a phone conversation and say that since all of you are adults and can provide for your own needs, you'd prefer the pleasure of just getting together instead of exchanging gifts. The other is to make a contribution to a charity in his name, and give him a certificate indicating what you've done.
Cinderelly, Cinderelly: My boyfriend and I entertain often, always in my apartment because it's more conveniently located. He's great at prepping food, getting the apartment set up, greeting guests, and so forth. He also always offers to help with the washing-up.
But when the party's over, he's all talk and no trousers. There's always one reason or another he can't (or won't) help - usually because he's too tipsy or sleepy, or his ride home is about to leave. So I seethe in the kitchen, feeling taken for granted and angry, while he starts coming up with ideas for the next gathering.
I have told him I have hostess fatigue and I am sick of doing all of the post-party washing-up, so he's coming over later today to finish up the dishes.
But beyond that, what am I supposed to do? I enjoy entertaining, and I don't mind dishes, so much as I mind the way he bails on his promises and thinks it's ok for me to pick up after him.
Emily Yoffe: The key here is something you said late in the letter, "I don't mind dishes." Some people hate it (I'm guessing your boyfriend is one), but I'm one of those people -- maybe like you -- who enjoys the relaxation of the post-party clean up more than the tension of the pre-party prep. So instead of trying to force him to do a duty he hates, take advantage of the fact that he's great on the prep and hosting duties. Tell him instead of fighting over this, you will tackle the clean up alone, but that means you'd like him to pitch in more with the cooking or making the canapes. Splitting the work doesn't mean each task has to be split 50-50, just that each person feels the split is equitable.
Tipping: They get paid for their work. I don't get a tip for doing my job. And the paper receivers shouldn't have to tip - that was just plain tacky!
Emily Yoffe: Hey, Scrooge, Merry Christmas!
Some people get tipped for their work, some don't. Newspaper carriers should.
Pregnancy and holidays: I just found out I'm pregnant (yay!!!!). My husband and I have been trying for a while and it finally happened (he wants 3 kids). I actually just found out today so my husband doesn't know yet.
I'd LOVE to keep this a surprise until Christmas and give him a bootie/bib but I'm not sure if this is the best thing to do since we'll be with his family.
I know I can keep the secret until Christmas since I won't see him this week (he's on travel at work).
Normally we don't exchange gifts, I also wanted to do something similar for both sets of parents to announce it.
Is this tacky to do for Christmas and keep the secret from my husband for 2 weeks?
Emily Yoffe: If you're getting your husband the set of golf clubs he always wanted, sure keep that a surprise. Your child is not a Christmas gift, so don't get all cutesy. Tell the man now that he's going to be a father. If you want to announce your wonderful news at Christmas to the rest of the family, that should make it a memorable holiday. Congratulations.
Re: Tipping: I don't know, I'm with the "shouldn't be expected to tip" people. The economy's terrible-we don't have any extra money at our us, that's for sure. My husband's been out of work for 3 months. So why should we tip someone who is lucky enough to still have a job?
Emily Yoffe: I tip the carrier generously because I'm in the business, my husband was, and it's an expense we expect each year. Of course, if you can't afford it, you can't afford it! However, if you still eat out occasionally, you know you're going to tip even if the waitress has a job, and you don't. If you can, you could put $5 in the envelope, thank the carrier for the great service, and say things are tough and you wish it could be more.
Holiday Harassment-phobe: Dear Prudie, I'm one of 8 young women at a male-owned and operated firm. The bosses have already started joking about playing Santa and having us sit on their lap at next week's Christmas lunch. The joking meant to be good-natured but is still a bit creepy. Any suggestions of good one-liners or come-backs to use if/when the holiday cheer gets a little too friendly?
Emily Yoffe: I like the line from "Tootsie" in which the Dustin Hoffman/Tootsie character suggest a boss like that get a close encounter with a cattle prod. You women should decide to present a united front and the next time the comment is made to any of you just say, "I'm sorry, that makes me really uncomfortable." If it continues, a couple of you need to sit down privately with the boss and say you know this is all meant in good fun, but sitting in Santa's lap is should be reserved for kids at the department store, and that the discussion of it in the office is putting a pall over your holiday spirit.
Cinderelly Follow-Up: I don't necessarily ENJOY post-party cleanup, dishes are smelly and crusty and gross. It's that I'd rather just get it done and not have dishes pile up for days. I also do most of the cooking and shopping and organizing.
What makes me extra-crazy is that he'll continually invite friends to hang out at my place, I'll say I'm burned out. So he says he'll do all the washing-up to get me to agree to host, and it JUST WON'T GET DONE.
I am not a caterer, my apartment is not a restaurant, and I feel like "the help."
Emily Yoffe: Then stop. His apartment may be more "inconveniently located" as you previously said, but it's a lot more conveniently located for your purposes. Say you will hostess when you feel like it. If he wants his friends to hang out, they'll have to do it at his place.
Pet Owner: Ok, I know I am going to come off as cold...but I am not. I have dealt with the death of two dogs this past year and have newly adopted two others.
The lab from the earlier post is dying and probably in pain. Do the dog a favor and put it to sleep prior to your trip. That way, you don't have to change your plans or kennel the dog or make a sick animal endure a long trip.
Spend the time with your family over the holidays and while there search the rescue websites in your area for another dog that needs a new home and a (clearly) loving home!
Emily Yoffe: I've heard follow-up from people saying, "Yes, take the dog," and people say, "No, it will be too hard on the dog."
I'm throwing this out here as a third alternative. It does sound cold, but I also think it's true that people tend to let their animals suffer for longer than necessary because they can't let go. But if the dog still seems relatively "okay", I don't think the owners would ever forgive themselves for putting it down what they would consider prematurely for convenience sake.
Should I feel guilty?: This year, as always, I will not be celebrating Christmas with my birth family. I choose to spend this and every holiday with my partner and her family.
I'll send gift cards to my mother, my sister and her kids. Usually I send a restaurant gift certificate to my mother, but this year she requested a gift card from a women's clothing store. So, in effect, I'm not sending anything for my stepfather.
He molested me and my sister for years. My mother is aware of this, but chooses to stay with him. My sister chooses to forget, if not forgive. I can do neither.
So why do I feel guilty that when my "box of gifts" is opened, there will be nothing for him?
Emily Yoffe: Too bad the box can't contain an arrest warrant. Nature has programmed children to love and attach to their caretakers even if their caretakers are monsters. Your guilt says that you are a sensitive, moral person. But you can also look at this situation objectively and realize this rapist should be in jail, not receiving Christmas presents from you. My question to all the family members who did and continue to look the other way is -- how do you know he's not destroying the next generation?
Baltimore, Md.: Dear Prudence, My boyfriend makes a decent amount of money and I know he's going to be spending a few hundred dollars on me this year (because he did the same last year when we weren't even together yet). I recently graduated beauty school and am still working on taking my boards, getting a job, etc. so I pretty much don't have a dollar to my name at the moment. I really have no idea what to do for him, I wish I could get creative and think of something to make for him or somewhere cheap but fun to take him but I just can't! I would feel terrible if I didn't get him anything like I did last year though he didn't seem to care because he knows I'm broke but I don't want to do that to him two years in a row. Any suggestions on what I could do this year?
-Broke as a joke
Emily Yoffe: You don't have to get creative, you just have to put your skills to use. You are a certified beauty professional. So make or buy a lovely card that entitles him a year's worth of free hair styling!
Milwaukee, Wis.: Hi Prudie,
My husband and I have had a rough first year of marriage, involving me discovering his three affairs and us undergoing extensive marital therapy-- the outcome of which is still not clear. However, since things have been better lately he has expressed a desire to join me visiting my family out of town over Christmas. This will be the first time everyone gets together since the marital problems surfaced.
My family is aware of all the details of our problems, and have been very supportive of me. My problem is, how do I make the reunion of my extended family and much-discussed formerly cheating husband over the holidays more comfortable for all parties involved?
Emily Yoffe: You've been married for one year and you've discovered three affairs (any undiscovered do you think?) and you're willing to give him another try? I couldn't even understand your perspective he played golf like Tiger Woods. But he doesn't, so it seems like he's sent you a pretty strong message about what to expect if you stay married to him.
If he joins you for the holidays you can't stage manage everyone. Tell your family you two are trying to work it out, and hope they will be civil. Tell him they all know about his behavior, and you hope they will be civil. And consider as you contemplate the year ahead whether you want to spend the rest of your life worrying about what your cheating husband is up to.
Washington, DC: I have a question about rotating holiday hosting duties. My parents are divorced, and I have two siblings. All of us live in the area. Traditionally, we have always had Christmas eve with my mother. A few years ago, my mother decided that she no longer wished to host Christmas eve dinner, so the decision was made to rotate hosting duties among the four (three kids + mom) of us. No problem.
Somehow, however, it was decided that the rotation schedule would include Thanksgiving duties as well. It works that one year, my two siblings each host Thanksgiving and then Christmas eve dinner. The next year, it my and my mother's turn to host Thanksgiving and Christmas eve dinner. The issue for me is that I do not eat Thanksgiving dinner with my family because I am out of town. That translates such that every other year, I host Christmas eve dinner, and my mother hosts Thanksgiving. Which also means that my mother will never host Christmas eve dinner under this system because I will never host Thanksgiving.
I miss having Christmas at my mom's house and frankly (selfishly?) wish to change the rotation so that there is a separate rotation for each meal. My siblings and mother can rotate Thanksgiving among them, and the four of us can rotate Christmas eve as well. Does this sound like a sensible solution or just plain pettiness?
Your thoughts and suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Happy Holidays!!!
-- Don't want to be a turkey
Emily Yoffe: Good for your mother for instituting this change so that new traditions can be born while she can enjoy them. Too many people hang on so long, that the "children" are all deep into middle age when death is there reason there is no more Christmas at the family home.
In your situation there's so much rotation that my head is spinning. Don't talk to me about this, talk to them! As long as you present this is a positive way -- "Hey, can we discuss making a possible change in the rotation?" and not in a whining, "Why can't I have Christmas at Mom's anymore," way, why shouldn't everyone be open to least having the conversation. If it turns out that this schedule works for everyone else the best, then accept that Christmas at Mom's has to remain a sweet memory.
Cincinnati, Ohio: My question is about toasting Christmas Eve with my wife's siblings and my daughters' cousins.
The cousins have grown up together including annual vacations and almost every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. This year none are legal drinking age (20, 20, 19, 18, 17, 17, & 15) but four are in college and two of those four drink with their friends and with their parents, and with friends and their parents together.
At our house, do we ASK the cousins or ASK their parents or DECIDE OURSELVES not to serve anyone under the legal age?
Personally I think 21 was a poor choice as a drinking age, (I liked 19 = as college versus high school) but I kind of respect the somewhat democratic process that chose it.
Luckily, only family will be there and no one will be driving after church and before morning.
Emily Yoffe: My understanding that the law on allowing minors to drink alcohol in their own home varies from state to state. I'm for the most stringent anti-drunk driving enforcement, but let's face it, it's a little silly to think that young people of college age shouldn't be entitled to drink. And instead of being exposed to alcohol through binge drinking with friends, having small amounts of alcohol at home with parents is a much better way to learn to handle liquor. I think you should ask the kids' parents, but explain your would only serve a single glass of champagne or wine to those under 21. And for those under 18, you might want to simply offer sparking cider, or restrict them to a sip.
Menlo Park, Calif.: Normally I'm a very generous tipper. Our newspaper delivery person makes no effort to deliver our paper to the walkway. Many days I have to crawl on my hands and knees under the car to retrieve it. I just don't feel like tipping him/her. Is that wrong?
Emily Yoffe: I've gotten many more comments about newspaper tipping -- with people saying they are not happy with the carrier so they don't tip as a protest. If the service is not good, you should complain during the year about papers not being bagged, or not delivered conveniently. Then when that improves, you will feel happy tipping for the good service. People who provide services to you all year -- unless there are extenuating circumstances, like your being broke -- should be tipped.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: I am a product of nerdy, intense people, and grew up not celebrating Christmas. Instead, my family hides out at Christmas time, and gets together soon thereafter. This is my Christmas tradition.
My husband grew up in a family that values Christmas, so now I go with him every other year to his family's house and endeavor to have the best possible attitude. And I expect to be able to continue some version of my Christmas tradition every other year, because I need it and it's a tradition my husband also finds soothing. But his parents, for the past decade, can't stop seeing the fact that we aren't doing anything as an opportunity for us to hang out with them every year.
I love my in-laws and I don't want to hurt them, but I really need to be alone and quiet at least every other Christmas, and I hate having to explain every year that this we aren't dissing them, that doing nothing is not a rejection. I have suggested more visits at other times (when frankly I am much more of a joy to be around--I grew up thinking that Christmas is a time for solo reflection!). They remain stubborn about this idea that it's bad to spend Xmas alone, and pester us mercilessly every time it's "my" Xmas!
How do I stop this? It's the one point of conflict in an otherwise really good in-law relationship. And it's too late to just lie and say that we are going to my family's house.
Emily Yoffe: You stop it by not getting together. Your husband should be the one to explain to his parents that you grew up experiencing Christmas as a spiritual retreat (let's just put this gloss on it). He can say that having this one time of year for reflection, solitude, and long walks is important and restorative for you, and that he has found it to be important for him, too. Then actually make plans for some other time, so they have something concrete to look forward to. Then end the discussion. Once you have explained that you're only going to do Christmas every other year with them, when the off year comes up, just say, "Oh, we've talking about this and we won't be getting together -- but we look forward to seeing you over President's Day weekend."
Re: Baltimore: I was laid off the first year I was dating my husband. For our anniversary, he took me out for an extravagant meal at a fancy hotel. I gave him a photo of us in a hand-made cardboard frame (and I am not crafty). He loved it, and 7 years later it's still on his desk. Your boyfriend will appreciate whatever you give him because it comes from you!
Emily Yoffe: Great idea! Get out the glue sticks and rick rack, broke people of America!
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a wonderful Christmas free of family strife and full of generous tips!
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.