Every year around this time, we gather for a hallowed tradition – the swapping of holiday horror stories. One of the most stressful parts of the holidays can be spending time with family. From difficult in-laws to overbearing parents to bratty kids, the same people who make the holidays so special can also make them so difficult. To lighten the mood, here are some of the best (and worst) stories we’ve heard over the years about how family members make this time of year so…unique.


My late mother-in-law was famous for finding the black cloud behind any silver lining. One year her Christmas card to us read, “Dear children, Do you remember your cousin James? The one who owned the restaurant? He fell asleep while he was smoking and burned his house down and they carried him out in a bag. Merry Christmas.” [2012]


There was the year that Mom first let me decorate the living room for Christmas. I ran blinking colored lights along every molding, carefully taped ornaments to hang artfully under the exposed staircase, put wreaths and light bulb window candles in every window, draped garlands over curtains, put fake snow and more garland around the base of the tree (despite having two cats and a dog), and covered the mantle in pine garland, ribbon, bead garland, more fake snow, more lights, battery candles, several Santa figurines, some extra ornaments, a few more lights, some flinging icicle tinsel, and of course stockings, which each came with their own little wreath on the hook. The tree had already been decorated. My mother walks in and immediately exclaims “What the [heck] is this? It looks like a low-end Victorian wh*re exploded in here!” in earshot of the entire family. [2012]


Love my mom but when she is at my house visiting for the holidays all she does is ask questions about the most mundane, private matters with little regard for who is listening. She’ll take out the jar of fiber in the cabinet and ask, “Who’s constipated?” She pats my too-chubby stomach in front of my husband and asks, “Are you sure you’re too old to get pregnant?” Here’s the doozy: she walked into a living room filled with guests on Thanksgiving holding up a grungy sponge. She said, “[Daughter #3] was cleaning the toilet with this, Is this the same sponge I saw you washing dishes with?” Do I just keep ruefully laughing, or… or what? [2011]
There’s nothing like an innocent victim to bring out a gag’s true potential – Carolyn


Best Christmas ever? The year my dear father stole the baby Jesus out of my mother’s manger scene and left behind a ransom note “Give me cookies if you ever want to see the kid again” My young daughter, who was in Catholic school at the time, was HORRIFIED that her grandpa could do such a thing, and let him know he would never get to heaven that way. He replied he wanted cookies more. I love my family… [2011]


Remember last year when someone said their family clapped after each gift was opened? And we all thought it was hilarious and strange?
Well, last year, I told my (large) family about the clapping, and they were highly amused. They decided we should do it, too, but NOT tell my brother. So we started applauding every time someone opened a present. At first he looked really, really confused, but then he joined in as if it were completely normal. It took about 1/2 an hour before he finally stopped and said “Ok WHAT is with the G-D CLAPPING?! Are you people DRUNK?” [2006]


During one of those uneventful Christmases, before grandchildren arrived on the scene, my Dad rigged up a big wooden Santa next to the tree with a remote-controlled Bull S*!t caller. With the press of a button hidden in Dad’s pocket, Santa (painted with rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes and a big grin on his face) would shout one of several choice phrases. That year, and for a few years after, Dad had a very merry Christmas, entertaining himself throughout the day, by calling BS (with impeccable comedic timing) on all of us. Now I think he’s counting down the days until the grandkids are old enough to appreciate the humor without getting us in trouble by repeating Santa’s words in preschool. Happy Hootenanny! [2012]

Nick GalifianakisIf you don’t like the person someone brings home for the holidays, the worst thing you can do is show how upset you are. It guarantees s/he’ll appear at every holiday ever after, possibly one year in someone’s car trunk – Carolyn


Oh, we still laugh about it just like it was yesterday: my mother-in-law, looking across the table at my husband (I was right next to him!) and saying, “You should really find someone who’s as into [activity redacted] as you are.” [2010]


This came from a Christmas dinner a few years ago, when my then-boyfriend, who I was absolutely in love with, came over. He is from Latvia, which came out over the course of dinner. During a lull in conversation, my grandpa looked over and said, “So, when are you going to be deported?” Absolutely silence. My mom tried to cover it by saying, I think he is asking when you are going to visit your family. My grandpa interrupted, “No, really, when are you going to be deported.” Cue uncomfortable laughter. Now it’s an annual event, asking the new guy (my mom has 3 single daughters so there is usually a new boyfriend involved) when they are going to be deported. I think my mom thinks of it as a test – if they don’t run, they are a keeper? Us girls think it’s really a ploy to keep us single forever. [2011]

Happy holidays to you and your family!

Also check out the 2013 Holiday Guide.

Join the fun by sharing your own stories and traditions at the 2013 Carolyn Hax Hootenanny of Holiday Horrors, Friday Dec. 13 at noon ET.