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Tell Me About It author Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax
Post Magazine
Tell Me About It
Tell Me About It, Later (Dec. 4, 3 p.m. EST)
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About Carolyn
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Post Magazine
This week: 'Tis the Season ...
With Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, Dec. 4, 2000; 2 p.m. EST

Of America's yuletide traditions, Washington Post columnist Carolyn Hax wrote in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine:

"We make it all up, throwing in a little Christianity, a little paganism, an oddly dressed fat guy and a year's supply of butter, then we act like it's written in stone. The expectations we build! Despite the fact that any grown person knows that expectations, even little ones, are not treated kindly by life."

Post Magazine
Hax was online on Monday, Dec. 4, at 2 p.m. EST to field questions and comments about Sunday's article, "Great Expectations," and to discuss the angst -- and the joy -- of the season.

Hax is the author of Tell Me About It , which appears Fridays and Sundays in The Post Style section. A 30-something displaced New Englander and eight-year newspaper veteran with still-married parents, three older sisters, a mad-artist husband and way too many shoes. Her "expertise" (she added the quotation marks, we didn't) is in bad dates, school pressures, strict parents and dubious decisions, and she specializes in stupid teenage stunts, which she likes to call "learning experiences." She hosts ""Tell Me About It -- Live twice weekly on washingtonpost.com, and will continue to talk angst, holidays, relationships and work on her regular "Tell Me About It, Later" session at 3 p.m. EST.

The transcript for the Magazine discussion follows.
Join us for more . . .

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Carolyn Hax: Hi guys. We'll be batting around the whole holiday thing this hour, and batting me around, too, if you'd like -- check out this e-mail I got yesterday: "i like the q+a thing a lot better than this column. it's pithy and smart. this was a bit disorganized and long winded"

Ah, yes.

Then at 3 p.m. we'll switch over to the usual bare-knuckle boxing. If there's any confusion, I don't want to hear about it. Thanks.

Harrisburg, Pa.: Hello, Carolyn --

I have been distressed by the commercialism of the Christmas season for oh, so many years; finally, about 10 years ago, I just said, "no more!"

If a gift idea makes itself obvious (new baby stuff, replacement for a broken blender, magazine subscription, etc.) that's fine. Otherwise, for friends and family who already have more than some small countries can boast, I make charitable donations in their name. I got tired of trying to find the perfect, 350th sweater or giving crystal tchotchkes that got dragged out only when I was visiting.

And --most-- certainly, for office "pollyanna" gift exchanges, I list charities where I'd like the dollar equivalent of a purchased gift sent. I have everything I want or need.

Carolyn Hax: The philosophy works, and I agree wholeheartedly, but the donation is a sort of non-gift gift. I've become partial to the consumable gift -- food, wine, fruit in legitimately edible quantities -- even stationery if it's duly plain. That way you're not contributing to the global tchotchke glut (are we spelling this correctly?), you're just making people fat.

Fairfax, Va.: I enjoy Christmas a lot more now than I ever did as a kid. My parents chose Christmas to have their major meltdowns,which tended to put a damper on things. That can leave quite an impression. Believe or not, they are still married and get along very well.

We don't go to church so much but I love Christmas Eve service. When the lights go down and the congregation lights candles and sings "Silent Night" and goes off into the night. It moves me to tears.

When I feel myself becoming overwhelmed by the season, I like to go out at night and find the brightest and gaudiest Christmas light displays -- you know the ones that require a special dispensation from the power company -- and just look at them.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, I do believe it. That's what I was talking about, the ridiculous pressure we put ourselves under that makes meltdowns an annual tradition. Bleah. I like your lights idea. I was just saying to a friend of mine that I love living in a non-snooty neighborhood because people here still use multicolored lights and put plastic Santas on their roofs. Bless them.

WDC: Hey Carolyn,

Now that you have shared a bit of your father with us, it's clear where you get your wonderful sense of humor.

Anyways, I've been doing this for a couple of years and I think it's a great gift suggestion for those who are, as you say (and I am!), "independently poor." That is - going to a paint your own pottery place and paint ornaments for the family. It's inexpensive and, for my family anyway, fairly amusing -- I have ZERO in the way of artistic ability but it's fun to do get's the message across that it's the thought that counts.

Just my $.02. Have a good Holiday (and by the way, you can get cheap flights up to New England instead of that hassle drive, I just did it yesterday!!)

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, I'll pass that along to my Dad. He'll probably disavow any knowledge of me.

I think I'm going to steal your ornament idea...

The North Pole: I just wanted to share a tradition I started for my family at Christmas. Instead of having just the kids have stockings and my parents not having any, we gave everyone in the family a stocking -- and every member buys everyone else a little stocking present. I started this before my sister got married and bred -- but now there are eight stockings across my parents' mantel and it is really the delight of Christmas when after the carnage of the Christmas tree present unwrapping is over -- the entire family moves by the fireplace and opens the little packages. Also the "tiny" part forces you to be creative gift giving wise. CDs, tiny books, baseball cards, perfume, gloves, jewelry, action figures, etc.


And nothing is cuter than your parents reliving their childhood Christmas delight opening their stocking gifts.

Carolyn Hax: Interesting factoid: A 20-carat gem would fit nicely in any stocking. Thanks for the fuzzywuzzy post.

Carolyn Hax: Nice not to have problems for a change.

San Francisco, Calif.: Dear Carolyn: My mother-in-law is a wonderful person, and I love her dearly (I know, I'm lucky). HOWEVER, she has a really unreasonable approach to Christmas gift-giving. My husband has a large, extended family, some of whom are not financially well off. Some of those relatives have suggested a name exchange whereby we all put our names in a hat, draw names, and get a gift for the person whose name we draw in lieu of getting gifts for everyone. I think it is a great idea as Christmas is not about the gifts. Nevertheless, my mom-in-law has vetoed this idea for the past three years because, as she has said, it's not as much fun as opening a lot of gifts. Personally, I think this is childish and selfish, but nobody calls her in this. I have spoken to my husband about this, and he generally agrees with me. But he is reluctant to say anything. Would I be totally out of line if I were to voice my opinion? I am reluctant to rock the boat as I have been part of the family for only three years? What would you do?

Carolyn Hax: Maybe institute a gift exchange among your generation, and keep to the lots-O-gifts plan for the elders and any kiddies. Fly it by your husband and see if he'll champion it--or plant the seed with one of the strapped relatives and let him or her run with it.

San Mateo, Calif.: Dear Carolyn:
Your father's rendition of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" was the funniest and most charming spin on Xmas traditions I've seen in a while. Any chance of hearing the complete "re-imagining"? (Heck, if Target can get mileage out of "Olive, the Other Reindeer," based on a song that was also written as a department store promo, your dad also deserves a chance at fame...)

Carolyn Hax: Oh, I wish I'd thought to have a couple of them handy. Fortunately, though some of the early years' efforts are lost, Pops has been archiving meticulously since. Maybe a quickie paperback ...

Thanks for the compliment, I'll be sure to pass it along.

Richmond with in-laws in New England: Hi Carolyn, really enjoy your column/chats. Read the holiday article and wondered if you'd ever tried taking the Jersey parkway to the Tappen Zee bridge. We shaved an hour off our trip that way...

Carolyn Hax: I used to do that, when I caved in to my parents' entreaties to stay off the Cross Bronx when I was driving solo. Now I just can't bear the extra miles, even though I probably make up the time through traffic avoidance. Stubborn I guess.

Arlington, Va.: Love your usual columns, but this one was terrific! Loved the style and the substance -- hope you continue to write articles in addition to your column in the future.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you--okay if I e-mail this to that critic I quoted? Just kidding.

Rockville, Md.: Dear Carolyn,

I liked your article in the Washington Post magazine.

You briefly mentioned people feeling oppressed and forced to eat Chinese food and go to the movies.

This is my issue. Since moving to the D.C. area, I have been made to feel that I am not being sensitive if I wish someone a Merry Christmas and they don't celebrate Christmas. However, like the majority of people in this country, I am a Christian celebrating one of the most significant holidays of the year. I don't see how a pleasant tiding of any sort can be taken as an insult.

It has gotten to the point where I just say "Happy Holidays" even though I would prefer to say "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays" makes me feel resentful like I am not getting to thoroughly enjoy my holiday because saying "Merry Christmas" may offend someone.

Is it just because I'm a white Christian that I can't see why "Merry Christmas" is offensive to some people?

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, glad you liked the article.

I agree it's a waste of angst to get upset about being given the wrong kind of good wishes. It's a happy thought, leave it at that. But I think it's an equal waste to get annoyed by having to tweak one's greeting a bit. Happy holidays, is that really so hard?

D.C.: Hi Carolyn! Here's our family holiday tradition:

Black olives (and other green ones and pickles, but those get ignored) go into a lovely bowl on the table, about midday. Olive platter is covered in plastic wrap. All day long, the plastic wrap is carefully lifted and black olives are "stolen" from the tray by all family members.

At dinner time, grandma dramatically enters with a SECOND can of black olives, and the bowl is refilled, and we cheer and clap.

A small, odd tradition, but comforting. I know I can count on those black olives to be there, waiting for me in Buffalo as the snow piles up outside.

We have other wacky things we do, like everyone getting a lottery ticket and dad sitting in "the death chair" but I won't get into those. Happy Holidays!

Carolyn Hax: Oh, I wish you would get into it. "Death chair" sounds so promising.

Is this what happens when a family gets snowed in a few times too many?

Midwest Girl: I'm happy to say I've never had a stressful Christmas. I think that's because my family focuses on how we can all see each other, not what we buy each other. Each year we decide who will host the Christmas festivities. We all do our best to make it there, which can be tough with family members living on both coasts. We eat and talk and eat all Christmas Eve long and then open the gifts at midnight. By then everyone's so tired I doubt they really care what they got. I guess this is just one of the perks of having a large, loving family. Maybe some of the stressed out holiday shoppers should try making Christmas more of a family get together and then the commercialization of the season won't hit so hard. Just a thought.

Carolyn Hax: I'm sure you're right, but I'm also sure that a lot of families would trip over the "talk all Xmas Eve long," well before commercialism come into play. Sad thing.

Carolyn Hax: ... though people could go a long way toward peace, IMHO, if they dropped the pressure to show up and just let people join their family gatherings as they are able. I'm stunned by how many people are crushed by guilt every year and drive 27 hours straight uphill in traffic in a vain attempt to alleviate it.

Land of Misfit Toys: There is a very difficult situation in my family right now. My parents are divorcing because my dad has been living a secret life that has only just now come to light. Mom is staying with me for a while, and none of us is speaking to my Dad. Now we have Christmas to deal with. I'm wondering if we should try to have our typical Christmas celebration, without my Dad, or if we should do something completely different. I guess my gut tells me that doing something different isn't going to magically make us forget about what's going on, and may actually make it more obvious. What do you think?

Carolyn Hax: Ask your mom. Offer a sunny getaway, if you can afford it, or a new take on things at your home, or a make-the-best-of-it rerun sans dad. This is where just listening can really pay off.

Georgia: So . . . am I the only one that doesn't get it? In one breath you were telling us that you hate Christmas and that can't wait for it. That you hate going to Church, but that you love the memories. That you hate the traditions, but at the same time love them.

How do you do it?

Carolyn Hax: Good Carolyn and Evil Carolyn. Fortunately, we have the same shoe size.

ex-Conn.: I loved your description of your route home. I used to do the exact same thing when I lived up there and visited D.C. fairly often. All the native New Yorkers would pester me about the Tappan Zee, but darn it, it just didn't feel right unless it was Turnpike-to-Geo. Washington Bridge-to-Hen Hud-to-Cross-County-to-Hutch-to-Merritt. Don't cave. The Merritt is a thrill ride of its own.

Carolyn Hax: Sometimes when I FINALLY get on the Merritt, even in the dead of winter, I roll all my windows down. It's out of my hands.

Michigan: One line in your article, something about fitting too many people in a too small space, really hit home. I am 23 and have an 19-year-old sister. Our parents have tricked us into driving 12 hours to Atlanta to stay with relatives (too many people not enough space...) for five days. I say tricked because for myself, they bought me a plane ticket to fly home in time for work before I had really even agreed to go. For my sister, they told her she had to go or else. Probably meaning they would cut off her cell phone or credit card if she balked. I miss my relatives down south, but personally feel that a 2-3 day trip would give me enough time to say hello, while still keeping my sanity. I am taking my headset and planning to take very long walks through the very nice neighborhoods my relatives live in -- daily.

I wish the best of luck to all of those having to endure uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, crowded airports, tight seating in cars, and cigar smoking uncles this holiday season. With my glass of (oh yes, spiked) eggnog, I salute us all...

Carolyn Hax: Yeeargh, that sounds dreadful. At this point, I'd be pawning computer parts for hotel money.

D.C. again: You asked... (from the family with the Death Chair)...

It's really not that horrible. There is a chair at the end of the table that is labeled the Death Chair, because all of the men that sit there have been the most recent to pass on... Grandpa sat there, then Uncle Wally, and now Dad bravely accepts the challenge. He's had good luck and has been sitting there for about 15 years now. Hasn't died yet.

Yes, us snowbound folks get a little twisted around the holidays.

washingtonpost.com: When I head home to Wisconsin I'm passing this one on. -- Lisa.

Carolyn Hax: Just don't pass on. We'd miss you terribly.

For those handicapping the race -- Death Chair is the strong mid-hour favorite for tradition of the day.

Carolyn Hax: Lisa just sent me this: "Death chair! Death chair!"

What do you say we not talk about problems at 3 o'clock, either? I'm digging this.

Alex: Dear Ms. Hax,

Thanks for sharing a bit of your life with us. Your family really sounds like one I would have loved to experience.

I am in agreement with the person who enjoys holidays now more than as a child. I have a severely alcoholic parent, and boy, it took me some therapy to realize tension and walking on eggshells were NOT the norm. Anyway, even with all the horror, I have kept some of the gems hidden among the muck and one of those is ridiculous lyrics to carols, much like your dad's Night Before Christmas. Most are R rated but oh so very funny. I am now in the position to start my own Christmas traditions, such as the Alexandria Christ Church (wonderful and free) Messiah performance, without guilt, fear, or pain, and I have healed enough to remember the few good things such as those silly songs.

Carolyn Hax: Sing one for us! We can take it. One of ours is, "It Came Upon a Mink Brassiere."

Lisa.: We have no problems!

Carolyn Hax: Stay JUST LIKE THAT. Thank you.

Chevy Chase: Hi Carolyn,

I don't celebrate Christmas (being Jewish does that to you) but I used to celebrate with my friend's family back in New Jersey and it was great with the huge tree and egg nog. But the best Christmas I've had so far was at my other friend's family home in Georgia. Other than a New England Christmas replete with snow, nothing beats a southern Christmas. The night before, we went to a family friend's place for a huge dinner and red velvet cake, which I'd never had before. Christmas morning brought country ham and sausage on fresh biscuits while unwrapping presents under the tree. I know it has little to do with the meaning of Christmas itself but it was so special for me because I was welcomed as a member of the family, I even had a stocking on the mantel with a little brunette angel and my name stitched on.

I can't wait for this year.


Carolyn Hax: What a great thing. I love how inclusive it all can be, when the spirit is allowed to do its work. Thanks.

??: No, I'm a habitual lurker and actually have a problem this time. Must take problems at 3!!! Please...

Carolyn Hax: "Death chair! Death chair!"

Washington, D.C.: I think you'll like this tradition even better:

In my country, instead of handing stockings on the chimney mantle, we put shoes by the chimney (or around the tree, or at the end of our beds, depending on the housing arrangements) and the presents go in there.

What kind of shoes do you think are most Christmas-y, since you seem to be an expert?

Carolyn Hax: Well, for the party part of it, I just ordered strappy little silver heels. For the purposes you describe, maybe men's size 14 galoshes.

Loved It!: Carolyn, I loved the article. It made me want to hop in the car and start heading for upstate New York! (and SNOOOOWWW!)

But, as a concession to the multitude of in-laws, I won't be doing that until New Years. That's when my family does the get-together that sounds vaguely familiar to yours...are you sure you're from Trumbull and not upstate New York?

Carolyn Hax: So THAT's why it takes me so long. Damn.

Anywhere: My mother-in-law celebrates a very traditional Christmas, with all the food and trimmings of her country of origin. She puts on a fantastic spread. But she is tired of always being the hostess and doing the work, so she asked me to do it this year. Which is fine. I am happy to put together a Christmas dinner with my recipes, etc. They are plainer than hers, but just as beloved. Today, I received a package of recipes with explicit directions, from my MIL, with explicit directions as to how to engineer my party to her taste. I am about to call her and let her know that I intend to do this my way, because I just don't know how to cook her stuff, and don't want to have the family as guinea pigs for a likely disaster if I fail. I know her, and think she might be disappointed that things will not be as she would have them, but I still feel that I can have a lovely dinner and begin a tradition that is a little different. Will I ruin her Christmas if I do this? Please help me keep the peace. She can be a little domineering.

Carolyn Hax: I would suggest offering to cook one of her dishes--she can choose which one -- as a tribute, but say that you are simply not up to the challenge of cooking an entire meal of unfamiliar recipes. Say, "Just seeing how much work you do to produce it has persuaded me that I'm out of my league!" Kissy kiss kiss. Be nice, hold firm, let her decide whether to be an adult about it or not -- not your problem. Also, I'd practice the one dish a couple of times, if you're stressed about it. There's still time.

Somewhere on Wilson Blvd., Va.: Thanks for making me smile yesterday. In recent years, I've come to think of the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years as sanctioned family hostage-taking. People (read: relatives) you normally wouldn't give the time of day to are in constant contact, and all that concentrated energy wears me out. Toss in the mandatory in-law responsibilities, and I'm ready to blow the mutual fund savings for a 'round the world trip just to avoid all of that. But, you made me laugh and realize we all have our own private agendas for this time of year, and expectations make up most of the experience. And, you like dogs and your husband always seems to manage to fit one in for every comic he draws, and I like that. He's kind of like Hirschfield in that way. So, again, thanks.

Carolyn Hax: You're welcome, glad to be of some use. Actually, there were two Zuzus in that illustration. Happy hunting.

Twisted in Hagerstown: May I challenge the Death Chair? About 15 years ago, my brother gave my sister the Reindeer Poop Award for being a huge brat before Christmas (He was 18, she was 13.) He found real deer poop in the woods, dried it out, shellacked it and then glued it to a nice wooden plaque with a brass plate reading "Reindeer Poop Award for Un-Christmaslike Behavior." Every Christmas since, the plaque is hung in my parents' living room and we write nominees on a sheet of paper below it. Last year it was the Y2K fear-mongers, the year before, Linda Tripp. You get the idea.

washingtonpost.com: Oh my. Are you sure we aren't related? -- Lisa.

Carolyn Hax: Reindeer poop! Reindeer poop!

Boston, Mass.: Carolyn,

As long as we're saluting your dad this afternoon, perhaps you could re-tell his steeple-chasing analogy (i.e., to be happy in life, you must always have another challenge on the horizon). I remember you mentioning it in one of the on-line discussions months ago, and it's really stayed with me. I think it's great advice, and perhaps seasonally appropriate, if we are looking ahead to New Year's resolutions.

Happy holidays!

Carolyn Hax: You retold it for me, and I never decline free labor. I hope he's reading this. I hope Mom isn't feeling left out...

New York: Just a response to the question of the MIL who didn't want to institute a Pollyana type of gift giving -- on my dad's side of the family (mom's side is Jewish), the grandparents get and give multiple gifts to all their offspring, but in dad's generation each couple gives a small gift to each other couple, and the kids (24ish-8ish) do a Pollyana. It works really well, the little kids and grandparents still get a lot of gifts, and everyone has fun.

Carolyn Hax: Works for me, thanks.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do Christmas: Hey Carolyn!

Just wanted to share my busting-up-in-church-on-Christmas-Eve story. . . .

One year, while singing "What Child Is This," we got to the line about "where ox and ass are sleeping" and I thought, "Uh, huh-huh . . . they said 'ass'. . . ." Of course, my siblings picked up on the same thought as if by ESP, and all you could hear from our pew for the next 15 minutes was stifled snorting and wheezing.

I was just glad to see that ours isn't the only family going to hell.

Carolyn Hax: I'll bring the beer, you bring the ice bucket. See you there!

D.C.: Carolyn:
I am submitting this early because I can't be at your chat. I loved your article yesterday. I am the Queen of Expectations at Christmas. And, yes, I am often let down. This year will be no different -- with the hopes that my boyfriend of almost a year will ask me to marry him. We have talked about it a lot and while I think that it is the perfect time to get engaged (and hope for it), he isn't exactly the "showy" type and will probably opt not to do it around a major day like Christmas. So, I am trying to resign myself to that. Any pointers as to how to not get upset (internally) if he doesn't? I am sure I am not the only person that is going through this. Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, you're at my chat. But whatever.

Either ask him yourself, or be quite sure he's not going to ask you. The best remedies for high expectations are to satisfy them yourself or lower them to the floor.

A merry note to end on.

Somewhere, USA: This Christmas, I will receive the greatest gift of all -- time off with my husband. He is a police officer and has worked Christmas the past few years. This year, he has the day off. I don't care if the pets puke on the rug, the presents disappear in a puff of smoke, or if the dinner is burned.

Carolyn Hax: Just don't burn the puke, put dinner on the rug and disappear the pets. Have a good one.

Enzo, USA: OK I don't have a problem (well, I guess that's debatable) and my family is just normal and we get along, sans death chairs, But since you brought it up...

I am strapped for Xmas cash for gifts. But I'm making do. BUT ... I found a really cool pair of strappy silver high heels (sequins!) and a matching bag!! What do I do? I decided not to buy, but that was two weeks ago and the shoes are still with me.

So, how practical would they be? Should I save my cash for my family's gifts? WHAT DO I DO!!!??

Carolyn Hax: Unfortunately, you will feel much better about yourself if you skip the shoes. Sigh.

washingtonpost.com: OK, y'all, we're switching pages, so jump on board the holiday love train and come to the Tell Me About It 3 p.m. discussion.

D.C. again: Our family proudly accepts the Favorite Tradition of the Mid-hour award.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

-- "Death Chair" Buffalonians

Carolyn Hax: Actually, you won the whole banana, Congratulations! Though the poop did come on strong, as only poop can.


Okay, we're switching over to that other dismal venue. See you there. Sniff.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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