Family plot

Know thy enemy: our step-by-step guide to a tearless christmas at home.

illustration Jesse Jacobs

Relatives at holiday time are just like wasps at a picnic. All you want to do is enjoy yourself and maybe have a little bit of that Jell-O salad, and there they are. Buzzing annoyingly in your ear. Tracking every sweet morsel or tasty glass you bring to your lips. Threatening to sting as soon as you let your guard down.

Fortunately, just as a picnic can be saved from wasps with a generous application of Raid bug repellent, your holidays can be saved from obnoxious family members. Since it’s generally inadvisable to spray pesticides at people, we’ve come up with a variety of ways to deal with your family this Christmas. Apply our methods and you might just make it to New Year’s without tears.

The druncle

Formerly known as the “drunken uncle,” this character is so common his name has been shortened. The term “druncle,” which refers to that paunchy red-cheeked devil who keeps grabbing your knee, pretending he thought it was his low-ball glass, while he makes inflammatory remarks about “those people,” is now common parlance. Step one for dealing with the druncle is to stop feeling ashamed by him. Why be embarrassed by something that plagues almost every family?

Next, consider choosing your own adventure. You could spend the rest of the night with your arms crossed, your ears plugged and your back against the wall, metres from the mistletoe, or you could take a step or two in your druncle’s shoes. Remember, this guy is probably married to the bombastic aunt of yours over there, and chances are he probably fathered that cousin-from-outer-space who keeps regaling you with “true life” urban legends that he found in his email inbox. Doesn’t that make you think? Doesn’t that make you want to have a drink? How about a rum and eggnog? How about a dance?

The bombastic aunt

Often issued as part of a matching set with the druncle, the bombastic aunt is another mainstay of family dysfunction. This well-upholstered matron is loud, wrong and bound to get in your way—or your face. If you have the misfortune to bump into the BA at Christmas, you have a couple of options. The first is to turn and run, but that can be difficult in a crowded room full of relatives armed with cocktail toothpicks. The second, better, option is to stay; if you put your time in early, it’s more likely you won’t have to endure her again.

Turn off your ears, arrange your eyebrows into their blame-proof neutral position, take a large bite of whatever’s handy and chew, slowly, while she talks to you. Nod or make noncommital noises when you think it may be appropriate, or raise your eyebrows in a way that might indicate mild interest. Keep eating and nodding noncommittally until she spots a new victim, heaves anchor and heads off across the room. You’ve survived, and you got to eat all the shrimp!

The cousin from outer space

Sure, they might share genetic material, a last name or the same birth-decade with you, but that’s about all you have in common with these dudes. If the rest of the family came to dinner in black tie, he’s wearing The Smiths t-shirt; if you’re all comfortably casual in your turkey-eatin’ sweatpants, she’s the one in the ball gown. The cousin from outer space is usually the weirdest person at the table, even if that means being the one who’s married with three kids under three—in a family of eternally single grad students. There’s nothing to do with a family member like this but relish their presence. Next to that guy with the crazy hair, you look positively normal and high-functioning. Three cheers for diversity!

The Martha-wannabe mom

She strung the tree with handmade cranberry-popcorn garland. She stood in line for two hours at the mall yesterday. She’s cooking your dad’s favourite giblet gravy, even though that bag of turkey necks and vittles makes her want to throw up. She makes you and your girlfriend sleep in separate rooms. She micromanages the gift-opening. She’s your mom and she’s driving you crazy.

This calls for a delicate balance of helpfulness and avoidance. Offer to help, do it and then get as far away as possible for as long as possible. Favourite strategies include setting the table and then going to a movie, cleaning the bathroom and then going to a movie or loading the dishwasher and then going to a movie. Of course, it is entirely possible that your mom’s acting so strangely because she loves her family and wants this holiday to be perfect; why not give her a kiss, take her to a movie and let dad deal with the giblets?

The distant dad

It’s possible that he’s acting distant because you and your mom took off to see Harry Potter and left him at home holding a cold, slimy bag of turkey parts. Or it could be that since last year, he’s managed to forget what Christmas is all about, and he’s doing his best to come to terms with the noise and the mess and all those people in his living room. Ignore the glazed eyes and the selective hearing; resist the urge to stick foil bows and ribbons to his head. Don’t make fun of the painstaking way he carves the turkey. Dammit, it’s Christmas! Share your booze with him!

The rivaling sibling

Christmas is a great time to bond with your siblings, because it’s the time of year when you can unite against the greatest number of terrible circumstances at once. If you thought that it was easy to side together when you were trying to get your parents to buy a cooler car, take a look at your relatives. The evils of the Dodge Spirit are nothing compared to the family-unity-inspiring traits of Aunt Mergatrude and her brood of big-mouthed, drunken misfits. United you stand—until you’ve all had too much to drink.

The in-laws

Hey, you are not actually related to these people. No blood ties, no worries. ’Nuff said.

David Rakoff’s advice

Comic writer David Rakoff has this excellent strategy for surviving unbearable social situations. It might save you from wringing the neck of a relation, so take heed: If you encounter a real-life worst-case scenario this Christmas, he says, fold one hand inside the other. Adopt a benign facial expression. As the offending relative talks, nod your head in fake interest and with your index finger, slowly write “I hate you” on the palm of your other hand. Write it again…and again. A beatific smile will come to your face and a feeling of peace will engulf you. Nod your head. Write it again.

Ultimately, your best bet for this holiday season might be to treat your trip home like a particularly long, over-populated blind date. Be pleasant, but keep your expectations low. Try to enjoy the moment, but remember, it will all be over soon. Try not to say anything you’ll regret later. Don’t drink significantly more than the people you’re with. When in doubt, go see a movie; it’s a great way to spend time with people without actually spending time with them. Have a friend’s phone number on hand in case you need to call for backup. And don’t spray anyone in the face with Raid, unless it’s an extreme emergency.

Support The Coast

At a time when the city needs local coverage more than ever, we’re asking for your help to support independent journalism. We are committed as always to providing free access to readers, particularly as we confront the impact of COVID-19 in Halifax and beyond.

Read more about the work we do here, or consider making a donation. Thank you for your support!

Comments (1)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Get more Halifax

Our Thursday email gets you caught up with The Coast. Sign up and go deep on Halifax.

Recent Comments