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December 23, 1999

Home for the Holidays

So you're heading home for the holidays, are you? Not to sound like too much of a malcontent here but don't be fooled by Norman Rockwell visions of the family gathered around the tree, a festive holiday feast, and a heart-felt welcome from your new girlfriend's family. If you're properly prepared for it, the holiday season can be a wonderful time of year. But more often than not it ends up being a hellish nightmare that leaves you emotionally scarred for the rest of your life. So consider yourself warned. Take the following precautions. And hey - let's be careful out there...

Be warned that no matter how old you are or how long you've lived away from home - to your parents you'll never be older than twelve. Just because you're the Chief Executive Officer of a Fortune 500 company doesn't mean that you're old enough to have a qualified opinion, light the fire, or handle sharp objects - especially after that time you cut yourself so badly with the steak knife at your Aunt Verna's. Odds are you'll have no recollection of the steak knife incident but your mom will. And as far as she's concerned it happened yesterday. Try not to take your parents' gross underestimation of you personally though - their apparent determination to grind your self-esteem into the dust at every turn is actually a biological response to aging that they are powerless to avoid. The aging tribal chief always denies the abilities of the young warriors - until one of them goes Menendez on him and buries an axe in his head.

While we're in the way back machine, remember that since your parents froze their image of you at twelve, you shouldn't be surprised by gifts of amazingly ugly velour sweater-vests, never-ending offers of hot cocoa and cookies, and peanut better and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Everyday.

You may have thought that you became a vegetarian because your doctor gave you a cholesterol test and hit butter but when you go home for the holidays, you'll be told in no uncertain terms that you became a vegetarian to bring shame and ridicule upon your parents. Your quiet statement that you don't eat roast beef anymore will be greeted with the same shock and disgust as if you'd just announced plans for a virgin sacrifice at midnight. You can help out with the chores, do the dishes, and buy everyone nice presents - but nothing would make your mom happier than if you'd eat that big slab of red meat. And would it kill you to allow her to make you breakfast? Sure the bacon, eggs, buttered white toast, juice, coffee and cereal is basically a heart attack on a plate. But she gets such pleasure serving it...

If you're bringing a new girlfriend home for the holidays, be sure that every living, breathing member of the family AND their friends has her name straight - the last thing you want is to have your neighbour bound up to her and say, "You must be Rachelle!" when she isn't. If you've forgotten to do this, you can remedy the situation by beating everyone to the punch and screaming, "Oh hey, have you met DONNA!" at everyone in sight.

If you go home to your girlfriend's place for the holidays, you're in for a whole different set of defenses. Your girlfriend's family will, naturally, hate you - her mom because you're not a leading neurosurgeon, her dad because he can't look at you without gagging at the mental image of you doing the Posturpedic Polka with his little angel. If she has sisters, they'll be sizing you up against every other boyfriend she's ever had ("He's taller than Bob... but Davey had fuller hair..."). If she has brothers, they're plotting where to bury your dismembered body after their Dad gets through with you. And while all this is going on, you'll be looking at all of them and figuring that if they're such dysfunctional nut-bars it can't be too long until Honeybunch blossoms into one as well. Being at her place is a no win situation. But at least you'll see firsthand where her decorating sense came from...

Make sure you know her family's religion well in advance so you can properly prep yourself for whatever it might involve. You don't want to be asking for a beer if they're strict Baptists. Showing up with a holiday gift box of Jimmy Dean Pure Pork Sausage is poor form if her last name is Rabinowitz. And whatever you do don't refer to the aft-most part of the turkey as 'The Pope's Nose' if she's Catholic. Consider it diplomacy 101. It makes things go easier.

Speaking of diplomacy, if you want to rack up bonus points with her family try learning a few expressions in your girlfriend's parents' native tongue. You don't have to prepare a speech - just a couple of phrases to let them know you're not a total mangecake. "Pleased to meet you!", "Cheers!", and "Sorry..." are a bare minimum. Trust me - you'll use them all.

Avoid all jokes around her family until you get to know them better. Remember that a sense of humour is considered optional equipment on most models of Dads. You may think commenting that his daughter is "the gift that says, 'Open me first!'" is hysterical but there's a good chance he won't. It's the mental image thing again. And don't be drawn out into the open by crafty Dads who throw in Judas goat comments like, "Wow... check the rack on that Teri Hatcher!" Stick close to cover with a nondescript answer like, "She's a great actress." If Dad's a weasel, you'll score points. If Dad's a lecher, you won't look like too much of a goober...

Make sure that you check with your girlfriend to clarify the public version of your relationship. Do you sleep together? This is important to nail down early because there's nothing more awkward than getting halfway through a story about Honeybunch falling out of bed and suddenly realizing that the crowd is blanching at the thought of her sleeping with you. Do yourself a favour and dispense with the denials. Table the discussion yourself. Get it out in the open. Deal with it. And move on. It'll be a little awkward at first. But at least everyone will know the score.

Even a dog is entitled to mark his territory...

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