In this largely mobile world, the holidays usually involve traveling to someone's home. As though the indignity of body scans and being herded like cattle weren't enough, you now have to contend with being a guest in someone else's home.
If you're lucky, you're staying at your parents' house, which you know fairly well, and whose inhabitants you can easily manage. If you're not so lucky, you're staying at your significant other's parents' house, which you don't know that well -- if at all -- and whose inhabitants must see you at your best at all times.
"Couple traveling" via Shutterstock.
The pressure is on. I'm telling you, the market for Xanax-coated candy canes is huge. Since that's never happening and since staying barricaded at home isn't much of an option (believe me, I've tried), I have done my best to assemble a quick guide to make your relationship holiday-proof.
If you're going to your parents', let your significant other know some of the traditions involved: is dinner formal? Is there a Christmas Eve cocktail party? Do you go sledding on Christmas Day? Scuba diving? In my family, we dress up in costumes. Humans are a strange species – don't forget that. Even if you're nationals of the same country, always remember that what is natural to you may be totally foreign to someone outside the family. The more you tell them, the easier it is for them to pack.
If you're going to your significant other's parents', ask what kind of activities to expect. Check the weather forecast to get an idea of what to pack. Keep your wardrobe simple and tasteful. Don't be afraid to be casual. Being overdressed is equal a sin as being under-dressed, in my opinion.
And FYI, unless you're coming over to my parents' house for Christmas, leave your pair of Alexander McQueen armadillo shoes and ainsley-t plug pumps at home. Your love of aggressive fashion has a place. Your boyfriend's family's Christmas dinner is not it.
If I learned anything from my stint as a wife, it's this: it's not about you. If you're a guest, you're there to shower your hosts in attention, delight their other guests with interesting conversation, and make yourself useful around the house. If you are hosting, you're there to ensure your guests have a marvelous time, discretely diffuse whatever issues may arise, and look very graceful on the surface as you paddle like hell underneath.
So, as a guest, whether it's your parents' or your significant other's parents', pack in a way that will not call attention away from your hosts.
It's always appropriate to bring something. If you don't feel comfortable bringing gifts because you don't yet know your hosts, ask what you may bring when you RSVP. If the answer is “nothing, darling!” and your significant other isn't any help, a bottle of something is always appropriate. If it's an alcohol-free household, you can always go with a bottle of soft apple cider.
In the ideal world, an invitation to spend the holidays with family includes a stay at a fabulous boutique hotel so you don't have to deal with any relatives after dinner. I don't know too many of us who live in said world – especially after the economy seriously ate it in 2007 – and to be honest, I've grown used to the madness and come to cherish it as a part of the event.
If you're staying with your significant other's family, ask whether you're staying at the family home or you need to make other arrangements. If you're staying at the house, it helps to avoid surprises to ask your partner whether you will be staying in the same room or if you're playing it super conservative.
If he or she doesn't know, feel it out once you get there. The parents may have had the guest room made up for you. If you're told that you're staying in your significant other's childhood room and you're not entirely sure whether that means he or she will be staying with you, ask your partner to clarify by asking whether the couch needs to be made up.
It's always acceptable to insist on taking the couch. Especially if his family appears to be very conservative. Two things with this: use your intuition and don't make a fuss. You don't want your plans to come off as a very appropriate young lady to result in a logistical nightmare for your hosts. Your significant other is your greatest ally here. Use his or her knowledge of the family to your advantage.
When I was a teenager, my father once imparted a very crucial bit of information to me: "if you are ever accused of anything, whether you did it or didn't, don't say anything. Demand immediately to speak to an attorney. More people get in trouble talking than they ever do listening."
Fortunately for me, I only had to exercise the first piece of advice twice –- I'll spare you the gory details -- but the second piece of advice he gave me has proven invaluable. It's just as true socially as it is legally, which is a blessing for an introvert like me, who takes a long time to warm up to new people.
All you need to shine while in the company of others is a general understanding of what's happening in the world, which, if you're on Twitter, you have; a short bio you can deliver in less than 30 seconds specifying what you do or like depending on who's asking; and a healthy curiosity.
The curiosity is not to nose around your significant other's childhood home, of course. It's to ask questions. Not interested? Role play. You're an investigative journalist, infiltrating a group of people you need to understand in order to break the greatest story of all time. But you need to be able to write a good story, not just say what's going on. You want to know the key players so you can take readers there when you tell the sordid tale. You must notice everything. You must get through their bones and intercostal muscles and across all chambers of their hearts.
If you're really smart, you are actually writing stuff down. If your relationship lasts a year, this information will be invaluable as far as knowing what kind of gifts to give your significant other's parents, among other things.
Avoid sticking to your significant other the entire time you're visiting his family. Let him or her spend time with them without feeling like he has to entertain or troubleshoot your day-to-day activities.
But don't run off with sisters or brother's girlfriends and ignore the parents, either.
It took me a marriage and a divorce to realize that, actually, yes, I am dating the entire family of the man who shares my bed. Whether he wants to admit it not, if we're even considering spending the holidays with his family, his family's opinion of me matters. As such, I am going to make an effort to assure them that their son has excellent judgment and has not fallen victim to some pleb.
That means you must make an effort with the parents. Someone once told me that it was a bad sign if you and your significant other's parents got along. I wouldn't go that far, but I see how it can be a nice consolation, seeing as, 95 percent of the time you're going to have to work your ass off to make a good impression.
Don't drink too much, don't smoke publicly unless his parents do, don't eat too much, mind your manners and you'll be fine. That stuff you can pretty much figure out based on where you are and what kind of people you find yourself with.
What about sex? It's a vacation, after all -- even if it doesn't feel like it because you're working overtime to ensure everyone comes out of it relatively unharmed. Is it OK to get it on at the parents'? The risk involved can be quite the aphrodisiac.
Behind closed doors, at an hour where you can reasonably expect privacy, you're pretty safe. Under a blanket in the living room, watching a movie later in the night after everyone has gone to bed is slightly riskier. Wear something loose that is easy to pull up or down and spoon on your sides for a perfect covert entry.
In a bathroom. In the greenhouse. In a study. In the library with the wrench (kidding about the wrench! Sort of). In your car on a drive. At a cheap motel down the street like illicit lovers. You can have a lot of fun with it. Just be careful, be quiet, and take care little Suzie won't accidentally stumble in on you looking for mommy.
Oh, and after you get home, remember to send your hosts a thank you note.
For having you, not for the sex, obviously.
Because that would be quite awkward. A great story. But quite, quite awkward.
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.