Christmas is a wonderful season when people put aside their petty differences to come together in the spirit of peace, giving and goodwill t’ward mankind.
It is also the season of some of the most awkward social situations all year.
We’ve all been there: You get a gift from someone you were not expecting to see during the holiday season, for example, or you accidentally stand adjacent to some mistletoe around people you don’t even sort of want to kiss. What do you do? How can you save face in the midst of embarrassing seasonal social situations?
The Emily Post Institute has a section on its website about various holiday topics, but the subjects mostly revolve around how to invite people to holiday parties, how to set the table for said holiday parties, when it is appropriate to regift or exchange a present and a guide to holiday tipping. It is, to say the least, lacking in tips for real-life social situations.
Since she won’t give us any practical, real-world advice, I’ve decided to sit up a little straighter, roll up my well-pressed sleeves, and try my hand at the etiquette game. Introducing the Lisa Christensen Guide to Holiday Social Etiquette Problems and Stuff.
What to do when someone brings a gift on Christmas Eve and you have no gift to reciprocate:
Make conversation. Talk about the weather and ask whether they’re all ready for Christmas. While they answer, mentally catalogue all of your recent purchases to see if any of them can be emergency gifted to this person who you really weren’t expecting to see this month at all let alone shop for. Shampoo. There’s that bottle of shampoo you haven’t used yet. Can you slap a bow on that? Does that count? Yes, yes it does.
Alternately, feign shock that it’s Christmas Eve already because you’re sure just yesterday it was only mid-December and how has the time flown by, and oh, dear, please excuse you because you have some last-minute holiday preparations to attend to. The fact that you forgot them will be lost amid the pity they’ll have for you and the frantic evening you apparently have ahead of you.
You might also buy and keep a spare box of candy or bottle of lotion wrapped and ready near the door for such an occasion.
Another option is to fake a heart attack at the moment of gift exchange. This, however, is a very expensive option as it will require an ambulance ride and hospital trip to complete the evasion.
What to do when you start dating someone a few weeks before Christmas:
New love can be a fun and enjoyable experience, with two exceptions: just before Valentine’s Day, and just before Christmas. Valentine’s Day is bad, because there’s the expectation for romance with someone you barely know, but Christmas may be worse, because you then have an obligation to give your new significant other something meaningful despite possibly not even knowing their favorite color or if they have food allergies.
If you have access to a time machine, consider using it to either prevent yourself from beginning the relationship at that unfortunate time, or to begin the relationship early enough that you know whether they’d actually need or want another scarf.
If a time machine is not available, consider giving them another scarf.
What to do if you are unsure about bringing a significant other to a holiday party:
If you are invited to a holiday party where the invitation specifically extends to a significant other, without question bring your significant other. If you are invited to a holiday party where there is no explicit extension of the invitation, ask the host if your significant other would be an acceptable addition to the festivities, and then act according to their answer, even if you can tell they only said “I mean, if you really want to” because it was nicer than a flat-out no.
If you are attending a family party, consider how likely your family is to gossip about your choice in guest, whether they would ask invasive questions of you, or your significant other, and whether either of those things is worth not bringing the significant other and risking invasive questions from those same family members about why you didn’t bring a significant other, and the potential ire from that significant other that you clearly don’t care enough about to bring them around your family.
What to do if you are invited to a family party with your significant other:
Facebook stalk your significant other’s family in advance to have a fighting chance of getting half of their names right after introductions are made. Bypass invasive questions about the depth of your “friendship” with your significant other with a smile and a generic “Gee, they’re just so great, aren’t they?” before quickly moving on to more pressing topics, like where this relative got that adorable holiday-themed tie/earrings/sweater/whatever. Ignore any conversational hints or jabs or mentions of the person your significant other brought last year.
Bringing a small gift for the host of your significant other’s family gathering is an encouraged gesture. Take care, however, to find out if that person has any dietary restrictions in advance. And in the event you do bring, for example, almond cookies for a person with a severe tree nut allergy, make sure to write a sincere get well soon card.
What to do when someone gives you a set of pink bunny pajamas, or some other equivalent:
Only wear them when Aunt Clara (or your respective friend or relative) comes to visit.
What to do when you only have a gift for one person in a group that you’re seeing:
Your best bets on giving a gift to one person in a group without the rest of the group feeling slighted is to either cause a distraction to divert the group’s attention or to separate the one person from the herd.
For the first, large-scale distractions such as pulling a fire alarm are discouraged, as they are dramatic enough as to disrupt the entire evening and also illegal. Choose instead to point out a set of Christmas lights, for example, or an imaginary scantily clad Santa. This should take the group’s attention to the desired point just long enough for you to thrust the gift into the recipient’s hands or, better yet, under their coat. This may come as a surprise to the recipient, as you will likely not have an opportunity to warn them in advance, but being given a gift will make up for any confusion they might have experienced.
For the second, look for opportunities to get the person alone. If the person is of the same gender as you, suggest they attend the restroom with you. Hold them back under the guise of pointing out something in a store window or a point of interest in the neighborhood. If all else fails, follow them to their car after the activity. Don’t let them leave without spreading your gift-wrapped bundle of cheer.
What to do when your child causes a scene because they did not get the present they wanted:
If the tantrum occurs before Christmas, remind the child that Santa is watching. If the child claims not to believe in Santa, remind the child that the NSA is watching, and express relief that because Santa obviously has no reason to come anymore and you can finally board up the chimney like you’ve wanted to for years. If the tantrum occurs after Christmas, explain to the child that Boxing Day, commonly celebrated in other English-speaking countries, originated as a time for Santa to box up the presents children didn’t like, and never return.
What to do when you find yourself under the mistletoe with someone you do not care to kiss:
Sprigs of mistletoe have long been hung at Christmastime to compel people to kiss under them for no other discernible reason than to comply with long-standing tradition. Unless you specifically want to kiss someone, care should be taken to avoid standing under the mistletoe lest an uncomfortable situation occur. If you do find yourself under the mistletoe with someone you wish not to kiss, politely excuse yourself from the amorous area. If the other person persists despite your lack of interest, direct their attention to the mistletoe’s nature as a parasitic plant, and tell them in as graphic detail as possible about the Druidic sacrificial rituals of which it was an integral part.
What to do if you recognize a regift:
If you attend a gift exchange and recognize a gift one person gave to another as an item you gave to that person last year, it is polite to pretend not to have noticed anything about the incident. It is more polite, however, to remark on the thoughtfulness of the gift, such as, “What a wonderful gift! The person who gave you that must have put a lot of thought into that!” or “Oh, [first person], you must have enjoyed that thing that I gave you last year so much you wanted [second person] to have one, as well!” Doing this will diffuse a potentially awkward situation by smoothing over any silent social missteps.