“Hi, I’m Christine,” I said, nervously announcing the obvious as I stepped into my fiancé’s aunt’s living room for Thanksgiving last month. Peter and I had gotten engaged over the summer and I was on center stage in this first meeting with his aunts, uncles and cousins. Was I dressed correctly? Should I hug or shake hands? Were there topics I shouldn’t talk about? Would they like me?
Joining to your significant other’s family can be fraught with all sorts of dramas. Here are some tips that I’ve compiled through my research and interviews—use it as a guide to navigating the pitfalls of the “home for the holidays” season.
1. Will you be invited home for the holidays? Discuss it at least a month before the holiday to make sure you and your significant other are on the same page. If you are engaged or married, it’s safe to assume that you will be spending Thanksgiving and Christmas together—but it’s a delicate balance to figure out which family will be graced with your presence for each holiday. Not yet at that stage? It’s hard to introduce something to your entire family before there is real commitment, but if you’re dating and getting increasingly serious about the other person, Thanksgiving might be a good time to meet the whole gang. Christmas is probably a bit more of a stretch.
2. Get the scoop in advance: You’re in a serious enough relationship to be meeting the whole family, so talk to your significant other in advance about what’s going to happen during the day or days you are visiting. Who will be there? What are their quirks?
What time does the family eat their big meal? Should you cook or bring something to serve? What should you wear? Will there be a welcome speech, and do you need to be prepared to say anything in response?
3. Sleeping arrangements: The general rule is to respect the wishes of your host. While BustedHalo surveys have shown that young adults have a variety of opinions on this topic, Christmas at your boyfriend or girlfriend’s parent’s house is NOT the time to make a statement about your sexual behavior.
If you get the sense that the family is more “liberal” in these areas, it’s OK to confirm with your significant other in advance that there will be separate rooms. Kay, 26, said she found herself in an awkward situation last Christmas with her fiancé: “His Mom just assumed we’d be sleeping together in the same room. It was weird. We’re not sure if she just wanted to ‘act cool’ about it or whether she really hadn’t given it any thought, but we had to ask her for an extra air mattress so we wouldn’t be led into temptation with our wedding so close!”
4. Follow family rituals: My family doesn’t say Grace before meals, but Peter’s family does. My family doesn’t hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer at Mass, but Peter’s family does. As a new member of the family, it was important for me to know these rituals and rules—and I was thrilled to take part in them. If there’s a special dish that is a holiday favorite, ask for the recipe and be excited about this tradition. Will everyone go for a walk after the holiday feast? Bring sneakers! Do you open presents the night before Christmas, or late in the day after Church and dinner? Talk about all these little details. No two families are alike when it comes to celebrating special moments.
5. Topics to avoid: Religion and politics are usually good topics to avoid when you first meet someone, anyone, but since you’re hoping to make your very best impression, think about the interests and affiliations of those whom you’ll be spending time with and do your best not to bring up any knock-down-drag-out debates over the family table. Remember, you are the guest – and even if you are a new addition to the family, play nice and tread softly! And warn your significant other if there are topics to skip in your house. Everything will go a whole lot more smoothly with good communication between the two of you.
6. Charm the kids: If there are children under 15 at the Christmas table, make it a point to spend time with them. Holidays with grown-ups can be kinda dull, so do your best to remember what it was like to be a child squirming at the table. If you can find a scrap of paper (like a name tag or even a napkin), try your hand at some simple origami. (The jumping frog made out of an index card or other thick paper is an easy winner.) Ask them about school and sports. Showing interest in the kids will endear you to the adults as well.
7. Not serious enough to spend Christmas together? New Year’s Eve is a great compromise. It’s a fun night for just the two of you—and 200 friends, if you are so inclined—without all the family pressure. Spend that together and when you kiss at midnight, who knows what the new year might hold!