The family Christmas dinner -- for many, it's a time of closeness and celebration, delicious traditional dishes, toasts and good cheer. But that idyllic image often comes at a price for one particular family member: the one who is slaving away in the kitchen, breaking a sweat as she serves and clears all of the courses, fills guests' wine glasses and handles the cleanup. As the others celebrate, drinking wine, laughing and talking, she simmers in anger and resentment.
If you see yourself in this situation to any degree, it's time to make a change to "how things are done" by practicing good etiquette in asking others to help out.
"The foundation of good etiquette is honesty, respect and consideration," says Daniel Post Senning, great-great-grandson of Emily Post and co-author of the 18th edition of "Emily Post's Etiquette." "And respect for yourself is a big part of that. You don't want to make yourself a victim or a martyr sitting there being angry" over all the work you're stuck doing while everyone else has an enjoyable evening.
"It's important while hosting that you do so with a spirit of generosity and good will," says Post Senning. "And an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. So anticipate the work that your Christmas dinner requires, and get ahead of the problem by taking charge and asking for help."
Post Senning says that the first level of asking for help is approaching your spouse and children, explaining that this year you will require and appreciate their assistance with the preparations, as well as the serving and the cleanup.
"When it comes to your other guests, it gets trickier," says Post Senning, who advises talking to your relatives about your wonderful plans for this year's Christmas dinner. "Say, 'It's going to be a big, wonderful meal, and I could really use your help.'" That's when you might ask each relative if they'll assist with serving or clearing a single course, or sticking around for easy cleanup. Many hands do make short work, after all.
In Post Senning's own family, the passing of the matriarch Emily Post meant that family members would take turns hosting the Christmas meal, and one of his aunts created an organizing chart specifying which cousins would serve and clear which courses. "It worked remarkably well for our very large group," he says.
Change is often a challenge, especially during a holiday of long-held traditions, so inform your guests ahead of time that you hope to share some tasks related to the dinner. It would be a difficult drama if guests were to arrive, only to be shown a chart with their names on it and tasks assigned to them. This isn't summer camp. It is, remember, a dinner of good will and generosity.
"When asked, most people do not mind helping, especially when they know what is expected of them," says etiquette expert Carey Sue Vega. "So I would start by making a game plan and figuring out ahead of time all of the areas where you could use a helping hand. As the arrangements (date, time, etc.) are being made for the event, share with your family members how much you love the Christmas dinner tradition. Also, share with them your excitement about how much the family is growing and how the celebration has developed into such a large affair."
Vega advises asking each guest which task they'd like to help with, which employs the consideration aspect of etiquette by giving guests their choice.
You may be surprised to find that relatives would love to show off their table-decorating skills or a special recipe that they enjoy making. Some love to entertain, but their homes are not big enough. They may have always envied you for your ability to host and admired the beautiful job you've always done.
And of course, if your anger and resentment have been evident at past years' Christmas dinners, they may be relieved -- quite honestly -- to be rid of the negativity and tension at the table that made guests feel they're a burden to you, and that you dislike hosting them.
"Do your best not to assault people for not helping in years' past," says Post Senning. It's a terrible lack of respect for yourself, your spouse -- if your grievance is with his side -- and your guests if you operate out of anger before, during and after the Christmas meal, working twice as hard and making yourself miserable. That's not the spirit of giving at all, and is in fact the very opposite of good etiquette.
So with an advance plan, good communication and asking for help, you may very well save Christmas -- for your guests, and for yourself.