All the twinkling lights and delicately wrapped presents are in place, but your 83-year-old grandparents first have to deliver the annual Christmas message to the family.

What will they say this year? Will it be a 30-minute diatribe about the lack of leadership from the current “liberal administration” or a tearful, finger-wagging monologue about Revelation? Will Grandma ask us to go over her living will again and force each of the nine grandchildren to select a commemorative “memory souvenir” from her extensive Swarovski crystal collection?

Christmas gatherings with my family require us to be on our toes for whatever may happen, which makes for a sometimes-comical, sometimes-cringe-worthy evening for all involved.

My M.O. is to go with whatever, but other family members don’t have a tactful bone in their bodies and lash out when provoked. “Train wreck” is an appropriate phrase. And I can only imagine, what with the forthcoming election and politically charged year we’ve had, the awkward moments that might occur.


Here are five awkward things that may be said and how I plan (best-case scenario) to deal with them.

Grandma goes racist
She comes from a different time, when people of different “colors” were separated-and although she knows better than to offer her opinions in public, all bets are off when it’s just family within earshot. The only question is which ethnicity or religious affiliation will be her target. Her suggestion that we should simply “blow up all the sand people” (edited for publication) at Thanksgiving suggests her aim might be focused toward the Middle East. But wild card comments about Hispanics and black people are never completely off the table.

How to react? Silence. I don’t say anything, and a quiet, damning hush settles in the room. Other family members will offer up nervous laughter or even a “Grandma, no!” but I’ve always found it best to ignore the situation. She’s not changing, and why should she at her age? Silence. Mouth shut. Pray for a change in subject.

Grandpa starts preaching
I’ve never known a man who can turn a seemingly innocent phrase such as “please pass the butter” into a 90-minute lecture about the 12 tribes of Abraham (forgive my ignorance) or the coming rapture at the next blood moon. We are all “sinners,” of course, and without “making peace with the Lord” at that very moment, we are all doomed to spend eternity in hell. Unfortunately, this attitude makes it nearly impossible to have any conversations with Grandpa without fear of a Bible-thumping.

How to react: This is tricky because silence implies you are willing to continue listening to his diatribe.

Instead, I want the situation to be over as soon as possible. That’s why I always attempt to change the subject to football. “Our heavenly bodies will soon be taken to the gates of …” he might begin, and I quickly respond with, “But, VOLS! They played well this year and touchdowns, right, Grandpa?” This works surprisingly well.

Grandma gets personal
“I hope you can fit into it. You’ve gained a lot of weight this year,” Grandma says as you open a new sweater she gave you as a Christmas present. Maybe she doesn’t mean to insult you-it might be a genuine concern-but everybody in the family is now aware that Grandma thinks you’re fat. This happens often in our family. A moment that should be pleasant is manipulated into a veiled insult within earshot of everybody. One year, Grandma gave me an Applebee’s gift card that I could use for “takeout meals” because I didn’t have a girlfriend to go out with.

How to react: I think about the gift. Regardless of the intention, Grandma still thought about me and offered me a gift with a personal touch. I thank her profusely, hug her around the neck and choose to believe she has my best interests in mind. More importantly, I imagine what a great story this moment will be when I tell my friends about it later. Gratitude.

Grandpa is dying
Inevitably, Grandpa will make a declaration that this Christmas will be his last. He usually offers this information moments before we begin our annual gift exchange, casting a pall of doom and sadness over the ceremony. He has made this announcement each Christmas for over a decade, and each year, we’re always caught off guard. True, this year might be his last, but how are we supposed to respond to this?

How to react: hugs. It’s a ridiculous ritual, but each of us stands in line and offers an embrace and funeral “goodbye” to him. In his mind, he needs all of us to know how much he loves us, but it makes the gift cards, sweaters and other presents we receive a bit unremarkable while we ponder his death. It is my least-favorite moment of the holidays-and it never gets easier because one day he’ll be right.

Grandma vs. Grandpa
A sixty-plus-year marriage is an accomplishment on paper, but the reality can also be a seesaw of emotional animosity played out for everyone in the vicinity. Grandma will complain, loudly, about having to “wait hand in foot” on Grandpa at his request. Grandpa will, in turn, loudly complain about my grandma’s ability to complete these tasks to his satisfaction. We are caught having to sympathize with both of them for the lives they’ve created for themselves. Last year, Grandpa waited until my grandmother was about to open her presents before he required a pimento cheese sandwich be delivered to his bedroom. He would not let anyone other than my grandma prepare it. She aggressively spent the next 25 minutes making the sandwich while he checked on her progress by yelling from the other room.

How to react: smirking and head shaking. What else can we do?

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