When a large group of people gets together, as is common for Thanksgiving and Christmas, there are bound to be stress points during the course of the visit. If you’re serving as host, those stress points can resonate even more strongly with you. Although there is no catchall solution to prevent every single sticky situation — an argument still may occur or an object be broken — there are a few simple techniques that can mitigate many potential problems to make sure family holidays are enjoyed by all. We asked “Visit Wizard” Kathy Bertone, author of The Art of the Visit: Being the Perfect Host, Becoming the Perfect Guest, to share her words of wisdom.
1. Initiate communication. The former owner of a cabin in West Virginia, Bertone has experienced “the visit” from numerous angles: host (to humans of all ages, as well as four-legged friends), guest and even absentee host, lending her holiday cabin to others to use. No matter which role you will play this holiday season, one essential step must occur prior to the commencement of any visit: communication.
A simple email exchange is all that’s needed to ensure everyone is on the same page regarding expectations, personal needs, supplies, etc, for family holidays. “Advance planning is so important,” Bertone stresses, regarding everything from travel schedules to set activities and menus (or at least awareness of allergies or other dietary restrictions). “The more time you put into planning the visit, the easier the visit is going to go for you.”
If your guests aren’t forthcoming with details, as the host, initiate the discussion to make sure you know how long they plan to stay and that you’ll have everything needed to make their stay comfortable.
2. Determine financial expectations. Finances can be a tricky subject, especially between parties of differing economic statuses. Communicating expectations ahead of time can be an easy way to avoid awkward confrontations about who is expected to pay for what.
“For common, everyday experiences, the host is expected to pay,” advises Bertone. “But if it’s expensive, there should be some discussion. As long as those things are discussed in advance, there should be no worries.”
She suggests tactful phrasing in your pre-visit emails or itinerary, such as “Saturday fishing trip for those who want to participate, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., $75 per person, paid to the captain upon arrival of the boat.” That way it’s clear who’s paying, and if someone opts out, he or she has a time frame in which to schedule another activity (or squeeze in a nap).
3. Maintain a social (and civil) environment. During family holidays, there are bound to be at least three, if not four, generations present under the same roof, and possibly in-laws as well who may not be as acquainted with everyone. So how do you make sure no one feels left out of such a multigenerational home?
“As host, it is your responsibility to make sure everyone is having a good time and to set up expectations and manage them,” Bertone explains. That means ensuring grandparents, great-uncles or the like aren’t just relegated to sitting in a chair in the corner while the kids are zoned out on electronic gadgetry. Old-fashioned board games, checkers or chess can bring those two generations together, Bertone suggests, to make sure no one family member (or generation) is dominating the activity.
Be diligent in putting old habits or behaviors to rest as well, Bertone advises. “Whatever happened, let it be in the past,” she says. “Really just focus on the present and future.”
Remember: “It’s your house, your rules,” Bertone states. “You set the tone. You decide what will be discussed. You set the behaviors. And a lot of people are afraid to do that with family.”
4. Involve your guests in the visit. Thanksgiving and Christmas are notoriously gluttonous holidays. Before preparing yourself to slave over a stove for hours, though, invite your guests to participate in the creation of the meal by bringing a side dish or dessert. Not only is it an acceptable way to ease your cooking and shopping burdens, “it gets the guests involved,” Bertone notes. “It’s very nice to bring something and see it presented for dinner or breakfast.” Just request a broad category (dessert, for example, versus “bring an apple pie”), then leave it up to the guest to be as creative as he or she wants.
On the flip side, if you are a guest, don’t bring something unless you’ve discussed it with your host, Bertone advises. Your host may having everything planned soup to nuts and not have anywhere to put your dish, she explains, or you may end up bringing pot roast to feed vegetarians.
If your guests will be staying for an extended period of time (e.g., more than five days), don’t be afraid to ask them to pitch in around the house either. “Any host that says, ‘I love to do it all!’ is just not telling the truth,” Bertone states. Make sure others are participating in the visit to help ease the stress and not have you ready to boot them out the door.