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The Non-Expert

Photograph from the Look at Me Collection

How to Lose Friends and Alienate Family

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. We step in with some last-minute advice for a reader confused by a Christmas party conundrum: Do friends and family mix?

Have a question? Need some questionably expert advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


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Question: Dear Non-Expert, I know this is so last minute, but my family is coming for Christmas and I don’t know what to do. I’m planning a festive holiday dinner, but the thing is, I’d like to invite some friends, too. Do family and friends mix well, or is that just the stuff of Christmas carols and prayers? Have I left it too late?—Timid, but Loyal

Answer: Dear Timid, but Loyal,

My family is introspective, melancholy, and averse to crowds. My father once led the four of us, with insufficient water, on an epic hike to find a secluded spot in the oasis of Ein Gedi, a popular national park in the Judean Desert. It is in the caves of Ein Gedi where the Bible says David hid from Saul. To me, it is the place where I learned my father’s quest for solitude knows no bounds: a beautiful river cascading through a green ribbon in the middle of the desert isn’t good enough for him.

(Of course, he was right. That day we found our own little pool, and had a wonderful, quiet time—so quiet we startled a wild ibex who came down to drink. None of the other tourists saw that, I bet you!)

All I’m saying is that without a few drinks, my family is not social. Perhaps our problem is that by the time the holidays come around and we start drinking it’s too late to invite friends. You need to make plans for these things. You need to think ahead. You need to be the kind of person who can say, “When it’s Christmas, it might be nice to have a few friends around to mitigate the family foibles. It means I’ll have to cook more, find enough chairs, press napkins (really?) but it will be worth it because around my table will be a big, motley crew of people who love me and don’t know each other well enough to argue.”

Friends bring out the best in family. When they’re around, that greatest social elixir of all—The Benefit of the Doubt—just seems to run higher, 200 proof. When your mother-in-law offers to show you a few easy recipes in the kitchen, your friends think she’s being nice. They don’t know that she is actually commenting on how you still can’t, even after all these years, properly dice a tomato, her mind imprinted forever with the image of you standing in her kitchen with a knife and a pulpy tomato mess on your first visit to your future husband’s home.

When your mother says it’s so nice to be here, with all of you, your friends don’t know she is actually saying it makes her soul-numbingly sad how infrequently you call and visit home and how she has endured a 10-hour train ride to be here because she won’t fly, having grown scared of flying in recent years, among a slew of other phobias.

Oh, how merry are we! Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle we go!

But here’s the magic: when these comments are made, and you see your friends’ benign reactions to them—because you’ve invited friends and they’ve come because they love you—it’s like fairy dust. You can let the words go. (This recipe for amnesia actually also includes at least one glass of champagne.)

Mix one part “The more the merrier!” with two parts Malbec.Another possibility: in the presence of warm and talkative friends, full of their own lives and stories, your family will let rest some of the old material.

Or not. Your father-in-law may still bring out his old favorite about how he once asked a shopkeeper in New York, from whom he’d just bought a bottle of wine, to throw out some trash for him—just a few crumpled receipts, for crying out loud!—and the man refused. New York is now, forever, and always, a cold, bad place. But how are the grandchildren liking it?

It is late to extend an invitation, but fear not. Someone will be around. Say you had the flu and didn’t know if you’d be well enough. Call them immediately, buy extra groceries, and hope for the best. The harder part will be telling your family that friends are coming. My advice: don’t give them the news until Christmas day. Then, as casually as possible, just say, “Oh, yeah, a few friends are coming by for dinner.”

Your mother will say, “Christmas dinner?”

Mix one part “The more the merrier!” with two parts Malbec. And if it doesn’t work out, don’t worry. I’ll come.