How to avoid holiday houseguest hell
Illustration: Andrew Rae
This time of year, it's inevitable. Friends and family will be stopping by or—worse—staying over. Yes, I know you're supposed to feel jolly about welcoming in every relative looking for a bit of holiday cheer, but, if you're like me, you're more likely to experience some confusion, faintness, even a little nausea. Interacting with people on neutral turf, say at work or in a restaurant, is akin to a peck on the cheek. Entertaining at home, bluntly stated, is equivalent to a French kiss. Opening your house, like opening your mouth, exposes you to myriad ills. So before anyone crosses your threshold, you've got to immunize yourself against various threats to your system.

These threats can be both emotional and physical. For example, guests may make harsh judgments about your homemaking. (I remain scarred by the woman who toured my house, silently scrutinizing every room, then asked, "Are you bipolar?") You could be pulled into an arms race with someone who buys all of her Christmas decorations from Bergdorf's and never, not for one second, lets anyone forget it. There could be problems you've never even imagined: A guest could slip on a puddle in your kitchen, swing from your drapes, have lethal allergic reactions to your cockatoo. A kleptomaniac could heist everything from the menorah to the chips and dip, leaving you distraught with nothing to eat for consolation. It could get ugly. Really ugly.

Fortunately, you can increase your resistance to all these dangers with the three simple steps on the following pages, which serve as a sort of prophylaxis for any holiday hosting situation. Use them before you even think about answering the doorbell.

Straighten Up from the Inside Out

The most important hosting immunization happens inside your head. Any latent social anxieties you may have will blossom like huge, poisonous poinsettias when you entertain. You'll obsess over other people's judgments: "Did they notice my new china?" "Is my apartment stylish enough?" "What are they saying about the food?" "Do they like me, do they, do they?"

Right now, resolve that whenever you notice yourself asking such questions, you'll stop, breathe, and focus on this precious truth: Your guests' interest in you and your home is minuscule compared with their interest in themselves. People appreciate and enjoy a host who appreciates and enjoys them, and a powerful "immune response" to social anxiety is to give people the kind of sincere compliments you crave. Anyone you praise, especially in front of others, will love you.

Conversely, you can also deal with the anxiety by focusing on yourself instead of the guests. You can't please everyone, so inoculate yourself by decking the halls with decorations you love. Serve your favorite food in a way that makes you feel relaxed and joyful. I once had a client—let's call her Mary Jane—who stuffed her holiday turkey with bread, chestnuts, and a heaping handful of ground marijuana. (I'm not making this up, except for the name, of course.) Everyone loved Mary Jane's parties, and thought her décor was fabulous even when, dazed and confused, they accidentally locked themselves in the furnace room. I'm not recommending the use of illicit substances—I would never!—I'm just pointing out that relaxation, not perfectionism, is the key to successful entertaining. Anyone worth inviting to your home will agree.

Note the phrase "worth inviting to your home." Relaxed hospitality keeps you safe when dealing with people you like. People you don't like are another story. Entertaining relative strangers or your stranger relatives may require heavy-duty immunization.

To determine whether this is necessary, try the following mental exercise: Picture someone who might come to your home—let's say your weird co-worker Morris. Next, think of a possession you really love, maybe a crystal candlestick. Now imagine this: You're in the kitchen, dicing the marijuana, when another guest rushes in and says, "Morris had your crystal candlestick under his arm and he fell down and totally shattered it!" Be honest: Would you be more relieved if "it" turned out to be the candlestick or Morris's arm?

I'm not saying objects are more important than people; they aren't. But that doesn't mean everyone should have access to your prized crystal. Not everyone deserves a French kiss, either. And think about this: Even people you really love could lose to the candlestick in your thought experiment (after all, you wouldn't want to French kiss your sister, would you?). Since abstinence (banning all guests from your house) isn't realistic, you must protect yourself through a process I call undecorating.

Undecorate Before You Decorate

Before you do any party preparation whatsoever, consider each object in your home, asking yourself: "If someone broke, dirtied, lost, or stole that, would I be devastated?" Decide, clearly and explicitly, if the joy of sharing something is worth more to you than keeping it in perfect condition. If the answer is no, take that object off the shelf. It's going into quarantine. If you do decide to share a prized object, adjust your mind-set accordingly: Remember, people are more important than things. Usually.

This process has two felicitous aspects. It kicks off your holiday decorating by leaving space for festive ornamentation. (Your trimmings needn't be pricey. Evergreen sprigs, sparkly lights, and brown-bag luminaries make for enchanting décor, Bergdorf's be damned.) Undecorating also helps you accept that guests might damage something, but connecting intimately with loved ones is worth the risk.

If you still can't relax, you can escape.

Establish a Sanctum Sanctorum

Meaning "holy of holies," sanctum sanctorum refers to the center of a temple or church, accessible only to a chosen few. Your sanctum sanctorum might be your master bedroom, or a bathroom, which works well because if you disappear into it for hours, most people won't want to know why. Make sure the room has a lock, then fill it with everything you removed during the undecorating process. Don't forget the most valuable thing of all: nothing.

When Roman troops plundered the Jewish temple's sanctum sanctorum, they thought it would contain jewels, delicacies, and the latest in combat technology, not yet available in stores. Instead, they found something that truly shocked them: emptiness. The Jewish concept of God isn't a three-dimensional object; it is a force beyond material form, a no-thing that is the ground for everything. Learn from this. At the center of your sanctum sanctorum, leave space for a little bit of nothing: nothing to do, nothing to remember, nothing to buy or wrap or give or cook or dust. Slip away to this space to rediscover your holy self during the holy days, especially when your visitors are raising holy hell.

So that's it. Once you've immunized yourself against social anxiety, undecorated, and created your sanctum sanctorum, you can throw yourself into the festive joys of holiday entertaining. Knowing your heart and home are protected, mail those invitations and park yourself under the mistletoe. It's up to you whether you offer guests your mouth or your cheek.

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