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Host a huge holiday feast or keep it small and stress-free – which should I do?

The question

For 15 years my husband and I have hosted Christmas Day for both our families. After the 13th year, I asked my sister-in-law if we might begin to alternate hosting Christmas Day. Her kids are grown and bring their spouses and our kids are starting to have serious relationships so the numbers are growing. Well, she completely lost it. She screamed and ranted at me for 20 minutes and concluded that if it was so much trouble then they wouldn't come at all, and they didn't. The following year, my husband and I continued to host Christmas and they all came. It's a ton of preparation and we both work full-time. Finally, last year I said to my husband, "Let's keep it small, invite your parents and mine and call it a day." So we did, and it was really lovely. Even our children commented on the reduced stress. My husband wants to go back to hosting Christmas for all and I've suggested we host a brunch the weekend before or after Christmas. What's your take?

The answer

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First of all, your sister-in-law sounds like a piece of work.

She "screamed and ranted for 20 minutes" because you suggested she take a couple of Christmas dinners off your hands? Madam, I pray you are exaggerating for effect. If anyone ever screamed and ranted at me for 20 minutes – well, for the last 15 they'd be screaming and ranting at the empty chair where I used to be sitting, because I'd already be in a different house, where people are nice to me and want to be helpful and speak in a normal voice.

Oh, well. Some sisters-in-law are helpful, some are not. Your sister-in-law has elected to be unhelpful to the point of being unhinged. Not the most successful long-term life-strategy, I'd say – and you can tell her I said that – but, anyway, on to you and your dilemma, about which let me say this:

Every year, my wife's parents host the annual Christmas shindig at their house, and it's not only a shindig but a sleepover; it's usually at least 20 for dinner. The table, which is really several tables laid end-to-end, spans two rooms. People sleep in beds and on floors all over the house.

And we, the offspring, can all see what a mountain of work it is for them. We feel guilty and offer to take it off their hands some year. But they're good at it, and it means a lot to us: My wife leads singalongs on the piano, a fierce Ping-Pong tournament rages in the basement, debates on various topics last late into the night, and it's a fun bonding/memory-creating moment for all.

Now, I certainly understand, in the midst of holiday hullabaloo, the temptation to limit your festivity-hosting to a little brunch, or otherwise intimate gathering. Lord knows this time of year is already stressful. Certainly you have to balance the stress and strain on your family, on your marriage, on your kids.

But taking all this into consideration and since you asked, I'm going to take your husband's side and say: stay home and go big, have everyone over for turkey or ham or whatever – the whole nine yards.

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Sorry! It's a big production, I know. About that, one word: delegate. In next Tuesday's paper I'm doing a last-minute guide to getting through the holidays, but here's a sneak preview: When I host stuff, I conscript everyone who wanders through the kitchen to help me out. Even if it's just some little task. They like it, it keeps them busy and they feel like they've contributed.

You could even make it a potluck or a partial potluck, if you like. Ask people to bring a dish, or hors d'oeuvre, or dessert – or just some cheese! – even your crabby sister-in-law. She may blow her stack at the suggestion, hop up and down with rage, turn red in the face, spit her soother across the room and fill her diaper: that's her choice.

But don't let her wreck everyone else's fun. One or two screw-loose relatives can be absorbed in the overall goodwill of a family, especially at this time of year. And it's only once a year, and I bet it means a lot more to the people you have over than you realize, and it feels like it might be odd and potentially fractious to the family to invite some and exclude others, and I'm sorry in advance for your stress, but weighing everything in the balance, I have to say, in three words:

Go for it.

What am I supposed to do now?

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