My boyfriend and I are heading to my parents' house for Thanksgiving. He's not the first guy I've brought home, but he's the first in a long while. My family is known for being nosy and inappropriate, and frankly, they're embarrassing. I am not looking forward to this trip. Any advice? —A.K.
You are not alone. Here's a dirty little secret about the holiday season that no one's supposed to admit: Folks don't really enjoy it the way all the commercials and Hallmark cards would have you believe. Everyone likes the good food, the bountiful drink and the days off from work, but studies show that most people have high levels of stress over family holiday get-togethers.
If you can't take the heat from your family, seriously consider avoiding the headache by not going home. A few years ago, I stayed put for Thanksgiving with my then-boyfriend. I baked a veggie lasagna and bought good wine; he made baked chicken and picked up a cheesecake from Junior's in Brooklyn, N.Y. (At least one tradition was kept.)
We spent Thanksgiving morning decorating the Christmas tree and watching the Macy's parade, then we ate dinner on my tiny couch while we watched The Wire. Admittedly, the food wasn't as good as my mother's, but I'd created a new tradition with my partner, and honestly? Not even home-cooked food tastes as good as sanity feels.
But maybe not going isn't worth upsetting your people (and they will likely be upset). If you're determined to grin and bear it, consider the following:
1. Stay at a hotel.
There's only one queen or king per castle; at your parents' house, they rule. You're already on edge wondering what could go wrong. Reduce your opportunities for embarrassment or complete disaster by splurging for a night where you and your date can actually unwind without being interrupted (and can sleep in the same bed).
2. Make sure your family knows your date's name (and that they know he or she isn't the person who showed up last year).
My grandmother had Alzheimer's, a condition that resulted in many embarrassing moments, like the time a relative arrived at a family dinner with his new companion, the woman he'd begun dating after he and his wife divorced. My grandmother saw them together, pointed to the woman in horror and loudly accused, "That is not your wife!" My mother and I calmed her down and corrected her, and just when things were settled, Grandma yelled it again.
That's the worst-case scenario, of course. But a relative who greets your date with, "Hey, Marvin, good to have you back," when your date's name is Chris and this is his first visit, will have the same effect on him.
3. Warn your date of family traditions.
My friend Sophia was raised in America, but her parents are from London by way of Lagos; thus they don't celebrate Thanksgiving. It's no bigger deal than, say, your average Sunday dinner. Her boyfriend invited her to Thanksgiving dinner where the men cook, per family tradition.
After Sophia ate, she, a football fan, headed to the basement with the men to watch the game and hang out with her boyfriend instead of staying upstairs with the women, per another family tradition, to clean up. There's no way she could have known this without being told, but because she didn't pick up on it or offer to help with the dishes, his mother took it as a sign she was "rude" and didn't "fit" with the family and held a grudge against her for years.
4. Rescue your mate from awkward situations.
If your family is anything like mine, someone (age 70-plus) will find the most inappropriate time of the night and when everyone is in earshot to ask about some personal issue that is none of their business. For me, it was the elderly aunt, who asked my boyfriend (of less than a year) why it was taking so long for him to ask me to marry him. He sputtered for so long, I just told him, "Why don't you head to the basement … now!"
And don't think that when you get married, you'll be immune to this. My girl Coretta is the breadwinner in her marriage. At her (bourgeois) family dinner, her grandfather asked her husband how work was going, then followed up with, "You earning any more money yet?"
As her husband stammered to figure out a way to defend himself without offending his in-laws, she came to his defense. "He works hard. I love him. That is all that matters," she blurted. Case closed.
5. Set your partner up for the win.
If there are hot-button issues that will immediately turn your family off, tell (or remind) your date. For instance, if you come from a clan of die-hard Obama or Redskins fans (that would be the Lucas household), it would be helpful if your partner knew not to sing the praises of Herman Cain or talk about how much he loves Tony Romo.
Also, give an update on any recent family developments, such as the fact that your sister is now separated from her husband. It would be helpful to know so that your partner doesn't look for him and ask the kids, "Hey, where's your dad hiding out?" thinking he's elsewhere in the house.
It's also helpful to assist your mate with brownie points. If your mother has picked up a new hobby, suggest to your mate that he ask how it's been coming along. Or, if your dad has a sweet tooth, recommend that your partner bring something to satisfy it. I mentioned once that my dad like sweets, and my date picked up a double chocolate-fudge cheesecake from Junior's, held it on his lap for the three-hour train ride to D.C. and then presented it to my father.
My dad looked at him, looked at the cake, then back at him. He smiled, reached out his hand and said, "Welcome to the family."
Good luck, and happy holidays!
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor to The Root, and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She answers your dating and relationship questions on The Root each week. Feel free to ask anything at firstname.lastname@example.org.