By Dana Tudose-Tianu 

The holidays are coming, and most of us will be spending time with our extended family. That will include grandparents, the in-laws, uncles and aunts, cousins and family friends. 

By now, the host of the “big holiday dinner” knows the roles everyone plays. She usually plays the peace-maker, along Aunt Marie, who is 90 years old and can’t hear very well. 

Here’s whom you might have around the holiday table: 

The “I’m always right” character, who may be the host’s own husband, a grandparent or an uncle. No one wants to sit next to him (or her) or, even worse, across from him.  No conversation is possible there, because some people feel validated just by proving everyone constantly wrong. So whatever you’d say, you have NO IDEA what you’re talking about. You’ll be able to squeeze in perhaps 30 words in a 30-minute conversation that will leave you mentally drained. 

The “nothing is working, everything is going from bad to worse” character. The pessimist of the group will wipe that smile off of their idealistic niece’s face in two split seconds, right after learning that she got the lead in a My Fair Lady production. The pessimist can’t stand seeing people happy. What a waste!! What illusory and superficial views on life! He or she must rectify the situation immediately and remind the 19 year old niece that she will be starving as an actress and foreign language major in college. “We’ll talk again in 3 years when you are unemployed,” the pessimist will make sure to remind her in such a way that everyone will hear, and will of course not attend the niece’s show. A waste of time and money. 

Luckily, you, the host and peace-maker, together with aunt Marie, sing the idealistic niece’s praises and buy 10 tickets to her show right away. By now you’ve started counting the minutes in the three or so hours left of this annual Family Christmas dinner. 

The “Gossip Girl”. This could be several people around the table, but it’s usually one (let’s say an aunt or a family friend) who sits right next to you, the host, and, right in the middle of a 5-second silence, when everyone is eating their sarmale, will ask “I hear you changed jobs, how much are they paying you?” or “Are you still breastfeeding? Your little one looks very thin, you know?” or “I saw your ex-husband on the street a few days ago. He was with this gorgeous blonde, but I’m sure she had no brains. He looked totally dashing, I must say. Is he remarried?”

The children. Aged 0 to 19, they have roles, too: the super cute ones, 0 to 6, are perfect conversation buffers. When things get tense, just bring in the baby. Women will go “uhh,  aaah, awww, how cute” and withdraw from any conflicting, negative, investigative or bashing conversation for about twenty minutes. The entire audience’s attention can be further captured by the 3 to 6 year olds’ mise-en-scene of Frozen, Sleeping Beauty or Rapunzel. That will last about ten minutes. 

The problem is with the older children. They are triggers of potentially dangerous conversations among the adults around the table, especially any child who possesses a talent (plays the piano, paints, sings). The debates will soon erupt.

“He won’t amount to anything if he keeps playing the piano. Every boy these days has to be a computer genius”; “I know a piano player in Bucharest. He is 60 and twice divorced, because when he was younger he traveled all the time, so who would stay with him? Now he walks his dogs and keeps the accounting for our building for extra income.”

The counterattack from the artistic side of the family: “Oh, look at him, he is a genius. No, he really is. I’ve NEVER heard a 12-year old play the piano so well. Do you know he was selected to play at the opening of that new mall? And he’s being paid 100 Euro!!”

Silence follows for a few seconds and you can feel the tension in the air. 

It could get worse, if all of them, together, in unison, turn towards the poor piano prodigy: “So, what do you REALLY want to be when you grow up?” You, the host, must intervene at this ominous moment and extract the prodigy by way of bringing in MANY deserts and more to drink. 

Two more characters will most likely be around your table: “the star” of the family and the “nouveau riche”. Mind you, these two roles sometimes change from year to year. However, the star can be the rich person, the famous person, the intellectual, the one who is “above” such petty conversations and whom few around the table dare to bother. He or she smiles politely, probably takes a couple of calls during the evening, and will squeeze in one or two names of very important people, his “very good” friends. 

The nouveau riche will just drop in brand names, super expensive gifts and drinks, and vacations in the Seychelles, Martinique and Monaco, all of which happened in the past month. He or she has recently been to the opening of a new luxury brand store and was appalled, mind you, to see the poor quality of things there. Bucharest just doesn’t compare to London, you know. 

Poor you, the host, the mediator, the peace-maker… I feel for you and so many of us have been you. 

I want you to think about your holiday dinner like setting up a staged play. Carefully sit people in strategic positions around the table, plan the entrances of children for cute performances, make sure there is more food than anyone can eat and plenty to drink. For 4-6 hours you must do nothing else but carefully observe, intervene, mediate and negotiate. 

There are many other characters you may have around the table…the academic, too intellectual to talk to, the expert who finds it hard to use a normal vocabulary; the patriarch who knows what everyone should do with their life; the general who commands all around him…

But you, the peace-maker, deserve a big Christmas gift and a medal, for obviously thinking of something else, something that no one else around the table (except for aunt Marie) is thinking about: how to help EVERYONE have a good time (or at least not have a terrible time). How to create the feeling and spirit of the holiday and how to set an example of what a harmonious house looks like, especially for the children, who are observing more than they seem to be.

But should the holiday dinner be like this? When will the peace-maker have his or her relaxing family dinner? The answer to that is…when a few more people around the table take on thinking and caring about making the OTHERS feel good. 

Dana Tudose-Tianu is a Family MediatorFor more information see www.casa-tianu.com

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