Start by giving loved ones plenty of notice.

As your family's go-to holiday host, choosing not to organize a large, celebratory meal can feel like a major letdown—for you and your guests. "Every family has a Domestic Goddess, and the celebration of a particular holiday, year after year, becomes a family tradition," says Maryanne Parker, an etiquette expert at Manor of Manners. "We love traditions, because they give us feelings of belonging and feelings of being safe; we are comfortable and relaxed, because we know exactly what to expect." But whatever your reason for bowing out of hosting—this year, it all comes down to the COVID-19 pandemic—following a few basic etiquette guidelines may make spreading the news a little easier. "The goal," says Parker, "is to protect our friends and families, and hope for brighter days ahead." Ahead, how to navigate this awkward conversation.

family at christmas dinner
Credit: Getty / Klaus Vedfelt

Give plenty of notice.

Although it's natural to feel a little worried about how your family will react to a change in tradition, hedging about your plans—or flat-out lying—won't help. "As soon as you know, share your decision," says Jodi RR Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. "Waiting does not make the news any easier, and it leaves others less time to make alternate plans." Whether you send an email first and follow up with a call—or vice versa—it's important to make sure you speak to each guest in person. "If we need to communicate the news that we will not be hosting the holidays this year among family members or close friends, we should be honest and direct," says Parker. Try straightforward phrasing like, "Every year I had the pleasure to host my wonderful family members and friends, and we had the opportunity to create so many unforgettable memories. This year, I am neither ready nor prepared to host the family gathering at my house," suggests Parker, or "We were so hoping that we would be able to host our Thanksgiving dinner, but with pandemic still here, we are going to need to cancel. Stay safe so that we can celebrate together next year," recommends Smith.

Hold your ground.

Since everyone has a different level of comfort for indoor gatherings, you may run into pushback from well-meaning relatives who try to brush off your concerns. "As always some of our family members might be a bit pushier than others," says Parker. "However, during the holidays we should try to avoid confrontations at any kind. With persistent family members we should be firm and honest." Whether you're concerned about your health, tired of cooking, or simply drained from a stressful year, reinforce that your decision is final. "We shouldn't be apologetic, because there is no wrongdoing," says Parker. "Being firm, direct, and polite is the only way to present our message." Remember that their displeasure most likely stems from a little bit of shock—and more than a little bit of disappointment. "You have been thinking about this situation for a while and have processed the decision—part of their reaction may be pure surprise," says Smith. "Know that their reactions, from anger to attempted emotional blackmail, come from a place of love. They are disappointed because they want to see you—you should be honored. Take the time to strategize so that you are able to respond calmly and with love."

Suggest a different kind of celebration.

In some situations, it may make sense for you to attend a small gathering at a different relative's home—if they have an outdoor space they plan to use, for example, or if you feel comfortable making a brief, masked visit (instead of hosting a large group for a meal). But if you've decided to skip all in-person holiday gatherings this year, offer to host a virtual event—like a holiday evening Champagne toast, coordinated present-opening, or Zoom caroling session. "Keep in mind that you can make alternate plans, such as organizing a video talent show or sending care packages of your extra chocolate brownies to everyone," says Smith. "If you are co-located, maybe Nana and Papa come out to their porch while the cousins do a drive by parade. Be creative!"


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