Even though we're no longer living in the "happy valley '50s" but the post-irony/personal-trainer naughts, there's nothing like a big family Christmas stayover to crank up the time machine. First, there's the matter of preparing the holiday feast: free-range turkey or tofu loaf? And then, what about the family prying and spying? Does cousin Midge really need to know about that bottle of Vicodin in your medicine cabinet?
If you get a wee bit stressed about family visits during the holidays, take comfort in knowing that you're in good company. According to a survey by Expedia.com, more than 60 percent of respondents said they feel like they need a vacation after family visits during the holidays. It seems that the biggest stressor is feeling the need to please a spouse's parents. One in 10 people said they would "rather eat a whole fruitcake in one sitting than spend a week with their in-laws."
How would the Hitchcock heroine negotiate the family holiday visit today? Would she Dial M for Murder, escape through the Rear Window and recreate The Lady Vanishes or simply go into a Frenzy of domestic activity without a Shadow of a Doubt?
To help make you the mistress of your domain this Christmas, ELLE went to the experts on everything from throwing a swell dinner -- without so much as fluffing a mashed potato -- to asking a real spymaster for tips on booby-trapping your bathroom medicine cabinet. If all else fails and you still need to find a little quiet time for yourself amid the household hubbub, you can always take a long, hot shower. (Just remember to lock the door nice and tight.)
The Lady Vanishes
The best way to avoid holiday stress and anxiety? Disappear. Make use of Call Display (or just turn off the ringer), close the blinds and keep yourself entertained with your favourite DVDs. Or try skipping town. The Last Minute Club's $40 membership gives you access to massively discounted last-minute travel packages. Christmas in Hawaii, anyone?
Young and Innocent
You've inadvertently answered the phone. Now you find yourself having to explain why, unfortunately, your cousin Ginny and the kids can't stay with you this year. What you need is a good excuse. "Don't let yourself get caught off guard," says Rochelle Wilson, an improv teacher at Second City in Toronto. When telling a white lie, delivery is key. "You need confidence. If you sound guilty, they'll see through it." Also, never give too much information. The more convoluted and detailed your story, says Wilson, the more likely it is to backfire.
Page 1 of 2Stage Fright
You're terrible at improv! You've invited your relatives, and now you're desperate to undo the damage. What's the easiest way to take back an invitation? According to etiquette expert Lewena Bayer, co-founder of In Good Company in Winnipeg, it's never polite to renege. "Your best bet is to be honest," says Bayer. "I can say with certainty that if you lie to family or friends in this situation, you will get caught!" Explain to your relatives why you're just not up for guests this year and apologize for the inconvenience. Then pray they go easy on you.
You couldn't go through with undoing the invitation. Time to make peace with the situation. Try fortifying yourself with a host of "self-help" products. We suggest Lush's Honey It's Christmas gift set, a selection of 10 sweet products for soothing baths, showers, massages and kisses, for $76.95. For some good old-fashioned advice, pick yourself up a copy of The Don't Sweat Guide to Holidays by Richard Carlson, Ph.D. Who knows? You might just learn something.
It's crunch time and your home is still a mess. The solution? Strategic corner-cutting. "The bathroom is always the best place to start any last-ditch cleaning effort," says Siobhan Adcock, author of 30 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do Before Turning 30. Remove dirty towels from sight, and wipe down the sink and toilet. Declutter the living areas, and stash letters and bills in a closet or under a bed. Finally, wipe up your kitchen surfaces. If you've got a moment to spare, give yourself a once-over. "People are less likely to remember the mess in your sink than your own frazzled and unwelcoming state," says Adcock.
To Catch a Thief
Got nosy relatives? Use household items to snoop-proof your home! "To catch a medicine-cabinet bandit, place some cereal under a bathmat just in front of your cabinet," says Keith Melton, espionage historian and author of The Spy's Guide: Office Espionage. "If anyone steps on the mat, you've got evidence of a snoop on your hands." Need to safeguard your closet from a sticky-fingered sister? "Fill a shoebox with marbles and place it on the top shelf. Attach a piece of fishing line to the box and to the inside of the closet doorknob. If anyone opens it, that person is going to have one huge mess on his or her hands!"
The truth is, you're not Martha. Get yourself a good caterer -- fast! "You'll need at least two weeks' notice around the holidays," says Dee Gibson of Gibson & Lyle, a catering and event-management service in Toronto. The best way to find a good caterer in your area, she says, is word of mouth. Ask potential caterers lots of questions: What do they charge per person? What is their style of food? Have they done parties of this nature before? Do they offer advance tastings? To appear more domestically adept than you are, pass off the catered food as your own! "It's actually quite common," says Gibson. "I've had people do it quite a few times."
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