Bastards and orphans: celebrating holidays with peers

Guest post by Beretta Fleur
Take it from Mama Beretta Fleur: follow her guidelines and you'll have happy bastards and orphans.
Take it from Mama Beretta Fleur: follow her guidelines and you’ll have happy bastards and orphans.

I’ve spent many holidays single and away from family. In college, I slumped at the tables of assorted Elders, swallowing my lonesomeness and explaining why I was vegan. In my late twenties, I shifted to hosting or being hosted by friends. For whatever reason, there we were: the bastards and orphans, isolated from privileged celebrations because of limited funds, swing shifts, or dysfunctional families. Happy — or in some cases, miserable — together.

I’ve participated in lots of gatherings of bastards and orphans, and here’s what’s worked for us.

Invite anyone in your circle who you like and has nowhere to go. Let me stress: PEOPLE YOU LIKE. Don’t be my mother and invite the lady from church just because she has nowhere to go. No one will like her, she’ll intrude for hours, and then you’ll all understand why she has nowhere to go.

Create a calm and nurturing atmosphere — think Valium for the senses. For lighting, use string lights, paper lanterns, and a fire or candles. Provide pillows and blankets.

Keep your guests entertained, but don’t seat your orphans and bastards in front of a movie. One year, a host had the horrible idea of showing The Mothman Prophecies. She may as well have put on Jacob’s Ladder. This is not the time for psychological thrillers, but if you enjoy sports, put the game on. Or upbeat music.

For Thanksgiving table decor, gourds are great for centerpieces. I use linens and dishes, but butcher’s paper and paper plates work, too. Include everyone: ensure there’s adequate table seating, or make a buffet area with informal seating.

For Christmas, Hanukkah, or Festivus, skip gourds, have a tree, menorah, or tinsel-free pole. Avoid religious rites (guests can honor this privately if they want to).

If hosting, provide the appetizers and the main course; potluck the rest. If you do meat for the main dish, try Heritage Foods. If not, a Celebration Roast is a tasty and non-threatening vegan item for carnivores to eat.

Place appetizers where people gravitate — near the kitchen, television, or bar. One year, my San Fransisco hostess began with crab legs and Napa wines. It was impeccable. Other ideas:

  • Baskets of nuts in the shell, bowls for empty shells
  • Cheese, salami, bread, and fruit
  • Veggies and hummus

Offer a signature drink (like cider rum) for appetizers and another (wine or micro-brew) for the meal. Serve water and alcohol-free drinks, too.

We all have our favorite side dishes; I read sophisticated stuffing recipes, but Stove Top screams “home.” My husband loves cranberry sauce slid directly out of the can into a dish, still in the can shape. So let the guests choose what they will bring.

One year, I was asked to make a Christmas ham. I did it, but I was vegan, and it severely grossed me out — I could not wear fishnet stockings for a long time afterwards. Another year, I was assigned green bean casserole. My family never ate it, so I of course messed it up — try finding those french fried onions in a convenience store at 2pm on Thanksgiving. I was shunned, and I resented having to make something I didn’t care about.

Likewise, if you are a guest bringing a side, don’t get tricky or creative. Holidays are hard enough without you substituting the marshmallows for Fluff on the sweet potatoes or, God forbid, leaving the crunchy onions off the stupid green beans. There will be agitation, and you will get stuck watching a bad movie and not speaking to each other.

Desserts are a great potluck item for the wayward non-cook since they’re readily available pre-made.

If you do gifts, avoid the White Elephant. There’s something wrong about bastards and orphans getting just a gag gift, or items chosen with strategy being ripped from their hands. In their fragile emotional state of mind, guests can resent and turn on each other. A nicer idea is to do a designated gift exchange. A handmade theme or a $20 limit works. For Festivus, gifts are optional; you can instead curse or wrestle each other.

Cheap Gender-Neutral Gifts:

  • Tickets to an event, or movie
  • Book, DVD, or game
  • Calendar
  • Bottle of wine or alcohol, truffle or olive oil
  • Pet toys
  • Plants

Handmade Ideas:

  • Upcycled T-Shirt Pillow
  • Painting, graphic novel, sock puppet, knit hat
  • Food such as bread, flavored oil, or cookies
  • Book of poems, song lyrics, or dirty limericks
  • Photo book made of you and other person, or just other person (Try Shutterfly)

Keep structure to a minimum. This is not a time for charades or swing dance lessons. It’s a time for expressing what you’re thankful for or that you’re not. Don’t put pressure on your guests and don’t try to cheer them up — they’ll either enjoy themselves or break down crying. Eventually they’ll curl up on your rug in a fetal position or wander off into the night in a stupor of food and drink. Either way, you’ve survived another gathering of bastards and orphans, and for that, you can all be thankful.

Comments on Bastards and orphans: celebrating holidays with peers

  1. One thing that I’ve always wanted to do was have a beggers meal. I make all kinds of holiday food and offer up that people bring what ever they want, they don’t have to bring food if they don’t want to cook. The only requirement is that they bring their own plate, glass and silverwear. I always thought a table would look really cool with so many weird plates that don’t match…. plus.. I never seem to have enough plates for a crowd anyway.

      • I’m hosting for the first time this year but I’m not doing the majority of the cooking. My “mother-in-law” (not technically married to her son yet) is making most of the food but the event is going to be held in my home. I would love to have friends over for a large holiday meal but looks like this Thanksgiving will not be the one. She might throw a canary if my plates don’t match anyway.

  2. I’ve never understood the appeal of White Elephant exchanges. My husband’s family does one every year, and it just seems like a horrible idea to purchase a bunch of junk no one wants and then fight for the least junky of it.

    But they seem to enjoy it, so to each his own I suppose.

    • We do 2 White Elephants.. one where we buy nice things.. stuff like wine or books… and another where we fight over stuff that we find in our houses. It could be a unused foot bath that was given last Christmas or a strange DVD collection that was won at a library raffle.

    • We love white elephant games! My extended family does it every Christmas. We mostly bring things we already own so no one spends money. Sometimes one person’s trash is someone else’s treasure… and when it’s not, we all laugh about whatever awful thing it was and we know that someone will bring it to the game again next year. We don’t really do it to get stuff.

    • We did one last year. I can’t speak for everyone else, but it turned out pretty well for us. The phallic back massager that his aunt thought was hilarious I was excited to take home since we had both been complaining about neck and shoulder pain. We took a bag of 100 plastic balls. We thought the gift was absurd, but it happened to be picked by the one participant with a small child who was convinced he would love it. So you never know!

    • We used to do this every year with our friends and it was a major highlight of the season, but two years ago, the host invited a friend from work and that friend’s boyfriend. He put live mice in a box, and I wound up getting them. His plan was to return them to the pet store, where they would have been snake food. This was a problem for my husband and I so we kept them. They had babies and we wound up with ten smelly mice. It was horrible.

      And that’s how the asshole stole Christmas.

    • We do a modified white elephant exchange. There are two of us who work together to host our holiday party. Each year we set a different theme for the event. Everyone brings a single wrapped gift not costing more than $35.00 that must relate to the party theme. The Irish year there was a small collection of books by Irish authors, a gift basket of Irish cheeses, and a beautiful set of hand-blown beer glasses (we’re pretty sure that guest spent more than the budget). Everyone ends up with a nice gift and they’re lots of fun to open. It’s always entertaining to see how folks interpret the theme.

  3. another twist i have not tried yet is the “re-gift exchange” … each person contributes one unwanted but nice-ish gift from a past holiday, unwrapped — all will be on display. you end up with sort of an array of decent items, all up for grabs. guests draw numbers and go in order to choose their re-gift. items may be ‘snatched’ only once. 🙂

  4. Thanksgiving has pretty much become a “friend” holiday for me. Ever since I moved to my current city four years ago, my local friends and I have all gotten together to do a potluck-style meal. I actually like it way better than doing Thanksgiving with family, I feel like we can all relax and just be ourselves more than if we were with our extended families. Of course, sometimes we end up with some eclectic food options (everyone just picks whatever they feel like making), but that’s part of the fun!

  5. Can I just say that, while many of these suggestions are great, it’s a little mean-spirited to stress that people you don’t like should be left out in the cold. To me, it seems like that goes against the whole idea of bringing people together who have nowhere else to go. Of course there are people I dislike who I might not choose to spend Thanksgiving dinner with, but perhaps their gratitude at being included is worth more than my momentary annoyance that they talk too much at dinner or don’t help clean up or what have you. It’s nice to be nice, is all I’m saying.

    • It can definitely “seem” mean-spirited…but it’s just a call to be genuine in your hosting. My point here in this article is about hosting your peers, to show them a good time…and that if you don’t like someone, don’t pretend to like them or invite them just to extend charity because they have “nowhere else to be”.

      As stated, my mother would share your sentiment, however, and I am sure there are many people who also would as well. It’s not a bad one. 🙂

    • I’d rather spend a holiday alone than with people who don’t really like me but are including me out of pity. However, I’d like to think that in most circumstances that’s a false dichotomy.

      • Actually, my partner and I have been in this situation. Two years in a row. After that, we decided staying home was the preferable option. (Shortly thereafter, my friend Ness starting hosting Christmas at the Orphanarium, so no more Christmas by ourselves at home!)

  6. We do this every year! On Boxing Day though, since all of our friends have family living locally that they HAVE to spend time with over the holidays. So when it’s Boxing Day and there’s no familial obligations, they get to come to our place whenever they get there and for as long as they want, with no expectations beyond having fun and relaxing. We have 3 parts of the family to visit with over Christmas, so it’s a bit exhausting and very nice to relax on Boxing Day with some friends. Some people end up socialising in the kitchen, some on the patio. The kids run around, the slotcar track gets reconfigured, a game of poker begins and no one cares enough about tact/manners to be offended when someone’s brain-to-mouth filter fails.

    • We do boxing day too! We have traditional foods, always play games, watch a favorite group movie, lots of cider and hot cocoa. Our families all live here, but our friend group is so close, this is our ‘true’ holiday, the one we cherish the most. It started as just a small group of 6 getting together to relieve holiday stress, and grew to over 20, goofing off and being silly together. I look forward to Boxing Day all year.

  7. My friends and I have been doing what we dubbed “Orphan’s Thanksgiving” for a couple of years now, and it’s actually my favorite part of the holiday. My parents are divorced, and my husband’s family is a come over, watch football, then leave kind of people. With as little talking or spending time together as possible. Plus, while they all like and appreciate food, the quality or amount of time spent on it is not really appreciated. But I do have a circle of friends who are all foodies, so we get together the Sunday after Thanksgiving to spend time with our chosen family, namely the people that we like spending time with and are thankful to have in our lives and communities. Plus, when I make a fancy cake or my favorite gourmet sweet potatoes, everyone loves it and no one tells me I use too many spices. 🙂 And there’s no football to compete with! It’s a win-win for us.

  8. I have spent all of the major holidays with my wonderful family of friends rather than my bio family for more then ten years running. Its just better that way. At some point at a Thanksgiving meal someone gave a toast that started out with all the usual thankful blah blah and ended with a, “F*#k that dude…” and now for at least the past 5 years there is the usual round of giving thanks, and then, after enough wine, there are a few loud, cathartic rounds of EFFTHISNOISE which leaves everyone laughing and re-energized.

  9. This was something I was thinking of doing, since the husband and I are all grown up and having our very first “just us” Christmas this year… unfortunately most of the people I know actively hate Christmas (and I don’t mean they have different faiths and celebrate them, I mean they actually hate all varieties of winter celebrations) so maybe it will only be a teeny-tiny gathering…

  10. I can’t believe someone made a vegan cook a ham! That’s crazy! Did you object? If so, how did they insist? If not, why not? I am just utterly flabbergasted by this anecdote!

  11. My friends and i all gather for desserts drinks and gift giving on December 23rd each year and its so much fun! we usually break out a board game or the wii and just relax. Its a great chill out right before the craziness of going to all of our families houses etc.

  12. A friend of mine throws a Waifs and Strays party every year at Xmas. Usually from afternoon-ish Xmas day through boxing day – drop in, drop out, bring food, bring gifts if you want, hang about and casually enjoy company and the day. It’s a lovely institution, and a LOT of our social circle take the time to drop in – whether we’re waifs & strays or not!

  13. I have done this for the last four Thanksgivings. And each year it gets better. I find myself inviting fewer and fewer family members and more and more friends. Because these are people I LIKE as well as love. I dont do drama anymore and I tell everyone who crosses my threshold to leave their drama on the other side…

  14. My brain went like this as I read the article. Orphan Christmas,yadda yadda… MARSHMALLOWS ON POTATOES, Wait did that say marshmallows on potatoes? Marshmallows or fluff (?) on potatoes? Really, marshmallows on potatoes?

  15. I would love to invite a bunch of people for Christmas that don’t have anywhere to go. My husband and I make so much food every year and it’s usually just the two of us and sometimes his best friend. Most of his family is long-dead, except for a couple of cousins who are either extremely reclusive and don’t drive or have plans with their families already, while most of my family has disowned me. His kids are with their mother and they go out of town every year so they won’t be here either. Anyway, it would be really nice to have some people here to share Christmas with so I may have to find out who has no plans and invite them along! Otherwise, we will be waiting until we have our own children to share Christmas with.

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