DEAR HARRIETTE: I was invited to spend Christmas at a friend's family home since I am away at college and she lives in town. I cannot afford to go home, so it was really nice of her family to invite me. I'm not sure of the protocols around this holiday with these folks. With my family, we have a big tree, lots of presents and food. Everybody pitches in. I have no idea what to expect with my friend. I almost feel like it's too much to ask for me to be there. With my family, it all seems so intimate. How can I figure out what to do with these people? -- Questioning Tradition, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
DEAR QUESTIONING TRADITION: You do not need to sweat this. Instead, you need to ask your friend. Start by thanking her profusely for inviting you to share the season with her. Then quiz her on what her family does during this holiday week. Ask about everything -- the range of activities they participate in, such as tree trimming, tree lighting, church services; what happens on Christmas Eve; details about Christmas Day; and roles and responsibilities for family members and you. Find out what the dress codes are for various activities and if there are any unique traditions that they practice over this time period. Ask until you cannot think of anything else. Make sure your friend knows that you are asking because you want to make sure that you understand what is expected and that her family will be comfortable around you as you are also comfortable around them.
When you are with the family, pay attention so that you can notice what the expectations are. And figure out how and where you can have some alone time in case you need to decompress.