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Pious Petunia Solves Your Holiday Dilemmas

By December 29, 2012 5 Comments

Today I’d like to introduce a guest blogger: advice columnist Pious Petunia. Miss Petunia has been receiving numerous letters of late concerning today’s most puzzling holiday problems. She will be responding here to a few recent letters with her trademark holy-but-practical advice.

Dear Miss Petunia: I have no idea what to serve these days at holiday parties. Some of my friends are vegetarians, some are vegans, then there are the gluten-free types, people with food allergies, and I even have an aunt who is diabetic. What should I do?

PP: Gone are the days when hosts could assemble a holiday party table with crackers and cheese (gluten, dairy), tasty little meatballs in a crockpot (meat, at least ostensibly), a molded jello salad (indeterminate), and a bowl of mixed nuts (are you kidding?). Today, you’re left with only a few options. 1) The Martha Stewart: devise a table with several food territories—gluten free, low-carb, vegan—fenced apart with long garlands of fresh holly and labeled with letters made of uncooked rice, spray-painted gold and glued to tent cards. Garnish with mint leaves. 2) The Samurai: everyone can eat raw vegetables, so get out your sharp knives and sculpt a spread made entirely of lettuce and celery. 3) The Waterloo: surrender and don’t serve any food at all. Advise guests to eat before they come over and amuse them when they arrive with board games. The advantage of option 3 is that next year, this will no longer be your problem. Finally, in the immortal words of Ricky Nelson, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.” Stock your own cupboards with cheeze doodles and Snickers bars, and after everyone leaves: indulge.

Dear Miss Petunia: How do I put up with my relatives? I try to be patient and show Christian charity, but it’s hard when we’re all stuck in the same house for days—or even hours.

PP: Holiday family get-togethers test the holiness of even the most advanced saints, I assure you. Why do you think the desert fathers lived in the desert? Lots of space—so they could avoid each other. You, however, are stuck with the spiritual challenge of dredged-up family dynamics in a three-bedroom ranch. I’m sure you already have the good sense to avoid certain volatile topics, such as politics, religion, and money. These days, I would add class warfare, homosexuality, human origins, and the college football playoff system to the list of conversational taboos. However, if religion does comes up, you might be able to save the day by steering everyone toward a rousing critique of the church service you all just attended—petty complaining creates family bonds. If things are still not going well, take heart. This is a challenge not only to Christian ideals; it’s an interfaith problem. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Ayn Randians—we all depend on the same coping mechanisms to get through the holidays: elaborate meals and relatives-avoidance television. The elaborate meals give everyone something to bustle about and do, and when the dishes are finally washed and dried, cable TV gives you an excuse to retreat to the family room and digest quietly in front of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Dear Miss Petunia: I’m feeling a little guilty about skipping church on New Year’s Eve and then spending the first day of the year watching a bowl game. Should I be observing this holiday in a more pious fashion?

PP: Yes. If the Lord should decide to return at midnight, do you really want to be found slumped on the couch watching pop stars caterwauling to drunken crowds in Times Square? Or, should the Lord return the next afternoon, do you want to be found slumping once again on that same couch, watching large, healthy young men concuss their brains for the benefit of corporate profits? No you do not. So pray that the Lord tarries. That will give you time, meanwhile, to spend an hour making a list of reasons to be grateful for the year gone by and reasons for hope in the new year. Perhaps you should make a “reasons for repentance” list, too. If you’re brave, you might try all this as family activity, but be careful when you get to the part about repentance. Everyone will have pointed suggestions for everyone else.

Dear Miss Petunia: I’m worried that I won’t be able to keep my New Year’s Resolutions.

PP: You won’t. Own your grief and let it go. Don’t be bothering the Almighty with prayers to help you lose twenty pounds. The Almighty has bigger things to worry about. My advice is to stick with praying the Lord’s Prayer, which is essentially a list of suggested resolutions for God, who has been working on them for centuries anyway and is more likely to produce reliable results.

Speaking of suggesting resolutions for others to keep:

Pious Petunia’s Suggested New Year’s Resolutions for Selected Public Figures

For Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the NRA: Frolic in a meadow for several hours daily, wearing tie-die and Birkenstocks and crooning “Give Peace a Chance.”

For Congress: Play nice. You’re acting like a bunch of petulant four-year-olds. Time-outs and naps for everybody. Or maybe you’re more like bratty twelve-year-olds giving us the line, “But everyone’s doing it!” If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do that, too?

For Kate and Wills: Study baby names. Expand your list beyond the usual seven or eight possible names traditionally allowed for English royals. Just name the baby something you like. And tell Harry to keep his pants on and stay away from Vegas. You don’t need that kind of crazy uncle for the new miniature royal.

For Hollywood producers: Work on originality. Please. No one needs to see another Smurf movie, let alone in 3D.

For Michelle Obama: Establish a new First Lady Initiative: celebrating the right to bare arms. You go, girl!

Thanks to Steve Mathonet-VanderWell for giving Miss P her pen name.


Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Annie says:

    This is beautiful, Professor Rienstra, er Pious Petunia! That just made my day; the advice is well-received–and the snark thoroughly appreciated 🙂

  • Steve MVW says:

    Thanks, Debra, for attributing Miss P's name to me! If I remember correctly, I borrowed it from my aunt, Bette Brunsting. Lest it be alleged that the moniker is anti-pious, I'm reminded of what I once heard, "Jesus never said 'Beware of practicing piety.' It practicing it so others can see that he didn't like."

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Thanks, Annie and Steve. And God bless Bette Brunsting. I remember her from our Pella days. Yes, Miss Petunia is not at all anti-piety. She's just updating piety for the twenty-first century!

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    I'd love to hear more from Miss Petunia!

  • Susan says:

    Miss P: I have relied on your sage advise for years and you have never disappointed. I think some thanks should be attributed to the famous "Dot" whose voice I hear coming through your words of wisdom (and humor).

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