The holiday season is filled with fun, stress, joy and cranky ol’ Uncle Sid. Sometimes Sid doesn’t know exactly how to behave at Thanksgiving. And the host doesn’t know exactly how to react.
Whether you’re hosting or attending a holiday party this year, we have some basic etiquette points to help make the gathering a success, even if Sid is part of the festivities.
Some family members aren’t fond of each other and get together on the holidays only because they feel obligated to do so. If that’s you, etiquette expert Mary Jones of Hudson suggests minimizing your stay.
For instance, if you are visiting from out of town, make reservations at a hotel, rather than staying with relatives.
“Chances are the feeling is mutual,” Jones said. “It’s pleasantries and rather superficial, but it fulfills an obligation. It’s not very hard to be cordial for an afternoon. It’s a grin-and-bear-it kind of thing and not the time to bring up old grudges.”
So suppose the last time you saw the host was during an unpleasant confrontation. How do you break the ice, for Mom’s sake?
“Call ahead and ask what you can bring. That first point of contact is already the icebreaker. I wouldn’t suggest texting or emailing because it doesn’t have the same effect. A telephone call will alleviate some of that tension. And, of course, the offer to bring something is helpful.”
When it comes to setting the table, it’s certainly easier to use paper or Styrofoam plates. But etiquette expert Trinka Taylor of Akron frowns on such a thing.
“If not for these special occasions, when would you ever use good china? I think it makes people feel special when you’ve taken the time to make a table and their eating environment special,” Taylor said.
“Perhaps it will encourage your guests to put their best manners forward.”
Speaking of manners, prepare the kids for the big day by teaching them not to touch items in the home, not to complain about a food they don’t like, and never pull Uncle Sid’s finger.
If you are the host, have something ready for the kids to do before and after the meal.
“Think beyond the coloring book,” Taylor said. “Children today are accustomed to video games and technology … A movie is a good choice.”
And if there’s a teenager who could use a little extra money, consider hiring him to entertain the kids for a while so that the adults can reconnect with one another, added Taylor.
After the turkey has been gobbled up, guests should always offer to clean up, but not too early.
“I grew up in a family with 12 kids and one of the table rules was not clearing the table until everyone was done eating,” Jones offered, adding that she and her siblings “always have a blast in the kitchen cleaning up. It usually requires opening a new bottle of wine, but it all gets done.”
Being a good guest
The Beacon Journal Features staff suggests:
• Let your host know whether you’re coming. It’s inexcusable not to respond to an RSVP. And don’t arrive too early, or too late.
• If an illness or genuine emergency forces you to cancel your plans at the last minute, phone the host. He or she is probably far too busy with party preparations to be checking email, text messages or Facebook.
• Offer to help with tasks such as serving food or clearing the table, but respect your host’s decision if he or she declines your offer.
• Put the phone away. You probably don’t see some of these friends or family members often. You can live without Facebook and Twitter for a few hours to converse with live human beings.
• Don’t make your dietary preferences an issue. A Thanksgiving meal is so large and diverse that it tends to have something for everyone, so if you’re a vegetarian, for example, you can eat the Brussels sprouts and roasted sweet potatoes and sauteed green beans without informing the rest of the guests that you consider the turkey to be a “murder victim.”
Even better, take a bit of the burden off the host by offering to bring a side dish that meets your needs and makes enough to share. Your meat-loving brother-in-law may discover that he actually likes quinoa pilaf.
• An old piece of advice still holds true, especially in these contentious times: Don’t discuss religion or politics at the table. We don’t care what conversational grenade Uncle Sid tosses out. Instead of rising to the bait, smile and change the subject.
• Respect your host’s wishes if you’re asked to smoke outside.
• If the host family doesn’t drink, leave the booze at home. And if there is alcohol, don’t try to be the “cool” aunt or uncle and give a child a drink.
• It goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: Don’t drink too much.
• Don’t bring extra guests, or your dog, without checking with the host.
• Don’t congregate in the kitchen unless the host invites you to be there. Putting a holiday meal on the table takes choreography, and you don’t want to be in the way when the cook is lugging 26 pounds of turkey from the oven to the cutting board.
Being a good host
• This also should go without saying, but clean the house of clutter and dog/cat hair beforehand.
• Do as much ahead of time as you can, so you’re not frazzled when the guests arrive. Your guests will feel uncomfortable if you’re frantic.
• Set up beverages and a snack table someplace other than the kitchen, so people have a place to gather and nosh where they won’t be interfering with your meal preparations.
• If you want your guests to bring potluck, have an understanding of what they think that means before their arrival. You don’t want to be surprised if five guests bring green-bean casseroles, or if someone shows up with possum stew or squirrel a l’orange.
• Don’t mess with traditions without consulting key family members. Nobody wants to arrive expecting an old-fashioned turkey dinner, only to find you’ve gone with a Mexican theme or a vegan menu. Besides, if you hold a conference call to discuss possible changes, you may discover that nobody actually likes Grandma’s green Jell-O and cabbage salad (not even Grandma!); you’ve all been choking it down for decades because you didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and she’s been making it for decades because she thought everyone liked it.
• Put away fragile items if you expect a large crowd, or small children. That way, you won’t waste energy worrying about the antique candy dish, and guests will feel more relaxed.
• Except for spills or accidents that require immediate attention, resist the urge to clean up after your guests until after they’ve left. Pretend you don’t see the crumbs on the coffee table.
• If you’re serving drinks or food somewhere other than the table, have places for guests to set down plates and glasses. Be sure to have plenty of coasters scattered about the house.
• Have a place for everyone to sit — even if that means pulling out the TV trays and folding chairs.
• Put the trash can and the recycling container where they can easily be found.
• Thank everyone for coming, even Uncle Sid.