Ah, the holiday season! As November and December go by, so many of us engage in holiday celebrations with our friends and loved ones. Of all the year’s occasions, the year-end festivities tend to bring about the most contact between family members and close friends, those dearest to our hearts. Perhaps contributed to by the excitement of the season or the familiarity that comes with long-term relationships, one’s manners can tend to slip during intimate holiday gatherings. Following are some tips to touch up one’s holiday manners.
With so much visiting, appropriate limits on meeting and greeting should always be observed. For a drop in visit, 15-30 minutes is an acceptable time. For a visit including a meal, one should linger no longer than an hour past the serving of dessert or coffee. Watch the host for clues that the night is winding down, and never be the last to leave a party. With today’s plethora of available technology, drop in visits should never be a surprise. If one is going to go to the trouble of purchasing holiday gifts for the young children of a friend from church, she ought to have known well in advance that she was planning to drop them off at her friend’s house and should have called ahead to alert them to her impending arrival. Calling before coming unexpectedly is always appropriate, no matter how post-modern the world has become.
Another area I have observed that tends to go by the wayside is the proper entering of another’s home. No matter if one’s hosts are one’s parents, children, siblings, or best friends, it is polite to knock or ring the bell upon arriving at their doorstep. A particularly festive hostess may have left her front door open with the storm door closed, to let the warmth and merriment of her house spill outside. That is not, however, an excuse to enter without knocking. By knocking, one allows the hostess time to answer the door graciously and greet her guests properly. It gives her the pleasure of welcoming her guests into her home, which is impossible to do if she walks into her living room and finds her guests already standing there, shoes and coats amok. The comfort of a familiar place can induce one to set one’s coat wherever, and leave on muddy shoes, but an empathetic guest will observe her hostess’s wishes regarding where to place coats and shoes, even if that hostess is her daughter or sister. It is especially important during this time of year for parents to treat their grown children, especially those new to the scene of holiday entertaining, with respect, courtesy, and good humor. No matter how closely people are related, it sours the holiday spirit for an overbearing older relative to openly criticize the entertaining efforts of the younger relatives.
While the polite guest is restrained from criticizing, sometimes she may find herself in an atmosphere that seems to need improvement. Thus, she will ease the hostess’s burden and boost the festive spirit by smoothing over awkward comments, changing the subject from negative topics, complimenting sincerely, and making everyone around her feel included by greeting and speaking with them all. Often a gathering of relatives who have not seen each other for awhile tends to become a sort of one-upping contest, where everything from children to trucks to recipes gets compared and outdone. But the proper guest will not return an opening line of, “My child plans to compete in the National Spelling Bee next spring” with “MY child—&tc”. Instead, she will ask one or two pertinent questions and take interest in the conversation of others. She will avoid conversing about potentially offensive subjects, such as the health of those present, and especially the subjects of politics or religion. Even though most of the holiday events this time of year center around religious traditions, personal views and interpretations of religious topics can vary greatly amongst family members, and it is inappropriate to argue the finer points of religion during a holiday gathering. If everyone has agreed to join together, then it is safe to assume they all agree on a casual level on the reason for gathering, and just because it is one’s familiar family does not make it any less hurtful to criticize or argue various religious views.
Many etiquette manuals stress the importance of bringing a hostess gift each time one is invited to another’s home for a meal. Around my area, if one has been asked to contribute a dish to a meal, the hostess gift is generally waived, although I am sure it would still be appreciated. It need not be anything large, but is rather a token of appreciation, and should be both useful and pretty. The most important thing to remember when giving any gift is that the gift ought to suit the receiver’s personality and reflect the giver’s personality. The art of finding such a precise item, then, encompasses a skill much finer than the fineness of an expensive, flashy item. It is an invaluable tool that any well-bred woman should seek to cultivate in her priceless treasury of abilities.
Another area emphasized in etiquette is the sending of handwritten, postage-stamped thank-you notes. I admit this is an area that I am not keen on doing. I believe that in an ideal world, it would be for the best, but the cost of stamps inhibits my ability to send as much post as I used to. However, not affording stamps is no excuse for being ungrateful. Upon taking one’s leave from a visit, party, or other event, one should always speak directly to one’s host and / or hostess. With either a handshake or a hug, one ought to thank them directly for the invitation and assure them that she had a wonderful time. In my opinion, this is just as appropriate as a written note, and may even come across as more genuine.
The December calendar tends to fill up quickly. As invitations are sent out and accepted, it becomes inevitable that any given woman, especially a socially active one, may not be able to attend everything. Whatever one’s reasons are for not attending, a simple RSVP in accordance with the hostess’s instructions (i.e., online, in person, or on paper) is all that is necessary. No explanations or apologies are needed, as one never need feel sorry for making the best decision confidently. If a woman accepts an invitation but later receives an alternate invitation for the same time, she should not cancel her initial plans to attend the invitation just received. If she wishes to cancel her plans for any reason, she should stay in and not attend any other event out of consideration to the hostess with whom she originally accepted and canceled.
Last, I have a few thoughts on greeting cards and authenticity during the holidays. Many etiquette blogs and books have written that sending cards is an absolutely essential holiday activity, and the many reasons for why it is good and polite to do so can create the opposite impression that it is bad and impolite not to do so. I have sent Christmas cards in the past and I always receive a few each year. I have had relatives inform me that each Christmas that they send cards, they keep track of who they receive them from, and whoever does not send them a card does not get one the next year. I have had quite a few relatives cease sending me cards as a result of my own dropping this practice a few years ago. As mentioned above, in an ideal world where postage stamps and greeting cards grew on trees and I had much more time on my hands, I would love to send Christmas cards. Someday I may begin the practice again. But to be honest, when I was doing it, it was solely out of obligation. It was to keep those manipulating relatives on my list of people to send me cards each year. And I experienced no joy at all. It was not genuine. These days, I pay monthly for internet and phone service. I always include gasoline in the budget and am very blessed to have a fine vehicle in good condition. And around the holidays, I try to make an extra effort to either call, email, or visit the relatives I hold dear using the items I already own and pay for. Some of them probably understand and appreciate my efforts, and some (the ones who no longer send me cards) probably still hold that against me. But I believe that a truly well-bred woman, no matter her income level, will practice authenticity in all her ways and will not attempt to win the approval of others through her efforts to spread holiday cheer. Instead, her heartfelt efforts will bring all the cheer needed to make the season special.
Happy Holidays and warmest wishes to all my readers and their family and friends!