Perfect Propriety at Holiday Meals, Vol. 8, Issue 24

A dear friend of Etiquetteer's forwarded recently two rather dispiriting (but unintentionally very funny) articles about family holiday dinners sabotaged by bad behavior. The first was a letter with dinner assignments and cooking instructions for a family Thanksgiving; the overprecise hostess just comes off as bossy. The second gives a list of family horror stories; be sure to read the last one, when a man kicks out his abusive in-laws on Christmas Eve! These stories got Etiquetteer to thinking about some basic rules for the holidays:

  1. It's a dinner table, not a Roman arena: the Winter Holidays - Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Christmas Kwanzaa - are designed for us to come together in a spirit of Gratitude, Festivity, and most of all Love. Theoretically, we love our families and our friends. In practice, however, we all know that Love needs help when it's abraded by the desire to settle old scores or rehash long-ago arguments. Unfortunately, the stereotypical American mother-in-law who thought her offspring could have done better is the best example of this. Remember Etiquetteer's basic precept: no one cares what you want or how you feel. This is not the time, and if someone brings up an unwelcome topic or tries to rib you into a response, just reply "This really isn't the time" and change the subject.
  2. Keep the conversation light: Professor Henry Higgins instructed Eliza Doolittle to discuss only "the weather and everybody's health," with disastrous results. Rather than confine table talk to only two topics, Etiquetteer will only restrict you from discussing Politics, Religion, and of course Reference to Bodily Functions. Please also keep from pressing someone's hot buttons, too! We all have them; there's no use denying it. And they are unique. If you know someone will be set off by mentioning how the church was redecorated, say, or that Oprah Winfrey decided to end her talk show, don't do it.
  3. Shut up and eat!: Reading that second piece, Etiquetteer flushed with shame reading about the elderly mother circling the buffet for sweet potatoes and marshmallows. One year when Etiquetteer was very young and not yet versed in the ways of Perfect Propriety, his lovely grandmother made lamb for Thanksgiving. Young Etiquetteer huffily refused to taste a morsel; one had turkey on Thanksgiving! If you can't find your favorite dish, too bad. When you get home, you can make it for yourself.
  4. Roll with the punches: Perfect Propriety does not mean Perfection. One responds to Imperfection with Perfect Propriety. Etiquetteer was appalled, and sorry for the recipients, reading that first letter with all the Thanksgiving cooking instructions. When one hosts a holiday meal that is really a potluck, one cannot expect One's Own Perfection out of the guests - who are also theoretically People You Love. If someone brings yams instead of mashed potatoes, or forgets a serving spoon, or anything, your negative reaction could mar the day more than their omission. Don't make them feel bad with a hissy-fit or snarkiness.
In the end, if you cannot approach the Festive Board with Love and Sincerity, perhaps it is better for you to be alone.
Due to distance and the proximity of Thanksgiving and Christmas, Etiquetteer has not celebrated the former with his family for 30 years. In the interim Etiquetteer has been welcomed into the homes of friends or the families of friends. So very very often the Warmth of Fellowship we crave at the holidays has been found around these tables. On Thanksgiving Day, which this year will be spent with cousins through the Mayflower, you may be sure Etiquetteer will lift a glass in thanks all the households where he has been made welcome.
Etiquetteer knows you are eager to resolve some question of Perfect Propriety before the rest of the Winter Holidays come! Please send your queries to <queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com>.