The winter holiday season always seems like loads of fun, until it's
here. From the vantage point of, say, April, December hovers on the
distant horizon as a delightful spree of good will and great parties.
But proximity sharpens your senses. When the twelfth month finally
hits, the holidays loom in your face as the curse that they are: you
are staring into a massive minefield of many ways you can offend so
many people in so short a time! You could spill punch on your boss at
the office party! You could spill the beans to your six-year old nephew
that Santa Claus is a lie! You could insult a Jewish acquaintance by
insisting she sing carols with you! You could insult a vegetarian by
insisting that he eat a roast goose with you! You could insult your
friends by leaving their New Year's Party before midnight! You could
neglect to send a thank-you letter to Aunt Eula for the Oral Roberts
Ah, but you could also learn to navigate your way through the
explosive terrain. First, the season is not as dangerous as you think.
Although the opportunities for screwing up are rife during the
holidays, people also tend to be in unusually forgiving moods. Just
look at everybody's New Year's resolutions--"Forgive and forget''
always ranks in the top five.
Second, etiquette is easier than you think. It is not the exclusive
domain of Ann Landers, Judith Martin, et al. And it is not some complex
code that you will never crack. It is, instead, a simple mandate to
behave in a kind, considerate fashion.
In the attempt to achieve good manners, you're at least 90 percent
of the way there if you make repeated use of these expressions: "Thank
you,'' "Please,'' "I'm sorry,'' "No,'' and "How lovely of you.''
Exhibit A: "Dear Aunt Eula--How lovely of you to send us a boxed set of Heritage USA potholders...'' Aunt Eula will feel so gratified to be deemed "lovely'' (which, of course she is, for having remembered you with a gift... and that's what's important) that she will never notice that you haven't stooped so low as to describe the potholders themselves as lovely. Graciousness resides in that murky land between Lies and the Truth--a territory widely known as tact.
Exhibit B: "No, I don't know why you're never seen your daddy and
Santy in the same room at the same time.'' It isn't easy to own up to
ignorance when you are not actually ignorant. Our culture places such
an enormous value on Being in the Know (which is not to be confused
with the deeper concept of Knowledge, as in: Knowledge of Enough
Geography to Pinpoint with Stunning Accuracy the Hemisphere in Which
the United States Exists) that we are all fairly bursting at the seams
with information we feel the need to pass on. But this is the worst
thing you can possibly do around holidays. If Cousin Doris asks you
whether you know why your brother won't come to her house for Christmas dinner, etiquette requires you to answer "No.'' Because otherwise you would either have to lie, or explain that Bro has decided he cannot spend another year smiling politely as Cousin Doris shows off every new luxury item she acquired in the past year.
There. Now that you have the hang of it, let's move on to some other
potential manner disasters and see if we can't head them off at the
1. Because of your religion or lack thereof, you absolutely do not
celebrate Christmas--and you're invited to a tree trimming party.
Decline the invitations. Say thank you, but say no. Say you're
sorry, but say no. You should never accept an offer to attend a social
event they very nature which will make you surly and no fun to be
around. If you think that you would be doing your hosts a favor by
showing up, think again. They undoubtedly would rather have one less
person on hand than have one grump spoiling the spirit of the event.
You have every right to feel perturbed by the dominance of Christian
rituals in an allegedly non-sectarian society, but save your wrath for
the manger scenes on the courthouse lawns.
2. You're caught empty-handed when your friend gives you a gift.
Say thank you, admire your new treasure, and proceed to the next
subject. Don't start blathering on about how your gift for this person
is almost ready. It is certainly natural in such a situation to want
to prevaricate. However, if you do, you're stuck not only buying
something for this person, but also making sure it's something that
could have at some point been "not quite ready yet.'' Ah, what a
tangled web we weave, and all that. By engaging in such silly
deceptions, you miss the point. The point, of course, is that you're
supposed to get joy out of giving and receiving gifts, not out of
making sure that everything comes out even. Life is not an accounting
3. You receive a gift you consider morally inappropriate.
Let's say somebody gives you a fur. Okay, let's say they don't,
because nobody who knows you well enough to spend that kind of money
on you would make such a wrong-headed investment. So let's say somebody gives you a subscription to Penthouse<>, or a Confederate flag windsock...thinking in all innocence that you will find it a hoot.
Instead you find it repulsive. What do you do? You accept it. A simple
thank you will do; no elaboration is called for. Holidays offer you a great chance to practice being a grown-up; part of the maturation
process involves coming to terms with the idea that you have to choose
your battles in life. There is no point alienating well-meaning friends
and relations by lecturing them on their moral confusion. Note: it is
perfectly okay to follow the receipt of such a gift by severing all
ties with the bozo who gave it to you. Just be pleasant about it, and
you might as well wait until after the holidays.
4. Someone gives your children a gift you don't want them to have.
You know the story--Junior, to your horror, gets a toy gun for
Chanuka. You don't allow war toys in your home. How to cope? Well, that
depends on whether the benefactor is someone who's in a position to
keep feeding Junior presents in the future--grandparents, cousins,
close family friends, and so forth. If he or she is, then you get to
employ all five of the handy etiquette phrases, as in: "How lovely of
you to bring something for Junior, and we thank you for the gift. But,
no, I'm sorry, we just can't accept it. Please understand--we have a
policy against letting Junior play with any toys bearing the NRA seal
of approval. I'm afraid it would be confusing to Junior if we started
Now, remember, you are only to take this tack if the bestower is
likely to strike again. If this is a one-time deal, then there is
really no use to offend geeks bearing gifts. A simple thank you will
do. Later, when you have private time with Junior, explain to him in
a firm but diplomatic style appropriate to his age level that he can
kiss his new "Mega-Blammo!!'' goodbye because the jerk who gave it to
him is a war-monging sociopath and you don't want any child of yours
growing up into such an irresponsible idiot.
5. Someone...Oh, let's say your mother-in-law...insists you hand
over to her a wish list of gifts so she knows what to get you, and you
are violently opposed to such lists because you feel they take all the
spontaneity out of the holidays and ingest an unhealthy dose of
Smile sweetly and say you're sure you'd love anything she chose,
and gosh but you enjoy surprises. If she responds with an
uncomprehending stare and insists you be more specific, then surrender.
Give her a few ideas of things you know it will be easy for her to buy.
It won't kill you, and it will make her happy. It may not be how you
like to do things, but it's less aggravating than getting a divorce.
6. You don't like social kissing.
This is a treacherous season if you aren't fond of eggnog breath in
your face and lipstick smears on your cheek. What should you do if you
show up at the office party and you're suddenly forced to endure smacks
on the lips from colleagues and clients who wouldn't so much as spring
for your coffee yesterday? You have only one polite option: try to
shake their hands before they get within smooching distance. This
generally fails, though, because their fingers tend to be clasped
around the stem of a wine glass. If you stick your hand out to them,
they might think you're trying to take their drink. This doesn't go
over too well, since free drinks are about the only thing office
parties have to recommend them. So grin and bear it. Let yourself
suffer obnoxious false displays of affection. Just stay away from the
7. You are having a traditional Christmas dinner, but you aren't
sure if it's appropriate to invite certain people. Such as, for instance, vegetarians and Jews. Some of your close friends fall under these categories. Will they be offended if you invite them to celebrate the holiday the way you always celebrate it--with ham and turkey and Bible stories? Of course they won't be offended. Nor should you be if they politely decline your offer. And you also shouldn't feel flustered if they take you up on it. Etiquette does not require you to dash about making tofu burgers and taking the Christ out of Christmas to accommodate the perceived sensibilities of a few of your guests. When someone accepts an invitation, he accepts it on the terms of the inviter. That means, for example, that you should let the vegetarian know what sort of meal you're planning, so that before he agrees to join you, he can calculate whether he will be able to make do on the 4000 or so calories you will be providing to supplement the animal flesh.
8. You get a better offer.
Specifically, it's New Year's Eve. You and your date have ventured
among the hoardes of people roaming the streets to celebrate the
countdown to midnight. You're really, really cold, and your date is
laughing at you because you're shivering when it's not even down in the
20s, and he says you look goofy with a red nose. He isn't sharing his
hot chocolate with you, after you assumed he bought it for both of you.
You'd hoped this would be a romantic moment, but he won't put his arm
around you because he doesn't like wearing gloves, so he needs to keep
his hands in his pockets.
Suddenly, the attractive single man to your left asks if you'd like
to borrow his scarf. One thing leads to another, and Mr. Right asks if
you would mind running away with him to a tropical island. Right now.
What should you do? Mind your manners, of course: "Why, no. I wouldn't
mind at all. How lovely of you to ask me. Thank you! Please take me,
I'm yours. Happy New Year...I'm sorry, what did you say your name was,
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