Etiquette Questions, Answered: Holidays and Gifts
Q. How do I host religiously inclusive holiday functions?
A. When you’re the host, your primary job is to make your guests feel happy and relaxed. That means trying not to force-feed your religious views (along with the yams and the Brussels sprouts) to a reluctant audience. The good news: If you’re sweating over how to break Thanksgiving bread with a family that includes, say, Southern Baptists and Reform Jews, you’re probably sensitive enough to avoid offending anyone.
After all, you don’t have to abandon your own faith and traditions simply because nonbelievers are present. If you want to lead a prayer before the feast, for instance, consider prefacing it with a statement that puts others at ease, like “I’ve always loved saying grace before the meal. Please join me if you feel comfortable doing so.” It’s also fine to ask people to bow their heads or join hands in the spirit of camaraderie (as long as you realize that your guests are free to refuse, or to let their thoughts drift wherever they please).
If you’re willing to put aside overtly religious speech for the occasion, you can opt for a gracious, nonreligious invocation instead—one that reminds everyone why you’re celebrating and takes note of how happy you are to have your loved ones together. Try something like “We give thanks today for the bounty of friendship and family we are lucky enough to have gathered around our table.”
Or skip that formality entirely and group-source the opening to the meal: Ask everyone at the table to take a turn sharing what he or she is grateful for. Sure, you may have to endure a testimonial or two from someone expressing thanks for a time-share or a kitchen renovation, but you’ll also hear touching sentiments about family, health, and home.
This all gets a little stickier during the December holidays, of course. Use the same mindful tack when hosting a tree-trimming party or a Hanukkah latke party—and know that a guest probably won’t attend if she thinks she’s going to feel uncomfortable.
If the tables are turned and you are invited to a religious gathering (e.g., a midnight Mass), look at it as an anthropological opportunity. You don’t have to adopt other people’s customs to learn about them. A good rule of thumb at a church or a temple is to follow the cues and stand up or sit down with the rest of the congregation. You can also win brownie points with pals and relatives if you go the extra mile and ask them about the rituals related to their faiths: Your girlfriend will be delighted if you ask her where she got that beautiful menorah, as will your sister-in-law if you inquire about how your nephew fared as one of the wise men in the Christmas pageant.
And if you decide that all this is too difficult? Opt to host (or even attend) gatherings on holidays when God isn’t often invoked. New Year’s Eve, anyone?
Read more advice about your etiquette conundrums, and see our Modern Manners blog.