Etiquette Help for the Holidays
Splitting the Holidays
Q. When multiple family members are hosting gatherings, how do you decide which group to spend the holiday with? It seems like we are always disappointing someone.
A. As soon as the invitations start rolling in, sit down with your calendar and think about how you want to spend your (limited) time, says Smith. If you have two school concerts, a cookie swap, and the office holiday party scheduled for the week before Christmas, then maybe you’ll want to skip the five-hour trip to your mother-in-law’s this year. While it’s important to consider certain factors, such as whom you were with on the previous holiday and how you divvy up other occasions, the ultimate decision should be the best one for you. “Circumstances change, so reevaluate your priorities each year and give yourself permission to say no to situations that would cause extra stress,” says Smith. Of course, there’s always the option of having everyone at your house, but if this would create other problems, like a turf war between the grandmas, forget we mentioned it. Once you’ve made your choice, let the disappointed parties down easy by setting a date to get together in the near future. By the time Martin Luther King weekend arrives, you might be itching for a visit.
Sharing Dietary Restrictions
Q. How do you communicate to a host, who knows you well, that stuffing with chicken and mashed potatoes made with chicken stock are not suitable options for a vegetarian?
A. As a general rule, you should always let a host know about your dietary restrictions ahead of time and offer to bring a meat-free dish to share. “If you keep me in the dark, and I put turkey drippings on everything, I will feel horrible,” says Smith. Still, there are people—and it sounds like you may be dealing with one of them—who take pleasure in seeing others squirm. If you’ve made your preferences clear, and your host seems bent on ignoring them, eat something before the party and be a ray of sunshine when you’re there. “The worst thing you can do is act annoyed because the person will get satisfaction from that,” says Smith. “She isn’t going to change, so your only option is to change your behavior.” And load up on rolls, which hopefully aren’t made with lard.
Cutting Back on Presents
Q. To make the holidays less crazy and rushed, we’d like to give fewer presents this year and put a greater focus on just being together. But how do you convey this to people without sounding like Scrooge, and what do you do if someone gives you a gift and you have nothing in return? A heartfelt “thank you” doesn’t seem to cut it.
A. Before the buying frenzy begins, e-mail the group you typically exchange gifts with, tell them your wishes, as you’ve done here, and suggest an alternate plan. Maybe you limit presents to kids under age 21 or give to children and have each of the adults pull one person’s name out of a hat to buy for. Or get creative: “In my family, we had a year where everything had to be a re-gift, so no one was running around purchasing things,” says Smith. “Another time we did a sunshine theme and gave low-budget items like beach towels and summer reading books.” she says. “It takes the agony out of figuring out what to get for people, like grandparents, who don’t need another set of personalized golf balls.” It’s also fine to announce that you’re keeping things low-key this year (lottery tickets for everyone!). The key is to give plenty of advance notice, so people are prepared. “If I put a $100 gift under the tree and you surprise me with a Powerball ticket, I’m going to be ticked,” says Smith. There may be others who, like you, are dreading the holiday hustle and they’ll be happy you spoke up. Or the majority rule may be to purchase presents as normal. If you opt not to reciprocate, a heartfelt “thank you,” preferably in the form of a written note, is a perfectly appropriate response.
Teaching Kids About Giving to the Less Fortunate
Q. We are teaching our children about giving by donating to Toys for Tots and other programs through our church and school. Now our kids want to know why Santa doesn’t have everyone covered. What’s the best response?
A. According to the renowned Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, one of the highest levels of charity is giving anonymously, without knowing who the recipient will be—as opposed to when you know the recipient, which isn’t quite as selfless, or he knows you, which can make him feel ashamed. So kudos to you and the little humanitarians you are raising. As for their pesky question, try giving a partial “answer” and encourage your kids to fill in the blanks: “We are helping Santa make sure there are enough gifts for everyone. Why do you think he needs our help?” This way, “the child provides a response that is appropriate for his or her cognitive level,” says Smith. (And you’re off the hook.) Chances are the reply—“Santa has to skip some houses when he takes a dinner break!” or “He doesn’t know how to make Star Wars stuff!”—will also be more clever than anything you could invent.
Q. Which service people should you tip during the holidays and what are the appropriate amounts?
A. Tip people who provide a regular service that makes your life easier, your hair manageable, and so on, says Smith. To decide on the right amount, consider your relationship with the individual, the norms in your area, and your budget. Place crisp, new bills in an envelope with a card or note and try to hand-deliver your gifts. If this isn’t possible, and you live in a safe neighborhood, you can tape addressed envelopes to your mailbox (or the tops of garbage cans for trash collectors). Otherwise, find out the names of your providers from the main office and drop their tips in the mail. Here are some guidelines on whom to tip and how much.
The people who take care of your kids: Give your babysitter two nights’ pay. A nanny or au pair should get a week’s salary the first year and a little more each additional year. Allot $20 to $70 each for day care staff that have direct contact with your child(ren); if gifts are more typical in your area, shoot for the same price range.
The people who come to your home: Plan on a week’s salary for the cleaning person and a day’s pay for the dog walker. Allocate $10 per person for the garbage, recycling, lawn and snow crew (a bit more for the boss or a single provider). Note: If you have public-service trash collection, check with your municipality for regulations, as some areas may not allow tipping. Give regular delivery people $5 to $30 each. Mail carriers are prohibited by law from accepting cash, or gifts worth more than $20, but a small token, such as a coffee gift card, is a nice gesture.
The people who work in your apartment/condo complex: Earmark $25 to $100 for the superintendent and up to $200 for the doorman; if there are multiple doormen, $20 or more for each is fine. Set aside $20 to $50 each for other staff (custodian, handyman, etc.).
The people who take care of you: Give the hairstylist/manicurist/massage therapist/personal trainer you see regularly the cost of one visit. If there’s a separate shampoo person, give her $5 to $20.
Making Room for Out-of-Town Guests
Q. We don’t have enough room for all of the out of town visitors who want to stay overnight. How do we decide who gets to stay and who is told, “the inn is full?”
A. Imagine you are Lady Justice, holding one of those two-armed scales. When you consider your pool of potential guests, weight different factors, such as who is traveling the furthest, who can least afford a hotel if you turn her away, who stayed last year, and who is the best company (seriously, you’re allowed). Then decide what tips the balance. “There isn’t an easy answer—all you can do is to try to be fair,” says Smith. Tell those you can’t host: “We would love to have everyone stay, but this year Jeff and his family will be here. Here are three great, nearby hotels.” If you give them an opening (“if only we had more space”), “you’ll have people sleeping on every floor in your house,” says Smith. Next year, try to switch things up or find other ways to even out the scales. For instance, instead of always giving your starving artist sister-in-law your guest room, consider putting her up in a cute B&B as a holiday gift.
Suffering From Hosting Fatigue
Q. My family always wants to come to my house for the holidays, which means I do most of the work. Can I suggest going to someone else’s house this year—or out to dinner?
A. Would you like hosting if you had less on your plate? If so, consider making this year’s event a potluck and delegate the cleanup duties. “You wouldn’t ask a neighbor to load the dishwasher, but this is family we’re talking about,” says Smith. You could also enlist older kids to entertain the younger ones, clear the table, and wash dishes in exchange for spending money. (Talk to the parents first if the offspring aren’t yours.) If you truly want to pass the holiday buck, send an e-mail to the group telling them you are unable to host this year and would anyone else like to take up the reins? “It’s possible others have never volunteered because they’re afraid of stepping on your toes,” says Smith. Or maybe they like the ritual of sitting back while you do laps around the kitchen. In which case, you are certainly justified in suggesting a new tradition of dining out. If people protest, remind them that the holidays are about being together, and that will be the same whether the feast is home-cooked or prix fixe.
Stocking the Bar
Q. My husband and I host Thanksgiving for both of our families. My grandmother is very traditional and does not drink alcohol or go places where it is served. My in-laws enjoy a drink with dinner, especially during the holidays. How do I keep everyone happy?
A. Go ahead and serve alcohol, but be discreet. Keep beer in the fridge and pour it into glasses and set wine and spirits in a corner of the kitchen, with a dishtowel draped over the bottles. Arrange non-alcoholic beverages, such as apple cider and white and red grape juice, on the table and serve them in wine glasses. As guests arrive, offer to get them drinks and let them know where to go for refills. “So everyone has different colored liquids in their glasses and you don’t say anything about it,” says Smith. “You’re not trying to dupe grandma, but you don’t want the drinking to be in her face either.” By having alcohol available, but not out in the open, you are showing respect for her and for those who like a Chardonnay with their holiday.
Overindulging the Kids
Q. We have family members who buy our children an obscene amount of toys. Is there a way to tell them to cool it on the gifts—particularly the noisy ones?
A. Hooray for generous relatives! As problems go, it’s not a bad one, but your irritation is justified, especially if the presents come with screeching sirens or high-pitched voices (ahem, Elmo). So try to channel your family members’ goodwill in a different direction: “Bobby and Susie have so many toys. Here are a few ideas from their wish lists, but what we’d really like is for you to give them an experience, like piano lessons or a trip to the zoo.” You could also request books to build each child’s library. “One year we asked for stories that people loved when they were young and we got amazing things inscribed with personal notes,” says Smith. Of course, grandparents (being grandparents) may well ignore your wishes. If that’s the case, there’s no rule that says all the toys have to live at your house. “The kids need stuff to play with at Grandma’s too,” says Smith. “We left a really annoying stuffed Barney at my mother’s and that’s the last time we got a toy without an off button.”
Dealing With a Loss
Q. My mother-in-law recently passed away, so my father-in-law will be spending the holidays with us. We have our own traditions, but he wants us to follow all of his. Short of letting him hijack our holiday, how can we help him relax?
A. Start by acknowledging your father-in-law’s unease: “I know this will be the first Christmas without Grammy and that is going to be difficult and strange.” Then help him zero in on the aspects of the holiday that matter most to him: “We want you to be as comfortable as possible at our house, so tell me the one tradition you want to make sure we include.” When it comes down to it, maybe all he cares about is carving the ham, and surely you can work around that. If he comes back with five must-do rituals, ask him to rank them in order of importance and then take some time to do the same, says Smith. Perhaps you can give on the Jell-O “salad” in exchange for keeping your Christmas morning customs—and family harmony—in tact.
Dodging the Guilt Trips
Q. I am dreading the guilt-trippy “we never see you” comments from some of my family members. How am I supposed to respond?
A. “The trick to dealing with a guilt trip is to acknowledge and deflect,” says Smith. You might respond, “I feel like we never get to see each other either, but when we’re together we have so much fun.” If you have the next gathering scheduled, add: “I can’t wait to meet up during February break!” Don’t offer excuses for why you never see the person because “there’s no good answer for that,” says Smith. “If you say the kids’ sports schedules are hectic, she’s going to think: ‘Great, so Pee Wee soccer is more important than visiting me?’” Also avoid making vague statements you don’t mean: “Let’s definitely get together sometime soon!” If you do genuinely want to see more of the person, get out your calendar and set a date. Then make it your New Year’s Resolution to follow through.