Real Simple’s etiquette expert offers her best advice on how to navigate political divides at the dinner table, and eight other holiday season etiquette quandaries.
This year I am anticipating a dinnertime discussion similar to that of Thanksgiving four years ago (right after the last presidential election) and am already dreading it. Differing political views back then led to a heated argument, and I can only imagine what might pop up this time around. How do I politely suggest that everyone please pass on the politics? —G. L.
It’s true that conflict can obscure gratitude, even for lucky people sharing a holiday. If you anticipate flaring tempers, why not try a super-proactive approach? Send out an e-mail that says, “I’m so grateful that we’re going to be together. Can we all please agree to leave our political views at the door, the better to enjoy one another’s company?” Of course, you could simply offer a version of this request at the table if and when the conversation turns ugly. Or, if folks are good sports, collect “anti-campaign" funds: Every time someone mentions politics, he has to put $5 (or $20!) in a jar, to be split later by the non-offenders. My last-ditch suggestion? Send the argumentative folks outside with a Nerf football and instructions not to return until they can play nicely. One final caveat (and this comes from personal experience): It’s worth separately reminding children, who have probably spent the election around like-minded families, that some people at the table may not share their overly dramatic joy or misery about our new president.
How do you politely tell your host that you have dietary restrictions? —S. Z.
Offer the information directly, in advance, but with no strings attached. Say, “I wanted to mention that I’m allergic to rosemary. Please don’t do anything different for me. I just didn’t want to spring it on you later!” This approach allows for an absence of the surprise/regret factor (“It would have been so easy for me to leave rosemary out of the stuffing!”) while in no way suggesting that the host is responsible for accommodating you with an herb-free meal. If the restriction is liable to be more problematic (a gluten intolerance, for example), then feel free to ask if you can contribute a dish to satisfy your desires: gluten-free gravy or a pie of your own making. If your host seems anxious, then say what my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher said to me when I fretted about empty slots on the feast sign-up: “Don’t worry. It’s only one meal. And we are well-fed people.” This is, in fact, what my husband still says to me when I’m wringing my hands over a holiday dinner. Well, that and “We can always order pizza.”
We’ve had Thanksgiving with the same family for 10-plus years now, but we would really like to do it just with our nuclear family this year—and for the years to come. How do we break up with the other family? —T. W.
An uncomfortable fact: Even though we take pains not to hurt the people we care about—and people in general, for that matter—sometimes we hurt them anyway. We can’t always frame what we want as good for everybody involved. So you can, and doubtless will, emphasize the great years that you’ve had spending the holidays with your friends and how wonderful it’s been. Then you will need to explain your change of plans. “We’re so desperate for quality time as the kids get older that we’re going to pare down the holiday to just our family. We hope you understand.” For all you know, they have hoped to have this same conversation (and have dreaded initiating it), and they will feel liberated and relieved. Or they will be sad and experience the breakup as a loss, which they will get over in time. You get to decide what you want to do—which is cherish your family—but not, alas, how your friends feel about it.
Listen to Catherine discuss how to navigate seating arrangements, dietary restrictions, and in-laws, with Editor Elizabeth Passerella on Your Thanksgiving Etiquette Issues, Solved, a special Real Simple Thanksgiving podcast.
I have the same dilemma with my mother-in-law every Thanksgiving. It’s the one holiday my husband and I host, yet she insists on bringing half the meal. I know she means well and is trying to maintain what she thinks is a tradition, but to be honest, we don’t like some of these dishes and feel it’s our turn to handle the dinner. Help! —E. S.
Hello, power struggle! Is this about who cooks what or about how annoying your mother-in-law is more generally? Because I want to validate your feelings that this is irksome while also suggesting that part of what you take on as a host is a certain graciousness, a generosity of spirit, that extends beyond the parameters of providing a meal. In other words, let people bring whatever they like and, to the very best of your ability, let your irritation go. Thanksgiving is an odd occasion to host, given that it’s a meal with layers and layers of tradition, and some guests insist on having all their particular dishes in all the particular ways they like them. At my house, this means that everybody seems to bring his or her own special cranberry sauce, even though I have to make it anyway, the way my dad likes it. So it doesn’t help me if you bring that, too. At the same time, it doesn’t hurt. You can make it clear that your mother-in-law need feel no obligation to bring her famous mince pie or squash casserole or whatever—but there’s not much to be gained by keeping her from doing it. Just get some disposable containers and send her (and everyone else) home with whatever leftovers you don’t want.
I’m normally a Thanksgiving orphan. (It’s too far to travel to my family for a weekend, and they don’t go all out on Thanksgiving anyway.) So I need tips on visiting friends’ homes. What should I bring as a hostess gift? Should I offer to make something? Also, what do I do if family drama erupts at the table? What are some polite ways to not engage in awkward or controversial conversation? —S. Y.
As a person who has gathered up holiday orphans for many years as a host, I can tell you a secret: Your friends are grateful to have you there. A kin-free guest is a chance for squabbling relations to behave better and more harmoniously than they would if you were not there buffering. So don’t worry too much about awkwardness or controversy. Besides, if bickering does erupt? It’s happily not your circus, not your monkeys, as the Polish saying goes. Now, on to the easy part: Yes, do ask the host what would be most helpful, whether it’s buying a pie or making your famous Brussels sprouts or bringing a bottle of Zinfandel. If you would like to bring an additional gift, your favorite party game would make a fun after-dinner activity (and an excellent defuser, should tensions threaten).
When you are newly married, how do you decide whose family to spend the holidays with? Have you heard of or recommended any arrangements that are particularly smooth? Is alternating the best way? Or should each family own a major holiday? —D. C.
“You have to tell them about Franksgiving!” my daughter just said, reading over my shoulder. So I will. This is the meal we share, the day after Thanksgiving, with my husband’s father, stepmother, and stepsisters and their husbands and kids. These are all people—us included—who have disparate and long-standing obligations on the holiday itself but who love nothing more than to gather on the day after to eat leftover pie and stuffing and do jigsaw puzzles and drink beer. Not that this is a practical solution for every family, but it is definitely a model of approaching everyone’s constraints as nimbly as possible. First, some questions to ask: Who is able and willing to travel? Who is most attached to which particular holiday? Which existing traditions are most important to your families? To what extent can the families be merged? What do you want to do? And who is, for want of a better word, neediest? That is, is there a lonely or elderly or newly widowed someone whose desires should be taken into account first? Later, if you choose to have kids, you may decide to make different decisions. As long as you’re erring on the side of flexibility—and inclusivity—it should go just fine.
I’m always wondering how we can be kind and generous toward our neighbors around the holidays, even though we celebrate different ones. We have the most precious elderly neighbors, most of whom are Jewish. My family is Christian. I try to make or bake things with our young boys so that they can be part of the giving, but I'm not at all creative or great with baking. I wonder if cookies and tacky art projects are even well received or culturally appropriate. Maybe a different kind of gift would be better? Also, they know we aren’t Jewish, but I never know what phrase to use. Happy Hanukkah? Happy Holidays? —J. F.
Bless you (says the half-Jewish advice columnist). You’re doing everything right: caring, giving, including, attending to people’s lives and feelings. I can’t imagine there’s a single problem here—unless you’re, like, re-creating the manger scene in gingerbread or baking a ham. And as for the tacky art projects—I mean, it wouldn’t be my first choice to get them. But the older folks might well appreciate them or at least the sentiment behind them (and they can always discreetly throw away the construction-paper collage). As for the phrasing, I think “Happy Holidays” is safest. Your neighbors may not celebrate Hanukkah, for one thing, and unless they have openly discussed their religion with you, it could feel uncomfortable that you’ve assumed this.
Every year we have a conversation with my in-laws about how we all want to spend less on Christmas gifts and give things that are fun or useful but that are not too expensive and don’t take up too much space in our apartment. Yet every year I walk that awkward line of wanting to find meaningful things for them while not overspending but also wondering how much they will spend on us and not wanting to be far under that. Do you have any tips on how to navigate this? In the past, we’ve given photo albums and gift certificates for a class or an experience. Is there a way we can talk about this better? Or should we just guess what will be appropriate and go for it? —J. K.
Honestly, I could write a book about the arms race of holiday gift giving and never come to a simple, satisfying conclusion. My family has had some luck with solutions similar to yours: a no-stuff, experiences-only rule, for example. But this can become expensive. And if you have young kids counting up wrapped gifts under the tree, it’s not always fun for them. Homemade albums are great for parents and in-laws, and you can do them year after year. (Kids grow!) Photo websites have easy templates that we’ve used to make books that everyone always loves, especially if they’re about our gigantic and beloved cat. Edible gifts are good in that they are here and then gone. Plus, if you have kitchen skills, you can brew up homemade jams and salsas and liqueurs. It sounds as if you and your in-laws are like-minded about spending, so I wouldn’t worry. But if the nebulously defined “paring down” is making you stressed, say something simple. Try, “I always feel awkward about this, but I would love to come up with a dollar amount that we stick to.” And then you can let go of any unpleasant tit-for-tat anxiety to focus on the feeling of gratitude for this family that you love.