Not every Thanksgiving gathering is as perfect as depicted in a Norman Rockwell illustration. The day can get “real” really fast. These seven Thanksgiving manners will help you handle the day with ease and graciousness whether you’re the guest or host. Most of the tips below work whether you’re celebrating in person or virtually this year.
By: Maralee McKee, The Etiquette School of America
Thanksgiving Day is a time set aside to gather together in gratitude and reverence for our blessings and to enjoy a portion of those blessings with a feast of food shared in fellowship among our friends and family.
It’s a sacred day (one set apart for a specific purpose) and one looked forward to and then remembered long after the day has passed.
That’s what it’s meant to be. And it would be every time in a Hallmark movie, a Norman Rockwell painting, or a perfect world.
But maybe, just maybe, at your house that’s not how it is.
Between the cleaning, the cooking, the children running wild with excitement, the extra people in your home, the fact that you have to spend the day with the extended family member who pushes your buttons on purpose, the Pinterest pins you tried to follow but your table doesn’t look anything like the pictures, and the fact that while you’re working hard in the kitchen, everyone else is relaxing in the family room looking at sales flyers or watching parades and football on TV, you feel like calling off the holiday.
You’re not proud of your feelings, but honestly, you’re not feeling too grateful right now.
Or maybe you’re the guest, not the host. And truth be told, you’d rather be at home. You don’t know these people because you’re a new friend or in-law. Or you’ve been part of the family for long enough that you know what’s coming, and what’s coming isn’t festive or anything to be grateful for.
Besides, you do things differently at your home. And yes, you know there’s no ONE “right” way to do Thanksgiving. Still, you wish things were more like they are at your house.
You’re not proud of your feelings, but you’re feeling more “Let’s get this over with!” than grateful right about now. You’re ready to set your Thanksgiving manners aside.
If you’re like me, on various Thanksgivings, you’ve been that host and that guest. And you’ve felt more than one of those feelings.
The Good News About Thanksgiving and Feelings
The good news is that our feelings can change.
You see, our feelings come from our thoughts.
What we first think we then feel.
Change your thinking, and your feelings will follow right behind.
Say you’re feeling a heaping helping of “I just want all these people to go home.” Try consciously changing your thoughts to something like “Our family is full of some interesting folks, but I’m glad they are who they are, or my children wouldn’t be who they are.” Your feelings will change from dread to acceptance to maybe even a little gratitude.
Similarly, your thoughts could be these: “This is the worst Thanksgiving ever. Tofu turkey! Are you kidding? Why didn’t someone tell me the hosts were vegans? I would have declined the invitation.” You could try these thoughts instead: “This is a first for me. A vegan Thanksgiving! These green beans aren’t half-bad.” Your feelings then will change from “What the heck!” to “This is a Thanksgiving I’ll always remember!” And you will have done it all simply by deciding to flip through your thoughts and find the best ones for the situation.
Remember, change your thoughts, and your feelings follow. They have to. They’re birthed there.
Thanksgiving Manners —The Top 7 Tips for a Great Gathering
The list below could just as easily be “The 70 Manners of Thanksgiving.” There’s so much I want to share with you. But that would bore you, so I pared it down to seven. A perfect number! Keep these seven in mind, and people won’t have to change their thoughts about you, because whether you’re the host or guest, you’ll be making it a feel-good Thanksgiving for everyone! (Grace or a prayer is often offered on Thanksgiving prior to eating. Whether you’re the host or guest, check out this popular post to be prepared for your part of saying grace: How to Say Grace Amazingly Well This Thanksgiving & Anytime.)
Especially for Guests
1. When you’re invited, ask what you can bring. Thanksgiving dinners aren’t like most dinners where the guests don’t bring anything but their appetite. This is a feast, so your host might appreciate the help. As you ask, offer some suggestions of what you’re comfortable bringing. A lot of hosts don’t want to ask you to do something out of your comfort zone, especially if they don’t know you well enough to know what your kitchen skills are, so they simply won’t ask. Try saying something like this: “You’re kind to include me in your Thanksgiving! What may I bring? I’m open for anything; however, I do make a sweet potato casserole and pumpkin cheesecake bars that everyone seems to enjoy a lot.”
2. If the host doesn’t want you to bring anything, don’t come empty-handed. Bringing a hostess gift of non-food, beverage, or flowers is perfectly acceptable in Thanksgiving manners. (More about this in an upcoming post.) Here are a few ideas to get you started. Try getting something that’s used when entertaining: coasters, place cards (for another holiday), tea or guest towels, or a Christmas decoration since it’s only about a month away. Pier One Imports, Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Ross and Marshall’s are all great places to find hostess gifts.
3. “Sing for your supper.” In other words, be a great guest. Introduce yourself to everyone you don’t know. Start conversations by sharing how you know the host. Offer to refill drinks, ask to help in the kitchen while the hostess is cooking and after dinner while she’s cleaning up. Entertain the kids. Find a quiet/shy person in the room and try striking up a conversation. Pay attention to the oldest folks and make them feel like the treasures they are. Remember, though, that there are a few topics to avoid at every gathering, including this one.
4. If you meet someone and discover you strongly disagree on issues of politics, religion, or any other subject, don’t let yourself be dragged into a debate. Today isn’t the day for it. Bite your tongue or excuse yourself if you have to. You don’t have to pretend you agree, but change the subject. Try this: “I enjoy talking politics, but today I’m focusing on getting to know everyone’s stories. What’s your best Thanksgiving memory from childhood?”
Especially for Hosts:
5. You don’t get extra points for being a martyr. If you’re getting overwhelmed or frustrated by a lack of help, ask for some. If there are family members (spouse, older children, or blood relatives) in the other room, let them know nicely that you need their assistance. It’s also fine to ask guests to help. In fact, it gives them something to do, and they get to spend time with you.
Thanksgiving is a communal meal. (Remember the Pilgrims and Indians all stepping in to help.) It’s not meant to be a one-woman or one-man show.
The fact is that “When the host ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” The success of this event revolves mostly around YOU. If you’re stressed trying to do too much, or feeling taken advantage of, you’re not happy. You might pretend, but unless you’re as good of an actress as Meryl Streep, people are going to spot your act in a moment, and they’ll feel awkward at least and maybe even awful.
Drop thoughts of perfection.
Perfection doesn’t exist.
And as far as the TV shows you see on the Food Network, remember, that’s not a one-person job. A TEAM of people worked for weeks on one 30-minute show. Those shows are for entertainment, not replication.
Three months from now, no one will be able to name your whole menu or recall your elaborate centerpiece. They will remember how you made them feel. Don’t get so caught up in the details of Thanksgiving that you forget the spirit of the day.
6. Make everyone feel included. (That’s what matters most to people.) If you’re busy in the kitchen, assign someone else the job of making guests feel welcome, give them pointers, and tell them beforehand how important their job is.
7. Use place cards.
About place cards: No, it’s not just because they’re pretty. Use them so that people don’t have to think about where to sit. It shows you’ve already prepared a special place at your table for them.
They also allow you to place your guests next to people you think they’ll most enjoy talking to and keep guests apart who don’t see eye-to-eye.
Usually husbands and wives aren’t seated next to each other. They talk to each other during every other dinner (we hope!). It’s time for them to have some different conversations. The whole table doesn’t need to talk about the same subject. Simultaneous conversations are fine. One conversation with ten or more people is hard.
If you notice a conversation getting heated, jump in and change the subject: “Brian and Dana, I’m sorry to interrupt you both. But before I forget, I wanted you to know that you have something in common. You both moved here because of your jobs.”
Now they’re going to start talking about their careers, and you kept a fight about health care reform from spoiling everyone’s appetites.
If you notice a conversation going nowhere, jump in there, too. Get them started. “Elisha and Beth! It seems I remember you both read everything Max Lucado writes. What do you think has been his best new book of the last two years?”
They’ll be talking Max for the next twenty minutes until they realize they both also like This is Us. Your work here is done!
Savvy Thanksgiving Bonus Tips
If you think you’re going to have leftovers, plan in advance, and buy paper/plastic plates or containers so that everyone can make up their own plate of food to eat later. Thanksgiving leftovers are a treat!
If you’re a guest who brought food to the meal, and you leave early, you can take your container, but leave all (or at least most of) the extra food with the host in case someone wants seconds, or thirds. If you don’t leave early, offer to leave the food you brought. If they say to take it, that’s fine. If they keep it, that’s fine, too.
As the host, don’t be a clean-up martyr. A hostess belongs with her guests, not in the kitchen. Clear the table, stack the dishes, put away anything that might spoil, but leave the clean-up until everyone has gone home if you’re not going to let people help you clean up after dinner.
Of course, by the time everyone leaves, you’re going to be exhausted, so let the dishes go until tomorrow, and then have family members help you.
Honestly, be with your guests. You couldn’t be with them while things needed to be cooked, but cleaning CAN wait. You’ll treasure time spent with your guests. In the morning, your spouse and older children can help you clean up.
Most of all, before you rush out the door to take advantage of holiday sales, take in the best sight of the holidays: the people around the table. The ones you’ve been put here on Earth to do life with, if not forever, then at least for this Thanksgiving.
Love on them. Forgive them if they’ve wronged you. Let them know they’re special to you, and you’re glad you’re with them. The love you give will be returned to you in a thousand different ways over the coming year. Love is the key that unlocks the blessings of Heaven. And if your loving pond is especially dry this year, that’s a sure sign that you’re to love everyone there all the more.
Shower others with kindnesses and your pond will soon overflow.
Despite everything that 2020 has thrown at all of us, may you enjoy a blessed and happy memory-making Thanksgiving! And, may gratitude for what you have and expectations for a bright future fill you with joy!
Hugs and blessings,