By: Maralee McKee, The Etiquette School of America
Here are ten manners for hosts and guests on Christmas Day. When put into practice, if you’re having a great Christmas, they’ll help you insure that others do, too! And if you’re disappointed enough that you’re about to let your inner Scrooge take over, they’ll pull you back from the edge!
The Top 10 Manners for Hosts and Guests on Christmas Day
Let’s first look at the five manners that apply the most to hosts, because when you agree to have the Christmas festivities at your home, you’re doing more than saying, “Come on over and join our Christmas.” This is your guests’ Christmas, too. You’re committing to putting in the effort to find out what’s going to make their Christmas memorable and doing your best to make it happen. And no, you don’t need to put aside all your Christmas traditions for your guests. You add some of their traditions to yours and come up with a new Christmas melody for the day!
Manners For the Host and Hostess With the Mostest
1. Ask and tell when you invite. When you invite someone for Christmas (in-laws, other family members, or friends), do so in person or by phone, so you can learn about their Christmas traditions and share about your own. Remember, just because they’re coming to your house doesn’t mean it’s your way or the highway.
Here’s how a conversation might go between a hostess and her guest, Carla, who is coming with her husband, their three kids ages five to eight, and their new baby. I purposely gave you different scenarios of things you might want to mention. Not all will apply, but the scripting might help you word things that apply to you that aren’t included below. (The words in italics are those of the hostess.)
A. “…the children will be excited to open their gifts, so I thought I’d have bagels and doughnuts out while we open the presents. Then we can eat the breakfast casserole and other things around 8:30 AM after they’ve had time to play a little. (Carla would reply with her thoughts.)
B. I love how you said that you hand out all the gifts first, and then go around the room with everyone opening one at a time. We’ve not done that before; it sounds great to me! (Carla and the hostess would talk about opening gifts.)
C. Since you mentioned the other day that the baby takes her longest nap at around 1 PM, what if we eat lunch then? (The hostess and Carla discuss lunch.)
D. One thing we’ve always done is have everyone tell the best thing that has happened to them this year at the table. If that’s good with you, we’ll do it. (Here, the hostess has shared one of the traditions that’s important to her, after having incorporated Carla’s gift-opening tradition into the day.)
E. Also, I know my parents get tired easily. While they’re reading and resting after lunch, I’m going to plan some fun, quiet things to do with the kids. Do they like games or crafts better? (The hostess is alerting Carla that her parents are going to need some down time, but she hasn’t said, “So keep your kids quiet.” Instead, she’s thinking ahead as to how to keep them happily occupied. So Carla now knows to help out during this time to keep them involved in the fun, quiet activities the hostess is going to provide.)
F. Also, I’m going to have some movies ready. What’s your favorite Christmas movie? And is there a favorite movie that your children like that you want to bring? Or is there something they haven’t seen that I can stream for them?” (Here, the hostess is planning something entertaining for everyone that goes beyond conversation, and she’s getting her guest’s input. As you’ll see below, conversation will be provided for, since it’s one of the best parts of Christmas, but it’s nice to have something on hand that will distract Uncle Phil in the conversation when he’s about to start on his tirade about — well — whatever his tirade de jour is.)
2. The host(ess) sets the tone in the home. If the hostess isn’t happy, no one is happy. This is Christmas. Put effort into the day: plan, organize, decorate, use your best china or your prettiest paper plates.
Plan in depth.
And have a backup plan.
And if nothing goes according to plan, don’t sweat it.
Tension is tangible.
Your guests will feel it, and everyone is going to be uncomfortable. If you’re not willing to laugh about it, and make sandwiches as a substitute for your entree if your fancy rib roast burns or your soufflé falls, don’t make those items.
Forget perfection. Perfection isn’t possible. It’s an illusion. A mirage. A lie. It’s always going to taunt you from about 10 inches from your grasp. ALWAYS.
Instead of perfection, focus on graciousness.
People won’t remember your menu in six months. They won’t remember what color scheme your table was, what place-card holders you used, or what you wore.
They will never forget how you made them feel. They’ll remember the feel of your home.
If you’re going to be miserable if someone (child or adult) breaks one of your good plates, don’t use them. Sure, you’re going to be upset if little Tyler broke the plate because he was trying to spin it like a toy top, but you can’t let it ruin your or your guests’ Christmas.
There are risks associated with being a host, and one of them is that things might get broken. Rise above the shards!
Share the best of yourself.
3. It’s okay to ask for some help. These are your guests, and while they’re not your kitchen staff or maid service, most people like to lend a hand. They’re going to feel bad watching you work nonstop, so plan ahead and do all you can beforehand to minimize your Christmas Day duties.
This is your Christmas, too.
Ask for help with anything the moment you feel tension coming on: entertaining the children, picking up the Christmas wrapping paper from the floor, sorting presents, stirring gravy, pouring drinks, clearing the table. Ask and you shall receive, especially on Christmas!
4. During the main meal, if there’s more than one table, the host and hostess should sit at separate tables. No one wants to feel like they’re at the adult version of the kids’ table. That’s why it’s nice if the host and hostess sit at different tables when there’s more than one adult table.
If there are more than two adult tables, the host and hostess excuse themselves about halfway through the entree and go and check on the other guests for a few minutes.
It’s nice if during dessert you trade seats with someone and eat at a different table. Arrange this before the meal, so the host and/or hostess can also sit with those guests. That way, everyone probably has had a chance to sit at a table with the host or hostess. (The children are going to finish a lot faster than the grown-ups. Have coloring pages available at their table or games or crafts planned for them to do while the adults finish eating.)
5. Have a gift for everyone who is attending. Since presents will be opened, everyone needs something to unwrap. (Before all eyes are on you and you open your gift, this post, one of the most popular on the blog, shares the 7 Manners of Opening Every Gift.)
Even for the cousins’ new boyfriends and girlfriends, the host(ess) should give each of them a small gift, even though from experience you know they go through relationships so fast that you’ll probably never see these friends again.
Grace Note: Spread the Christmas festivities out through your house so that there are different areas where guests can go to do the things you’ve preplanned, or they can relax and do nothing at all.
There might be a crafts-and-games area for the kids in one of the bedrooms along with a TV and movie to watch later. (Plan in advance who will help the children.)
There might be a movie or game on the family-room TV. And in the living room, you might want to add extra chairs from the dining room after lunch or dinner for those who want to relax, listen to Christmas music, and talk. In each room, have enough coasters for everyone, and a plate of sweet or savory snacks for munching.
There’s No Place Like Home on Christmas
I love to travel, but on Christmas Day there’s no place I want to be but in my own home with my husband and children opening gifts under our tree, and eating our traditional menu off our own Christmas plates.
Both Kent and I come from small families, so every Christmas has been a quiet gathering. I wonder how I’ll feel about splitting my time at different homes when my boys grow up, get married, and — yikes, say it’s not possible — perhaps move from our hometown of Orlando (the fifth generation born and raised).
You see, I like being the Captain of the good ship Christmas Day. I’m going to have to put in effort to practice what I preach when it comes to being a great Christmas guest, because it’s not going to come naturally.
When we accept an invitation to join someone on Christmas Day, we lay down our right to be Captain of the ship. Instead, we’re an oarsman. There’s an unspoken social contract that says we’ll help make Christmas lovely for the other guests by being the best version of ourselves and by being alert to any pressure points of the host, hostess, or the other guests, and graciously stepping in to help relieve them before they feel overwhelmed.
How can we possibly do that?
Here are five of the best ways!
Manners for The Guest Everyone Loves to Invite Back
1. Ask what you can bring, but don’t limit it to food. What the hostess might need more than food is your four folding chairs, for everyone to bring a bathing suit and towel (Can you tell I’m a Florida native?!), some board games, or an extra frying pan, or another kitchen item. Let her know you’re happy to bring anything she needs.
2. Be careful about sharing how Christmas is at your house. If the conversation turns to favorite Christmas memories or family traditions, share yours, of course. However, if in the middle of the activity you say, “We’re just the opposite. We open our gifts after our Christmas morning service at church, not before,” your innocent sharing could be interperted by the hostess as a criticism of how she’s planned the day.
People are more sensitive than most of us think they are. It’s kind of like when others near you are whispering. Even though you don’t know the people, you feel like they’re whispering about you. That same principle applies here — just in a slightly different form.
3. If you know/think you aren’t going to be able to take a full day, set your departure time with the hostess when you set your arrival time. You know your limits, you know your spouse’s limits, you know your children’s limits. If everyone was expecting you to stay all day and into the evening and you leave at 3 PM, it’s going to send up the distress flag. Instead, if you think that five hours is all so-and-so is going to be able to take, say something to the hostess when you accept her invitation. “We’ll be there at 8 AM sharp, Gwen. However, we’re driving to my mom’s house the next morning, and I’m going to have some cooking and packing to do. We will probably leave about 4:00 PM.” (It’s considered eating-and-running for you to stay less than one hour after the meal is finished.)
If you’re all having a great time and end up staying longer, that’s OK! But, this way, you can leave, and no one’s feelings will be hurt.
4. Be on the lookout for pressure points, and jump in to help at the first sign. If Grandpa (even though he’s not your grandpa) looks sleepy, tell him it’s OK to rest and alert the hostess. If the kids start to get rowdy, and they’re not yours, go over and play with them. If the hostess is going crazy in the kitchen, offer specific help: “Rebecca, I see you’re peeling potatoes. Did you know that I’m a Grand Champion potato peeler? Can I practice my skills?”
Anytime you can inject a little humor into the situation, you earn another jewel in your Heavenly crown! If you overhear Larry and Ty getting heated talking about religion, politics, or anything else, go over and even though you’re a new guest and don’t really know them, start a conversation, “I’m without anyone to talk to at the moment. May I join you? I was wondering…?” That’s worth two jewels in your crown!
If the party seems to be lagging, it’s a great time to take out your smartphone and start taking photos. It gets everyone smiling faster than anything!
5. Bring a gift and goodies to the host family. You don’t need to bring a gift for people outside the immediate host family whom you don’t know. You do need to bring a gift for the host, hostess, and their children. It can be something for the whole family, or one thing for the adults and one for their children (if the children are close in age), or individual gifts for each. In addition to the gift, bring along a food goodie, too. It can be handmade or store-bought: cookies, chocolates, nuts, cake, and such. Make sure it’s something their whole family will enjoy. And as you hand it to the hostess, let her know that she doesn’t need to serve it today. For more about what to give a hostess, check out How to Choose and Give the Perfect Hostess Gift.
Grace Note: This is for sure one of the times when a handwritten thank you note delivered via snail mail is in order. It’s nice to call the next day to thank the hostess for inviting you. Also sending a handwritten thank you card is a gracious gesture. You don’t need to send one to relatives or to friends who are as close as relatives. However, you certainly can, if you want. And I bet the hosts, would appreciate it!
Make sure to send your note as soon after Christmas day as possible. The next day is best. Why the next day?
The longer you delay, the more it gets pushed down on your to-do list, and either it will never get written, or it will come long enough after Christmas that it seems like an afterthought instead of an authentic expression of your gratitude. You can find out more about Christmas thank you notes in this post.
Handling Things Well
Christmas comes but once a year, and you can be sure you can manage anything the people you share the day with bring your way by keeping these ten manners at the top of your mind.
Manners aren’t fancy or limiting. They’re from the ancient Latin word for “hand.” They show us how best to handle ourselves, and there’s no better time to handle ourselves well than at Christmas. In fact, as Oscar Wilde said, “The only real gift is a portion of oneself.”
Keep doing what only you can do, bless the world by being authentically you at your best!
Wishing you a healthy and joyful Chrismas,