Richmond Proper: On Family Manners

Holiday gatherings can alternately be a time to remember all the things you love about your family, as well as all the reasons you don’t hang out with them often. Let’s make the most of it, shall we?

“Blood is not necessarily thicker than water, and it generally helps at this time of year to have a little Scotch in both.”
— Judith Martin

As we roll deeper into holiday crunch time, we could probably all benefit from a brush-up on our family manners. Holiday gatherings can alternately be a time to remember all the things you love about your family, as well as all the reasons you don’t hang out with them often. Let’s make the most of it, shall we? Here are a few tips for smooth sailing this holiday season.

Be optimistic.

If you have a positive attitude about the family gathering from the moment you wake up in the morning, the day is more likely to go better than if you’ve been dreading it. You know that stereotypical conversation with friends, where in answer to “What’re you doing for Christmas / Chanukah / Festivus?” you say “Parents’ house, blehhhhhhhh” and accompany this statement with a grimace? Don’t do that this year. Genuinely look forward to it. Make your own fun, and amuse yourself even if the holiday doldrums are thick-set on everyone else. Be the unsinkable version of yourself, and don’t let minor stresses or setbacks get you down. This is your holiday too, and (for the most part) you can choose how great it will be.

In conversation, steer clear of controversial or unpleasant subjects.

You know, the usual suspects: politics, religion, haircuts, criticisms (veiled or blatant), embarrassing stories, information of a too-personal nature, demanding that somebody hurry up and get married / have babies / whatever, badmouthing of relatives not in attendance, workplace, and reality TV. I perfectly understand wanting to preserve a sense of honesty with your family, and that’s great. But honesty, even with one’s closest relatives, should never become brutal honesty unless specifically asked for. As creative and interesting as the readers of this column are, they will certainly be able to come up with some more interesting topics — such as common interests, hobbies, or recent exciting archaeological discoveries — to bounce around the dinner table.

Offer to help.

Whether your hostess is your mother or a distant cousin, she will likely appreciate your help since having a ton of people over can be a flustering experience. Make yourself available to help with whatever tasks need getting done. For example, if you see her constantly disappearing from her guests to sieve some gravy in the kitchen, offer to take over. Even if there is nothing at all she needs help with, you’ve succeeded in making a nice gesture. If you’re a host, don’t try to appear long-suffering and saintly by refusing the help your family offers. Gladly accept it, and enjoy the camaraderie of completing a simple task together.

Make mealtime nice.

Cindy Post Senning put it best in her 5-Day Holiday Manners Makeover:

  1. Wash up.
  2. Napkin in lap.
  3. Wait until all are served or the hostess begins to eat.
  4. Please and thank you.
  5. Hold utensils properly.
  6. Chew with your mouth closed.
  7. Offer to help clear.
  8. hank you to the cook!

Don’t let the kids run amok.

Nobody expects you to crush every precocious ounce of spirit in your child just to please a stern grandfather, but you should be mindful of where little Johnny is and what he is doing at all times. You know the difference between childish enthusiasm and unfettered, demon-possessed toddler rage, so respond accordingly and make sure that the celebration isn’t interrupted or hindered by your offspring.

Have a variety of activities available.

This one is especially great for large families, because small gatherings can feasibly include everyone in one activity. For households where uncles, aunts, cousins, and second cousins converge in great numbers, set up several different options for things to do. In the kitchen: chatting and cooking. In the living room: holiday movies. In the den: Wii boxing tournament (grandpas vs. grandmas?). In the nursery: crafts or coloring for the kids. In the front yard: lawn games. And so on, and so forth. When people are occupied doing something they enjoy, they tend to be less cranky while waiting for dinner.

Honor traditions, both old and new.

Every family has traditions. In mine, an old one is opening a gift or two on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day. A new one is going to the Byrd Theatre to see It’s a Wonderful Life. Traditions help bolster the feeling of shared experience amongst family members, and give everybody something specific to look forward to and the comfort of knowing what to expect. As Judith Martin says, “It is the simplicity and the repetition that make a tradition, and the children who have to be pried from their avariciousness to participate this year will look forward to it next year, and will remember it fondly all their adult lives.”

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

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