There is more to the holiday season than love, joy, peace and goodwill.
There is also chaos, the merry mayhem you can feel in your bones. And stress, the did-I-remember-to-do-x? anxiety you can feel in your soul. Let’s face it, for every jingling bell, there is a jangled nerve.
Around this time of year, there are also etiquette dilemmas.
What happens when family dinners cook up the opposite of joy and peace? Are the rules of engagement for a Secret Santa gift swap flexible? How do we teach our kids the true meaning of Christmas amid the raging consumerism?
To help you navigate the holidays — or, perhaps, survive them — we wrapped a few questions and sent them to Karen Cleveland, an etiquette expert:
Q: What happens when someone you never exchange gifts with suddenly gives you one? Are you obliged to start a new tradition?
A: The dreaded gift ambush! If caught without a gift, accept the present warmly and graciously. And if you’re so inclined, lie. Lie through your teeth. Explain that their gift is at your home and would they like to come over for a drink the night after next to get it?
Q: Speaking of Christmas cheer, if your extended family now includes a vegan, someone with a severe dairy allergy and a recovering alcoholic, how do you plan a family dinner that makes everyone happy and nobody sick?
A: Perhaps that Christmas cheer is an afternoon tea, complete with lactose-free milk, Stevia, vegan muffins and sugar-free preserves? To use your word, you, well, plan. Rather than try to function as a short-order cook and create one dish for every person’s unique need, get creative and find something that ideally everyone can enjoy. You might have to spend some considerable time creating a menu that works, but at the risk of sounding sickeningly festive, don’t feel beleaguered by that planning. Relish the fact that you have an extended family. You could be celebrating it alone.
Q: What’s the best way to divide holiday time when you have to visit multiple family homes?
A: Very, very carefully. Modern families are complicated units, particularly when step-relatives, in-laws and physical distances are factored in. It is hard to please everyone. In fact, you probably won’t, so all you can do is your best to divide your time equally, without making yourself crazy in the process. Setting expectations in advance might help quell ruffled feathers when you have to leave mom’s Christmas Eve tea early to make it to dad’s in time for a round of eggnog.
Q: How do you deal with a single relative who always gets drunk and then begins saying wildly inappropriate things?
A: Every guest deserves your best hosting prowess — even if it means gritting your teeth through their indiscretions. There is a lovely old adage that the true test of good manners is pleasantly dealing with bad ones. A host isn’t responsible for their guests’ behaviour.
Q: Speaking of indiscretions, here’s a random workplace query: What is the best response if your married boss is openly hitting on underlings at the office Christmas party? What’s the best way to intervene without jeopardizing your own career?
A: Unless you’ve been invited to join them in their rendezvous — or are the spouse of said married boss — what makes you think this is of your concern? It’s not. The situation calls for neither an intervention nor catty gossip the following day.
Q: Okay, still in the office. You’re participating in a Secret Santa. You’ve picked a name and have a perfect gift in mind for this colleague, who is also a friend. But the gift is way more than the mandated price limit. Is it okay to break the rules?
A: Price parameters are put in place for good reason. If you blow the Secret Santa budget cap, the gift recipient will likely be chuffed by your generosity, but the rest of the group might think you’re showboating. If the gift is truly perfect, and you have a close enough relationship with the colleague, give it to them for their birthday.
Q: Is a “Merry Christmas” email ever an acceptable substitute for an actual paper card that’s sent in the mail?
A: You can eat Christmas dinner off of paper plates, if you really want to. No one is going to stop you from sending your holidays tidings in an email rather than a card. It’s better than nothing, isn’t it? Though I’d rather get a thoughtful, beautifully handwritten card in the mail on Dec. 26 than a generic email late afternoon on Dec. 24.
Q: Does the season of generosity have a potential downside? Children today already seem to have so much stuff. Then during the holidays, they’re lavished with more. What’s the best way to instill a sense of value and gratitude? How do we help our kids appreciate what they get when they already have so much?
A: How can generosity, if meant in its true sense, have a downside? Getting caught up in the consumerism of the holidays might blur the lines between generosity and “oh, good grief, as if they need another toy,” sure. But the spirit and intention in which a gift is given sets the tone. If gratitude begets gratitude, perhaps being thankful that you have so many loved ones to buy for is a good place to begin?
Karen Cleveland is a hosting expert who has collaborated with Jackson-Triggs this holiday season to create the ultimate guide to hosting. For more tips, follow Karen on Twitter at @schoolfinishing.
(First published in the Toronto Star, December 2012)