Holiday Party Etiquette

By Sharon Naylor

November 10, 2014 6 min read

When you're hosting the holiday gathering, you'll need to follow etiquette rules to shine as a host and impress your guests with your good manners. You could have the most beautifully decorated home and the most delicious holiday meal your guests have ever tasted, but if you make any etiquette mistakes, the glow is off, and attention will be paid to your lack of decorum.

Here are the etiquette rules for some of the most common holiday party situations:

--When guests bring a bottle of wine, do you serve it at the party?

When guests hand you a bottle of wine or champagne upon their arrival, etiquette expert Philip Howard says, "The host should thank the guest warmly, put the bottle away for another time, and serve the wine he had already arranged for dinner. If the gift is red, wine snobs would say it is too late to open it now and let it breathe. If it is white, it is too late to chill it to the right temperature. If it is disgusting plonk, you and your guests had better stick to your own bottles." It would be a terrible etiquette flub, and make you look cheap, if you only set out bottles of wine brought by your guests and didn't supply any of your own.

--When guests arrive, is it OK to just leave the closet door open by the front door, thinking they'll hang their own coats?

You may be busy cooking or setting up for dinner, but it's not proper form to expect guests to hang their own coats. You, or a family member, should always offer to take and hang their coats and let ladies know where they can safely stow their handbags. If, due to a lack of hanging space in your closet, you'll have guests place their coats on a bed, impress them by spreading a clean sheet or blanket over the bed on which you place their coats. Guests are aware of dust mites and may be allergic to that faux fur blanket you have on your bed, and so a clean layer is a great detail.

--When guests arrive, do we have to introduce them to everyone?

To help facilitate mingling, etiquette expert Debby Mayne says you should introduce guests to one another, especially when there are just a few guests as your first arrivals. It makes everyone comfortable and allows guests to discover common interests more quickly. Some people are more socially awkward, so they'll appreciate your taking the lead and making introductions.

--Do you have to follow any kind of special seating plans, like not seating married couples together?

While there are etiquette rules for ultra-formal dinners, such as at royal palaces and the White House, it's perfectly OK to sit couples together, for their comfort. Just make sure that any elderly or pregnant guests are given the most easily accessible seats and that guests are not crowded uncomfortably at the table. You may need to add an extra table at the end of yours to give guests more elbow room.

--Is it OK to have a kids table?

Yes. If you wish to sit the kids to the side, just be sure there is a responsible child who has experience watching over little ones seated at the table -- and that kids have an activity such as coloring books or sheets to keep them occupied. But if you've seen misbehavior at kids tables, you can seat children next to their parents, who will likely keep the little ones in line and cut their food safely.

--Is it OK if you have to spend most of your time in the kitchen tending to your complicated menu?

You don't want to miss all the fun at your holiday celebration. Mayne says, "Do as much preparation as possible the day before so you can enjoy the party with your guests," which also allows you to keep an eye out for any guests who may have had too much to drink. You must protect your guests, and yourself, against their driving while intoxicated, so be present and watchful and ready to prevent any guests from getting drunk and then driving.

--Are you supposed to say "no" when guests ask whether they can help?

This is a big one for family holiday dinners, because some guests don't want to just sit there while you're doing all of the work. And some guests offer to help because they feel more comfortable with something to do, rather than mingling. So it may be a gift to them if you let them do a little something to help. Pre-think a few easy tasks that let them be of service, such as putting pickles on the pickle plate or taking the coffee cream out to the table, but don't disrupt the flow of what you need to do.

--If guests want to leave early, are you supposed to speed up the offering of dessert?

A guest who has to leave early will not want to cause you any extra work or change the rhythm of your celebration. They don't want to be responsible for rushing the party. So just offer to put some desserts in a container for them if they'd like, and wish them a safe and happy holiday as you walk them to the door for goodbyes.

Finally, etiquette guru Peggy Post reminds you to mind your table manners and avoid double-dipping your shrimp cocktail at this party even if you're in the habit of double-dipping your own shrimp at regular meals. Eyes and cameras are on you, so sloppy eating, chewing with your mouth open or even eating very quickly should be avoided.

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