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Holiday Etiquette Dos and Don'ts

It's the season...for trying to remember how to properly set a table and hosting a get-together without awkward conversations breaking out. How can you navigate the intricacies of the holidays while minding your p's and q's? As a follow-up to the December 2021 Better Homes & Gardens story on manners, we sifted through our archive for holiday-related rules on entertaining, gift giving, and more. See what etiquette advice through the ages holds up and what doesn't. And then say a toast to a well-mannered holiday season!

Hosting a Dinner or Party

Clean the house, cook the turkey, and remember which order the silverware belongs on the table. There's a lot to hosting a holiday dinner (or party), and it's perfectly fine to ask guests to pitch in or even assign them to bring a dish. "Some guests actually feel guilty if they don't bring something," noted the "Holiday Parties on an Everyday Budget" story in the December 1988 issue of Better Homes & Gardens.

Etiquette rules worth sticking to...

"Avoid prefacing your invitation with 'Are you busy Friday evening?' Which leaves little chance of declining." —December 1951

"Place knives and spoons to the right of dinner plates in the order they are to be used, working from outside in. Put forks to the left of dinner plate, in the order of their use. Water goblet belongs at the right of dinner plate, one inch above the knife." —March 1948

"Say how long you wish your guest to stay—so he will have no fear of overstaying his welcome. 'For dinner and two hours of bridge.'" —December 1951

"Seat each guest next to someone you think they have things in common with. The most VIP person should be seated to the right of the host." —November 2018

"Centerpieces should be 9–10 inches tall, max. Avoid anything that prevents eye contact across the table. Try a low compote filled with flowers or fruits." —November 2018

And a few that don't hold up so well today...

"In making introductions, name ladies first, and age before youth. (Mrs. Holmes, meet Mr. Davis.)" —December 1951

"If outside help or an inexperienced maid is to serve dinner, by all means have the table laid some time ahead and then simply write out all the details and order of service—posting it in the kitchen or pantry." —May 1926

"Fifteen minutes is the maximum time to wait for a tardy guest [at dinner]. When he appears, host rises from the table to greet him. Hostess does not leave her place." —March 1948

"All authorities would agree that children should not participate in formal dinners given by their parents until they're practically grown up, and almost any evening meal will be more enjoyable for the average adult guest if the pre-school children of the family eat first and go to bed." —November 1935

Being an Overnight Guest

If you're spending the night—or a few nights—you need to be a bit of a diplomat. Follow your host's lead on schedules, meals, and activities. Better yet, talk things through before the visit. And don't overstay your welcome. As the "Be A Good Houseguest" story in the September 2003 magazine noted: "After three days, fish and company smell."

Etiquette rules worth sticking to...

"Common courtesies apply. Do not take up residence in the only bathroom. Clean up after yourselves...tidy up before leaving, including gathering up dirty linens." —September 2003

"While most guests remember to thank their hosts as they pull away from the curb, very few actually follow up with a more formal gesture of gratitude, and they should. A next-day phone call or e-mail is often considered appropriate...a written note takes a little more effort. If you want to be welcomed back, it's an effort you should make." —September 2003

Sending Holiday Cards or Letters

There's something sweetly old-fashioned about the annual holiday letter, even when it's printed from a computer rather than handwritten. The holidays are "the time for renewing old acquaintances—and bringing address books up to date," noted the "Ever Think About the Etiquette of Christmas Cards?" story in the December 1947 magazine. And keep in mind that the catch-up letter or card you send doesn't have to be for Christmas; it could be sent in celebration of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, or New Year's, for example.

Etiquette rules worth sticking to...

"Place a return address on your envelope. Once considered bad taste, this practice is now recognized as a considerate thing to do." —December 1947

"A handwritten note at the end gives it that authentic touch. Say something specific that couldn't be said to anyone else—a certain memory or an inside joke, or how you're looking forward to seeing them." —December 2008

"Consider the updated family photograph with a personal note as an alternative to the long form letter. Pictures probably tell as much as many of our distant friends would want to know." —December 2000

And one that doesn't hold up so well today...

"Many people, following the Mr. and Mrs. pattern, prefer the man's name first [when signing a holiday card or letter]." —December 1947

Giving and Receiving Gifts

Gifts are part of the season, even if you're simply bringing a bottle of wine to a dinner. Just follow the rules. If a host says no gift, don't show up with a gift. If there's a $25 limit on your family's gift exchange, don't spend $75. And remember it's the thought that counts. As the "Happy Holiday Shopping" story in the December 2016 issue pointed out: "Do you love your friend less if she bakes you cookies instead of buying perfume?"

Etiquette rules worth sticking to...

"Whether your money bag is fat or slim, it's not necessary to exchange gifts on the basis of equal money value. Christmas presents that are too expensive are not in good taste, may be embarrassing both to you and the receiver. You know how much you can afford. It's better to let your own purse guide you rather than try to match your friends dollar for dollar." —December 1952

"Occasionally it happens that the day before Christmas you receive a gift from a person whom you've overlooked. If you wish to send a present in return and there's time for it to reach your friend before Christmas, send it hurriedly on its way. Otherwise simply write a thank you note. If the present is from a business firm, a note of gratitude is sufficient." —December 1952

And one that doesn't hold up so well today...

"Be sure to make [store-wrapped packages] personal with a note or greeting written by you tucked inside. You'll aid busy clerks if you have your signed card ready when you request gift-wrapping services." —December 1952

Search Our Archive for Nearly 100 Years of Ideas From Better Homes & Gardens