The South's Etiquette Experts Answer Your Biggest Thanksgiving Dilemmas
Charlotte Hays and Gayden Metcalfe, the expert hostesses and authors of the Pastel Trilogy, lend their resourceful approach to common Turkey Day dilemmas
You've put out your best china, crystal, and polished silver, created a no-fail seating chart, and gotten the timeline for serving your feast down to an impressive two minutes flat—so what could possibly go wrong? Well, plenty. Google "Thanksgiving disaster," and you will find more than 2 million results. Our favorite fiasco was the family cat found dozing atop the sweet potato casserole on the serving buffet. A quick-thinking hostess did exactly what we would have recommended: She calmly shooed away the offending feline, did a little scraping, and pretended nothing happened. She probably had plenty of leftover sweet potato casserole, but she did not create any unnecessary drama.
We have three simple rules for taking control of holiday faux pas that can save any gathering from becoming a dreaded "Thanksgiving disaster." Rule one: As a host or hostess, your primary job—nay, your calling—is to ensure that every guest feels comfortable and has a good time. Conversely, a guest's duty is to make the host's life easier by being friendly and well behaved. Rule two: In the service of rule one, just about anything else is permissible, including a little white lie if necessary. For instance, we'd advise the aforementioned hostess to deny seeing any stray cat hair on the casserole. Rule three: Don't lose your sense of humor in the mad dash to do things right. This is just another way of saying "Keep your perspective." If you can bear in mind that a holiday mishap is just that—a mishap and not War and Peace—you will be the perfect host in an imperfect world. You should also remember that the whole point of a holiday meal is to have a good time with your guests. Read on for more of our advice that will help you through 13 typical—but trying—holiday situations with grace and wit.
1. Accepting All the Football Fanfare
Ensure the DVR is ready to record.
Southerners are known to watch football on their deathbeds, so forget about claiming that you gave the TV away to charity. But is this really such a big problem? At the risk of sounding unsportsmanlike, isn't it nice for those uninterested in touchdowns to gather elsewhere and talk about yardage gains only in reference to the fabulous fabrics they've scored? As long as the fanatics turn the television off during the actual meal, who cares if they indulge their simple pleasure? To keep them involved, assign them a chore to do after the game.
2. Welcoming the Penny-Pincher
Your brother always shows up with a cheap bottle of sparkling wine and never informs you that he's bringing a date. And he drinks only the good stuff.
"Well, Trip, honey," you might say, "we're using place cards this year. Who will you be bringing?" Or just go ahead and set an extra plate, because you know Trip is incorrigible. Hiding the good stuff is well within your rights, but if your brother is the wily pro we suspect him to be, he'll surely sniff it out. As for Trip's innards-challenging gift bottle, make a Chatham Artillery punch (the cheap stuff is fine for this). It might also be fun to send Trip's swill home along with his doggie bag. Claim it improves with age. We guarantee you'll see it again next year.
3. Silencing the Habitual Bigmouthed Braggart
Ugh! Everyone is sick of hearing about her perfect children and lavish vacations.
It's hard to talk with a full mouth. "Aunt Mary, please help yourself to another cheese straw. It's a recipe from the old family cookbook that I found." Risk: She actually has the old family cookbook. Or just seat her next to you, because, as the host, one of your main responsibilities is to navigate the discussion throughout the meal and arrest any conversation criminals. Short of affixing price tags to your antiques, it is difficult to shame a money braggart. Biting one's tongue is a Southern art form, but this may be one time when it is acceptable to (forgetfully) bring up a scandal that's particularly close to Aunt Mary. She may grow strangely silent. "Oh, Aunt Mary, did I say something wrong?"
4. Addressing the Unfashionably Late
Sometimes, a tardy guest deserves to be taught a valuable lesson.
Franke Keating, a beloved photographer and hostess from Greenville, Mississippi, always said it was socially acceptable to be fashionably late, which she put at 30 minutes tops. After that, it is rude rather than fashionable. Starting without guests is a drastic remedy, but with those repeat offenders, it is entirely correct. Leland, Mississippi, doyenne Cora Louise Belford never suffered from late guests. Everybody knew that her cocktail hour was precisely 30 minutes. Dare to set higher standards. You will be surprised by how well it works.
5. Guiding the Family's Worst Cooks
The holidays bring out culinary ambitions in people who ordinarily can't boil water—with predictably bad results.
When you extend the invitation for contributing to your Thanksgiving meal, ask your sweet cousin Jane to bring a fruit salad and be sure to send her the recipe. That's the key: a recipe without too many ingredients. The outcome is likely to be inedible anyway, but as a good hostess, you are obligated to serve it. Take a helping. Eat some. This is what nice people do. Even if it kills us.
6. Giving Graciously
Solving the age-old what-to-bring-to-someone-who-doesn't-need-anything question can be tricky, but you can't show up empty-handed.
You'll never make a favorable impression with a vulgar display. The purpose of a hostess gift is to say "Thank you," not to show off. An assortment of freshly baked cookies tied neatly with a ribbon would be appropriate. A small jar of homemade mayonnaise is never wrong. Of course, a bouquet is lovely too—but it should always be delivered in a vase, so as not to make any extra work for the busy hostess. Only if you can truly afford it, send flowers the next day instead of bringing something. This gift becomes a tribute to a successful occasion.
7. Navigating the Seating Arrangements
An adult needs to join the small fry. Who should it be?
When there is an overflow at the "big" table, the thoughtful hostess should resist the temptation to ask a sensitive teenager, who'll not soon forgive, to sit with the children. Decide on an oldest/youngest pairing. A fun-loving elderly aunt or two might be thrilled to join the youngsters. Explain that the children are clamoring for their company. They may appreciate the change in scenery. Set coloring books and crayons on the table, and cover it with butcher paper instead of a tablecloth (so miniature Jackson Pollocks can express themselves freely without causing any permanent damage). Uphold the honor of the kids' table by affixing balloons to the chairs, tying napkins with ribbons, and including favors at each place setting. Manners bonus: Even the most delightful relative expects children to behave properly and might not suffer in silence if tiny elbows happen to grace the table. They may have no qualms about speaking up, unless they are too carried away by drawing with the crayons.
8. Keeping Your Party Lively
We love turkey and all the fixings, but let's face it: A heavy meal can induce lethargy, and that's no fun.
Keep moving: Put drinks and nibbles in one room, the main course in another, and so on. If dinner on the hoof isn't for you, we're fans of the custom of "turning the table." In this practice, the hostess addresses the guest on her right for the first course, then switches to the left for the second, etc., with guests following her lead. Nobody changes seats (we find that awkward), but turning the table is a way to make sure that even the most timid guest is not left out. We first observed the custom in Washington, D.C., when a friend of ours sat next to a famous (but repetitive) journalist. They had the same fabulous conversation five times. Good stories always bear repeating, and turning the table makes everyone an eager participant.
9. Hushing the Holiday Gossip
The guest who's had a few drinks and gets mean with the hearsay requires taking strong measures.
We love a little gossip, but it's like drinking: good clean fun but only in moderation. You never want things to get out of hand and become unkind or uncomfortable. Invite the offender into the kitchen to help wash up—even if you are still on the first course. Tell her to stay there until she can think of something nice to say. It is always good to present someone with a challenge.
WATCH: Southern Holiday Etiquette 101
10. Packing Awat the Leftovers
Think before you start piling on the to-go plates.
Some hosts insist on loading guests with unwanted casseroles and other leftover goodies. This is a particular peril for single people. If somebody especially loves your tomato chutney, then by all means, send him home with a jar. But avoid using your guests to dispose of all the uneaten food. Instead, plan on having a Rosedale Sandwich—leftover dressing, a slice of turkey, cranberry sauce, and a dollop of homemade mayonnaise on whole-wheat bread—the day after.
11. SAYING "NO, NO, NO" TO "HO, HO, HO!"
All too many people rush right past Thanksgiving to get to Christmas.
Well, we regard Black Friday sales as part of the Thanksgiving ritual. But we also believe that if you start celebrating Christmas before Thanksgiving Day is over, you end up depriving yourself of both holidays. Declare that elves and jingle bells are not welcome today. We suggest being corny and talking about gratitude. If all else fails, then suggest that putting up a tree this early is just asking for an electrical fire.
12. Sending Guests on Their Merry Way
Stragglers, especially ones who are having a bit too much fun, can pose a serious problem.
For a guest who's just overly chatty, a host might say, "I know you especially enjoy apple pie, so I've wrapped some for you to take home. Now don't delay, because it needs to be refrigerated immediately. Let me help you to the car with it." But if it's an overserved relative, remark that the guest bed is made up or offer a ride home. Small towns don't have Uber, and their taxi service is often unreliable. Somebody should be able to take a wobbly uncle home. He's not drunk—you just want to visit some more.
13. Starting New Traditions
Every year, old friends invite me over. Every year, they become more impossible. Would it be better to bag it and spend Thanksgiving eating Chinese food alone?
We hate to chide you, but we must. It is extremely uncreative to view your situation in such binary terms: being miserable with people who are no longer congenial or being terribly lonely with General Tso. Even an unaccomplished cook (you, perhaps?) can offer some hospitality. Delicious preprepared dishes mean that the most abject culinary washout can now cook just like a Southern chef—almost without turning on the stove. For heaven's sake, invite your cat sitter and a handful of other deserving waifs, who'll be eternally grateful. You'll be proud of yourself and probably have a lot more fun this year.