Note: For my friends who have seen this before, I apologize. I have many new friends who have not seen it. I've been traveling recently and unable to write a new piece so I'm posting this one again for new readers. It's still timely advice.
DON'T BE A DIRTY MIKE: HOLIDAY ETIQUETTE
An invitation to share a holiday dinner in the comfort of someone's home, compliments you as an invitee. Whether your host is a family member or a friend, through the invitation to share conversation, food and festivities with you they extend hospitality.
As a guest, your host invites you to enter their personal space. Mingling amongst their treasured possessions, sharing their family time, perhaps appearing in their photos and dining at their table requires trust on their part.
Following a few simple guidelines as a guest allows everyone some comfort. Here is a short list of suggestions to help your holiday enjoyment.
Your host probably expects more guests than just you. A good host balances a table with place settings, or at least the proper number of folding chairs, so it is polite to phone or email your acceptance of an invitation. If you choose to email, write more than just "Yep" in the text body.
Unexpected guests cause chaos for an organized host. It means pulling another folding chair out from under the stairs and asking everyone to move down one seat to accommodate someone like Dirty Mike. Then it turns disastrous when he sits on the tablecloth hem and spills the cranberry sauce on Uncle George.
Make no assumptions. Just because you're friendly with your host's offspring, you are not invited for dinner unless you receive a written, postmarked invitation or personal phone call from the actual host.
Attire, Casual or Dressy?
If you are uncertain regarding the dress code, it is preferable to inquire, "Is this a casual dinner?" or "What will everyone be wearing?" A simple phone call or email is easy.
Some families turn into the Kennedy clan on Thanksgiving and expect your participation in a rousing game of football with all their aunts, uncles and cousins. In this case, wear athletic attire and bring deodorant.
If you are attending a more conservative dinner, appearing in sweatpants when everyone else is wearing church attire can be embarrassing. The holidays are a time to dress according to your host's preference whether your normal attire is scant clothing or you prefer Goth; it will not hurt to conform just once. Someone's Aunt Freda might throw a fit over your cleavage, hairy chest or black ragged sleeved attire. This can ruin an otherwise happy event.
As a guest, be respectful enough to spare your host embarrassment as well. When Dirty Mike showed up at our table wearing grass stained blue jeans, bare chest and bare feet, we all lost our appetites. I keep extra button down shirts in the guest bathroom now.
Please make every effort to leave home early. If you encounter icy roads that cause the car to swerve to and fro, sluggish traffic that tries your patience or delays due to accidents or fallen trees along the way, remain calm. Most hosts don't enjoy greeting a grumpy traveler just before the appetizers are served.
Dirty Mike arrived via bicycle, entered without knocking, dripping from falling into a puddle and shouted, "G-dammed potholes!" One guest dropped the appetizer plate of cheese spread on the clean floor. This episode somewhat explained his lack of a shirt.
Arriving at the proper time is courteous. Holiday meals, timed for perfection, suffer from overheating. Tardiness sometimes results in a punishing culinary experience when served burned sweet potatoes as your portion. Remember to bring Tums just in case you or someone else arrives late.
Gifts for the Host or Hostess
Good manners dictate that arriving with a little gift for your host/hostess is nice. A simple gift of wine--in a bottle, not a box--or a box of chocolates (unless your host is diabetic) is a nice way to say thank you.
Gifts such as potpourri, floral air fresheners or incense, commonly used to mask foul odors, seldom warrant appreciation. Likewise, a discarded floral centerpiece from a dumpster behind a hotel where Dirty Mike found it go unappreciated also.
Keep a Sense of Humor: Seating Arrangements
Some families use place cards to indicate your position at the table. Keep calm if you find yourself seated next to Grandpa Fillmore who removes his dentures to sip his soup. Whispering, "Who is the geezer?" to his wife causes stress for your dining companions. Focus on your own plate and try to start a conversation with the person seated on the other side of you.
One caveat, however, do not discuss religion or politics unless you enjoy a good food fight. Find an engaging topic to keep the conversation going. Some thoughts might be: "Tell me your life story," or "Do you have children?" or the ever popular "What's your favorite TV show?" Most people can speak for hours on one of these subjects.
Be grateful for open seating, if you are fortunate to have it, where you can choose your tablemates and maybe secure an end seat that allows for withdrawal from the table with ease.
Food: The Most Difficult Part of Being a Good Guest
If your host is considerate, they will inform you beforehand if the dinner is not a traditional one. No one is happy when confronted with a Coconut Tofu Imitation Turkey without warning.
That said; mind your manners no matter what unidentifiable morsel passes before you. Shouting out, "What the hell is THAT?" as Dirty Mike did, is not nice.
If you are a vegan, vegetarian, diabetic, keep Kosher or observe Halal, or possess any food related restrictions, try to let your host know well in advance. Most Thanksgiving dinners offer a variety of foods so your limitation, unless dire, means eating whatever you can and smiling at the rest of the spread.
It is rude, without a doubt, to make comments such as, "Are those marshmallows? Eww, I hate those," or "My mother would never serve that," or "That looks disgusting. What is it?"
Additionally, do not scream, "You people are eating a dead bird" just because you belong to PETA or have some aversion to cooked animals. You knew darn well your invitation to Thanksgiving dinner included a roasted turkey. Moreover, for goodness sakes, don't pet the dog during dinner as Dirty Mike did chanting, "I hope you aren't next."
Bring a small cooler with you containing the foods you can eat and, if necessary, explain you are on a restricted diet. If you lack the courage to do this, then eat your own food on the ride home.
Announcing your religious preference, paganism, Wiccan belief, or atheism during Grace or Mealtime Prayer upsets your fellow guests. If you maintain a different belief, politely make your own observance, or not, in quiet. Smiling is preferred behavior---not laughing aloud.
For a Buffet Meal, use a serving utensil to place a modest amount of each food on your plate. Return the serving utensil to the bowl or platter. Do not set it down on the tablecloth. Do not, under any circumstances, use your fingers to grab slices of meat or steamed broccoli. Lastly, when in line for the buffet, do not use a serving utensil to taste the food before choosing to place it on your plate.
(Yes, Dirty Mike strikes again.)
For a served meal, as your prepared plate is placed in front of you smile pleasantly. Eat whatever you like and then make a modest mess on your plate and cover the uneaten portions with either a leaf of lettuce or even a mound of mashed potatoes.
Now, if the dinner is family style, do not stretch across the table to grab the sweet potatoes while exclaiming, "These are mine! I love them!" It is preferable to ask someone, "Could you please pass the sweet potatoes. They look delicious."
Try to keep a napkin in your lap. Do not use the tablecloth hem to mop your face, hands or a spill in your lap as Dirty Mike did. Wait your turn for the passing foods, place a modest amount on your plate and pass the dish along to the person beside you.
Excessive behavior of any sort is to be avoided.
Talking too loudly or telling several lewd jokes in rapid succession, stuffing your mouth as full as you can, talking with a stuffed mouth, and drinking from the wine bottle is excessive behavior.
(Do I need to mention Dirty Mike again?)
If you are a drinker, use a glass and expect someone else to drive you home.
End of Meal
When dinner concludes, it is considerate to offer to help clear the table. At least take your own dish to the kitchen. Do not say, "Hey, can we get rid of this mess?" and then proceed lick your fingers or pick your teeth with a fork as Dirty Mike did.
Lighting a cigar or cigarette in the dining area, while everyone still lingers is prohibited even if you ask, "Hey you guys don't mind, do you?" or "Does any one else wanna cig?" Unless your host also smokes and drops their ashes on the dining room carpet, you should not do this either.
A polite and welcomed offer is an offer to help clear the buffet, wipe a counter, take the trash out, wrap leftovers or to drive Dirty Mike home quickly while insisting his bicycle will fit in the back end of your car.
Be sure to conclude your visit with a smile and say "Thank You" to your hosts.
(Dirty Mike was an actual dinner guest. His name was not changed for this article.)