It's that time of year. In December, most of us probably send, and receive, more invitations to parties and other gatherings than we do the rest of the year combined. All this social interaction can make for some awkward moments if you haven't brushed up on your holiday etiquette.
Not to worry. The Answer Gretch is here with some seasonal guidance.
Q: Every year, I send out Evites to our annual holiday party. I always include a note to RSVP, but every year without fail, I have to call half our invitees to find out whether or not they can make it. It's kind of humiliating! Some of them never respond at all, but show up anyway. What's up with people today?
A: It's wonderful that each year you open up your home to friends and neighbors, many of whom are too uncultured to understand that RSVP stands for "repondez s'il vous plait," which is French for "I have to plan a menu, and it's really hard if I don't know if I'm hosting five or 50!"
You have two choices, honey. You either can give up on the whole holiday party deal, or you can suck it up, pick up the phone, and call the ungrateful wretches. It doesn't have to be awkward, as you can pretend that you're checking to see whether they actually received their invitations, and they can pretend that they simply forgot to respond. And those folks who fail to repondez but still show up at your chalet? Greet them warmly, give them a hug, and then make a mental note to strike their names off next year's list.
Q: Speaking of Evites, my husband and I argue over whether or not to make the guest list public. He says people want to know who they're going to be spending the night with, and I say no way. Is there a socially correct answer?
A: Not really, but there is a sensible one. Making your guest list public allows guests to game the system. They can sit back and wait until their favorite people take the bait, and only then chime in. Problem is, you are on the other end, trying to plan your evening. Best to keep everyone in the dark, except you. If someone calls and asks who else is in before giving their answer, I'd say refer back to my first answer -- be polite, and then strike them off for next year.
Q: We have been to number of holiday clunkers over the years. What's the best way to make a graceful exit?
A: In a large party, it's OK to "ghost," or do a quiet disappearing act. If you do, though, make sure to do it smoothly. One spouse can keep up the conversation while the other goes upstairs to look for coats. Then slip out the door, throwing your coats on only after you've gotten outside. Then pray nobody has parked you in.
If the gathering is small (small enough that someone might say, "Hey, what happened to the Smiths?") come up with a believable excuse. I always claim an early morning training run, but a sick child at home also is a nice touch -- and make sure to apologize to and thank the host.
Q: Partygoers arrive every year with their favorite culinary creations, but then forget to take the plates/platters/bowls home with them, leaving me to sort out what dish belongs to which neighbor. How much responsibility do I have in assuring their prompt return? Can I just keep the plates?
A: How thoughtful of your friends to bring hors d'oeuvres (another French term!) and how unfortunate that they forget the simple step of putting their names on the bottom on a piece of masking tape. If it's an inexpensive dish, don't sweat it. They probably picked that piece because someone left it at their house. If it's nice, though, you might post a message on Facebook or Twitter, or set it aside in the hopes someone will claim it. I don't think it's your responsibility, though, to play Sherlock Holmes. After a month or so, it's fair game. Put it in your china closet and see whether the owner ever shows up.
Q: My sister-in-law just announced she's gone vegan and a neighbor is gluten intolerant. How mindful do I have to be of dietary concerns when I am sitting down to plan my menu?
A: You're the host, so it's perfectly fine to serve exactly what you want to serve. That said, food allergies/sensitivites are nothing to fool with. As a good host, I believe it's important to ask your guests beforehand if they have any special dietary concerns, especially if it's a small dinner party. Nothing's more of a buzzkill than having a guest bolt for the powder room after eating something he shouldn't (my shellfish-allergic husband once spent the night sweating/heaving in a friend's bathroom after unknowingly eating crab).
It's always nice to have a tray of crudites (this is becoming a free French lesson) for the rabbit-eaters and dieters. And folks who are gluten intolerant, in my experience, are quite tolerant in other ways, and will eat around your menu choices.
Q: We're invited each year to a neighbor's house. They never ask us to bring anything, but I make a mean three-bean salad. Is it OK to bring a dish as an uninivited guest?
A: Not really. Your hosts have probably planned a menu and know what they want to serve. You can call ahead to ask if you can bring anything, but if they decline, take them at their word. Your helpful addition to the menu might be taken as a sign that 1) you don't listen or 2) you don't think they can cook.
Q: I want to bring something as a hostess gift, but a bottle of wine seems so predictable. Any suggestions?
A: It's always nice to bring a token of appreciation for your hosts. Flowers are lovely. So is a small box of expensive chocolates or festive tin of cookies. Candles and luxury soaps also make excellent gifts for party hosts. My advice is to think of something they might not get for themselves. But there's nothing wrong with a nice bottle of wine.