Be nice, folks: Crossness isn't at home in our holiday traditions

Published Nov. 17, 2005|Updated Nov. 21, 2005

Oh, go ahead. Have some more ceremonial eating. It's good for you.

Miss Manners is no longer so sure it is. The traditional holiday meal _ emotionally nutritious and nutritionally aggressive _ has taken a distasteful turn. Rather than going after the food while treating the people considerately, participants go after the other people while considering the food.

Every culture has its ritual feast. Everyone is expected to take part, dressing up not only their bodies, but their attitudes, for the occasion. Special food is prepared, the best table equipment is shined and starched and the setting is festooned with decorations. A prescribed procedure is followed at the table, to the extent that many of the utterances people make are traditional to the occasion.

As such things go, our Thanksgiving is cozy and simple. Relatives and friends gather around a table to eat turkey and seasonal produce, the chief requirement being that there be too much of it. As in the days when only fancy folk had dinner in the evening, it is an afternoon meal served from platters on the table. Daytime dress need be only formal enough to make everyone sit up smartly and have to make furtive adjustments as the meal progresses.

Everyone is expected to praise the food and protest the amount. Children must be told that they have grown larger, and adults that they have become smaller. A groaning session is held toward the end of the meal, although discretion is advised when describing digestive struggles. Help is offered that the hosts may or may not choose to accept. Everyone is supposed to depart before they turn cross.

How hard is that?

And yet it seems to Miss Manners as if few people seem to manage it now without turning prematurely cross.

It starts with reluctance to attend and complaints about the guest list: "I didn't choose my relatives; I'd rather be with my friends . . If he's going to be there, you can count me out . . . If you invited those children, keep them away from me . . . I hope you don't expect me to be civil to people I can't stand."

Then there is rebellion against making any effort to dress: "That's stupid; I'm going to be comfortable . . . I don't care what anyone else does . . . It's just family . . . You think I'm going to wear a tie? . . . No, I'm not wearing a skirt and that's final . . . What do you mean, these aren't real shoes?"

Finally, there is the conversation. You remember the traditional comments: "She got the drumstick last year, so it's my turn . . . Nobody makes pie the way you do . . . Since you insist, but only a little . . . I'm going to burst . . ." Now guests have taken to making unpleasant remarks about the menu and the habits of other guests: "Don't you know what that does to the system? . . . You don't really need that . . . Yuck . . . I hate that . . . I'm not supposed to have that . . . There's nothing here I can eat."

Come on, folks, it's a holiday. It won't kill you to look nice, it won't kill you to be nice, and if you think the food will kill you, please skip it without comment. It's a ritual, and we don't have that many of them.

Laying down the law about leftovers

When we host the Thanksgiving dinner, my sister-in-law is in the habit of asking to take home leftovers. In the beginning I didn't mind too much because she was a young single parent and I felt it was a small way to help her. Of course, I also felt obligated to offer that brother-in-law take some because he was still young and in college and I didn't want him to feel left out.

But then my husband's stepmother would ask to take home leftovers. By the time I dished out leftovers, there wasn't much left for us.

This year, my husband's family is coming over again, and I'm cooking the dinner (which I totally enjoy doing). But, as selfish as it sounds, I don't want to share leftovers. My husband and I work full time, we have a 1-year-old, and we'll be putting a lot of work into the dinner. Leftovers have become very sacred.

My sister-in-law is now in her early 30s, my brother-in-law is on the verge of getting married, and I don't feel they need to take home more than what is offered at dinner. (They'll also be staying the night, so I'm sure we'll have turkey sandwiches while they're there.)

Do you think it's rude of me to tell my sister-in-law, if she asks (my brother-in-law won't ask), that this year we are not sending leftovers home with anyone?

It warms Miss Manners' heart to think of your family gathered at Thanksgiving, all squabbling over the leftovers, which you hold sacred.

If it were any other meal, Miss Manners would ask if you had tried cooking less food, but overcooking for Thanksgiving seems to be a tradition. Sharing leftovers need not be. You can say, "But that's our lunch tomorrow" or "No, we're planning to make more meals out of them" or just "There isn't anything we aren't planning to use" _ but only if you promise to say it in a cheerful and uncritical way.

Address your etiquette questions to Miss Manners, c/o the St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.