The RSPCA rightfully remind the public each year that a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. We respectfully borrow that adage and remind you that good manners are for life and not just for Christmas. If you want the manners to be nearer great than good, you might enjoy our etiquette guide. Lord and Lady Grantham will be proud.
When planning your Christmas gathering, decide on numbers and send out invitations in a timely fashion requesting your invitees RSVP by a certain date. Christmas is an incredibly busy time socially so the earlier you can send out your invitations the better. Paper invitations sent in the post are preferable to email invitations, but if the latter are done via an E-card site like jacquielawson.com that is increasingly acceptable.
Be clear with times. If you ask guests to arrive at 7.30 for 8, that means cocktails at half-past-seven and dinner at eight. You may wish to add: “Carriages at Midnight”. In other words, that’s the time you want guests to leave.
If you are an invitee, book a ‘carriage’ ahead of time. Having a taxi ready to take you home at the specified time of midnight shows respect and means your host will not have to turn their house into a taxi-booking service at night’s end.
As host, when deciding on food for the gathering, take all your invited guest’s dietary requirements into consideration. Cater for vegetarians and the yeast and lactose intolerant. Create a flexible menu.
If your guests wish to contribute, allow them to do so – and don’t be afraid to make suggestions that will serve the gathering well. If a quantity of wine is likely to be consumed, ask for a crisp bottle of white, a full-bodied red or even a dessert wine to be added to the supply you are providing. Other suggestions could be after dinner mints, chocolate truffles, sparkling water or elderflower cordial.
Plan a menu that will demand little preparation time on the night. The idea of inviting friends round is to enjoy their company, not to boast about your culinary skills. For a larger group, consider bringing in outside help that night. Your guests expect to spend time with you.
If you are a guest at a dinner party, don’t take the cheap plonk from a recent trip to France – then drink all the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It is rude and disrespectful.
At Christmas, a gift for the host is most suitable. A beautiful Christmas tree decoration in a gift box is ideal. So, too, is a Poinsettia or Hyacinth pot. Flowers that need putting in water are lovely – but that’s also one more job for the host to tackle.
As a host, always greet your guests at the door and immediately ask to take their coats. Introduce new arrivals to guests already there. Offer drinks and canapés.
Have a good selection of non-alcoholic drinks available for the drivers and tee-totals.
For a sit-down dinner, serve cocktails first and after a period of 30 minutes or so invite guests to take their places at the table. If you are not using place cards, the host must indicate where guests should sit. If there are guests who have never previously met, all introductions should be conducted before everyone is seated.
Create the right ambiance. Ensure the lighting is not too bright, but also have enough dimmed lamplight and candlelight to allow guests to see what they are eating – and to see each other.
If guests are late and dinner is ready, allow 15 more minutes before seating everyone or opening up the buffet of food. If the late guests have still not arrived at this point, continue with proceedings. When they eventually arrive, they join the dinner at whatever stage you find yourselves.
Forks are placed to the left of the service plate, knives to the right. Every fork is married to a knife. The soupspoon is placed at the far right of the plate. A safe guideline is to start from the outside utensils and work in with each course.
The bread plate should be to the left of the service plate and glassware should be to the right, in the order they will be used. Remember BMD. Bread to the left, Main to the middle, Drinks to the right.
A water glass should always be the last piece of glassware on the inside of the others. Glasses, like silverware, start from the outside in. At a formal dinner party, five glasses per guest is the maximum. That should cover champagne, white wine, red wine, dessert wine, port and water. Hold a stemmed glass by the stem.
Lay your napkin across your lap. Touch it lightly to your lips to wipe your mouth. Place the napkin on the seat and not the table if you are leaving the table for any reason.
Use your bread plate for bread and butter, olive pits, fish bones and the like.
Break bread into small bite-size pieces with your fingers. Don’t use a knife to cut your bread. Butter the pieces with a bread knife and not a dinner knife.
Open red wine 30 minutes before serving to allow it to breathe. Red wine should be served at room temperature, which is not to say warm. Room temperature guides are taken from pre-central heating days. It is widely accepted in the UK that we serve our red wines too warm and our white wines too cold.
When the meal begins, the host should walk around the table and fill each glass with wine. Thereafter, particularly at a more informal dinner, the host can fill the glasses of the guests closest to him/her and offer the bottle to other guests and ask them to help themselves.
Don’t reach over for anything on the table. Ask for it to be passed. Food at the table should be passed from left to right. A small consideration – but one that might just avoid a bit of confusion.
Do not put your napkin on the table until everyone else has finished eating.
Thank your host and compliment the food – whether or not you enjoyed it!
As host, if you have suggested guests can stay overnight, make them aware of their sleeping quarters on arrival – giving them opportunity to unpack their overnight bag and freshen up.
If you have been invited to stay overnight, take a steer from your host as to the correct time to retire to bed. They might hint “it has been a long day” and “it’s an early start in the morning”. Take heed. If they are happy to stay up for a nightcap, let them suggest it – not you. Determine what time the host is likely to rise the next morning and plan to join them in a timely fashion shortly thereafter.
If you are staying over it is polite to offer your help to clear up at night’s end and to suggest helping with breakfast the next morning. It is unlikely you will be taken up on your offer, but be prepared to follow up on your suggestions.
Remember to send a thank you note after the event. A text will do, an email is better – but a note-card is best of all.