Thanksgiving Day Dinner Etiquette

Echoing the Spirit of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag  

According to historical accounts, in November 1621, a year after the Pilgrims arrived on the shores of what would become the USA, they celebrated a successful and bountiful harvest with members of the native Wampanoag Tribe, with whom they formed a bond that lasted more than half a century.  We should all have such successful dinner parties!  That strong empathy and peaceful alliance that existed between the new colonists and the natives who befriended them should serve as a model of civility and empathy for us in the 21st Century.

As we gather for another Thanksgiving celebration, following are some reminders to make your glorious harvest celebration just as successful as the first Thanksgiving:

If You Are the Host

  • Issue invitations early.  If one of your children wishes to bring his or her significant other, be sure to issue your own invitation, as well, to make this special guest feel welcome.
  • Plan ahead and be clear if you expect help from your family or friends so there are no misunderstandings as to who should do what.  Discuss and obtain agreement, then confirm in detail by email.  If someone does slip up, try not to bite his (or her) head off, at least not in front of the company!
  • Create an atmosphere of warmth and welcome.  If you are stuck in the kitchen as guests arrive, your spouse or special friend should greet.  Accept gifts gratefully, even if they consist of food or wine that don’t fit in with your menu – just say that you are going to same them for later to enjoy.  Display any flowers, unless you or someone in attendance suffers from allergies.  Plan ahead to have someone responsible for noting who brought what in case you’re busy when guests arrive.  Thank everyone who brings a hostess gift.
  • Be prepared for surprises and roll with the punches.  No matter what goes wrong it’s not worth ruining the festive mood; there’s always a solution.  Handle the unexpected guest and the missing pie that the dog ate with grace and a sense of humor (and have someone take the dog for a walk!)
  • Have a place where smokers can step outside; have ashtrays available.
  • Multiple tables, including a children’s table, might be needed.  While children learn from adults and it’s lovely to seat the whole family together, adults are also entitled to a day of adult interaction.  If you do decide to have a separate children’s table, an adult or older child should be responsible for ensuring that the little ones are settled, well fed and happy.
  • Whether or not you want help in the kitchen or with cleaning up should be made clear, cheerfully but firmly.
  • Signal the end of the festivities by asking if anyone would like a nightcap or last cup of coffee.  If so, after serving them, offer to help get everyone’s coat.

If You Are the Guest

  • Respond promptly to invitations, even if to explain that you are in the process of sorting out your holiday plans.  But, don’t keep someone hanging for long; they have to make plans, as well.  If you cannot attend, respond with your regrets immediately, graciously and thankfully.
  • Hostess gifts should be selected thoughtfully.  First, ask if there is anything you can bring or contribute to the holiday feast.  If you host replies that he’s got everything under control, you could send a lovely autumn floral arrangement the day before Thanksgiving, or bring a good bottle of wine the day of – but don’t expect your host to serve it with dinner unless it is a good fit with the menu.  Another idea that a colleague suggested is to take some photos of the occasion, select one that is representative of the day, place it in a pretty frame and send it to the host afterward with a note of thanks.
  • Don’t bring unexpected guests.  If you’ve started dating someone after you accepted an invitation to dinner or a friend turns up at the last minute with nowhere to go on Thanksgiving, call your host and explain the situation.  However, if you know that your host has limited space and it would be a strain to set another place, don’t hassle him, but don’t cancel either.  Explain the situation to your friends; they should understand.
  • Arrive on time; never early or more than 15 minutes late.  If something comes up and you must be late, advise your hostess ahead of time and don’t be any later than you’ve stated.  If your hostess is very casual about the arrival time, still be considerate and arrive close to the designated start of the festivities.
  • Offer to help but don’t get in the way.  Some hosts enjoy bantering with their guests in the kitchen, and appreciate assistance; others find it distracting and even nerve-wracking.  Be sensitive to your host’s personality and preferences, and don’t feel insulted if she sweetly kicks you out of the kitchen.  Visit with the other guests; offer to be available to answer the door or put out trays.  Offer to carry prepared dishes and platters to the dining table.  On the other hand, don’t just plop down somewhere and expect to be waited on.  Wait on yourself and pitch in where appropriate.  After the meal, be available to clear the table and help clean up.
  • At the dining table, mind your manners.  Sit up straight, remove your napkin from the table and place it in your lap, pass food around the table as appropriate, take small bites, chew with your mouth closed, swallow your food before drinking, speak in a normal tone, laugh (but not with food in your mouth), and join in the conversation (but don’t interrupt or monopolize the conversation).  Compliment the host and hostess on the turkey and other dishes; compliment others who have made contributions to the meal, especially if those items are homemade.
  • Do not take your smartphone to the table; turn it off and leave it in your coat pocket or handbag.  There is nothing that cannot wait until dinner is over; and if there is perhaps you should not have accepted the invitation in the first place.  At any time, if you must make or take a call, excuse yourself briefly and step into another room (but not the bathroom).
  • If you are a smoker, don’t light up in the house; forgo smoking (as you must do at concerts, the theatre and other places for a few hours), or ask if you can excuse yourself to go outside for a cigarette break.
  • Keep alcoholic drinks to a reasonable amount, and as in any other situation that involves alcohol make sure there is a designated driver who will not be drinking.
  • Depart promptly at the end of the evening.  Don’t linger.  Show consideration of your hosts and pick up the signals that it’s time to think about leaving.  If you must leave early, let your host know in advance.
  • Thank your hosts as you are leaving, and again the next day.  Make a phone call, or send a brief handwritten note.

I am thankful for all of you, and wish you all the joy of this special day.

Until next time,


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