'Tis the season to, well, let's face it: get stressed, rack up bills, max out credit cards, drink too much, eat too much, gain weight, simmer in a festive stew of self-loathing and then, on New Year's Day, stare at the bloated, haggard face in the mirror and say, "Man, I've got to make some serious changes."
Or is it just me? I'm not sure I can help with all of the above, but I do have some tips aimed at lowering your cortisol (the stress hormone) during the holidays.
Normally, the word "etiquette," with its overtones of finger bowls and antimacassars, has me (metaphorically) reaching for a revolver. It is useful, though, as a way of codifying behaviours that make you a more chilled out, helpful and all-around well-thought-of person. The problem is so much of the advice you get around this time of year is absolutely wrong-headed and guaranteed to make you more uptight and freaked out than ever.
So this is our antidote to that: the first-ever Globe Style Anti-Etiquette Holiday Etiquette Guide.*
Tips for hosts
1. The people already under your roof before your party starts are your most important guests.
Admittedly, I have been guilty of their neglect: You know, guests are on the way and you're frantically prepping in beat-the-clock fashion, then you get behind and start snapping at those around you. They snap back. It escalates. I think this scenario happens in just about every house (when my friends come over, they always used to ask, smirking, "How was your pre-dinner-party fight?"). But I have trained myself to stop doing it – and you should, too. Just fight the impulse to fight. Remember, your guests, by the very nature of being guests, will be buggering off eventually, leaving you with … the people you snapped at. The ones you live with are the ones you should be trying hardest to impress.
2. Your place is fine.
Every time we have people over, it costs a fortune because we practically have to renovate our entire house. It's the Martha Stewart-ization/Gwyneth Paltrow-ification of society. Everything has to be just so and arranged and fluffed and oh-so-clever and curated to the nines. But none of that stuff is really important and fussing causes unnecessary stress, IMHO. Who you are and how you behave trumps food and decor. Put it this way: If Winston Churchill were to come back from the dead and invite me over for dinner, he could burn the chicken, serve wine in jam jars and put out supermarket pie for dessert; I wouldn't care.
3. Casting is everything.
Inviting fun, engaged people will serve you better than the most elaborate table setting. Get the right mix and you could sit on boxes and eat pizza out of boxes and still have a blast.
4. Don't work too hard.
You're a guest, too – in a way, the most important guest, because everyone's taking their cues from you. If they see you slaving over a hot stove all night, it's anti-festive. (Little tip: For large parties, the oven is your best friend.) If you still need to cook after guests arrive, do it with a smile and high tolerance for kitchen kibitzers. Another mistake I've trained myself not to do: grumpily shoo guests out of the kitchen when cooking. They'll just come drifting back anyway, drawn by the kitchen's immemorial gravitational pull – and you'll wind up with a bad rep for being a grouch.
Tips for guests
1. Do not arrive on time.
People hosting parties routinely underestimate how long it will take them to get ready, so you're doing them a major favour by being a little late. And for God's sake don't arrive early. If you do, have a drink, walk around the block, sit on a park bench – just do not press that doorbell. Picture the scene on the other side of the door:
HOSTESS (blowing hair out of face): "Jesus, it's already quarter to. I think I have the Chicken Marbella under control, but I still have to get dressed and do my hair. Could you do the appetizers and start the dishwasher? Oh, and we still have to give the kids something to eat. How about if we just – "
HOSTESS (wild-eyed): "Oh my God. Is someone already … here?"
Have a heart and don't even think about it.
2. There's an outside chance your children are not as charming as you think they are.
Example: Eating with their hands, then swinging on the curtains, is not "cute." At that point, you don't just say "Aww" and turn back to your conversation. You keep an eagle eye and a tight leash on them (figuratively) at all times. You personally attend to their endless litany of demands, requests, meltdowns and unmet needs and do not attempt to fob them off on others, especially hosts. Bonus points if you take care of other kids' needs as well – including the kids of your hosts.
3. Do not arrive empty-headed.
People become confused by the word "entertaining," I think. The hosts are entertaining you, so you can just sit there like a lump, like you're watching a movie. Bzzzt! Wrong. You have to chip in, participate. You were invited for your company, not the bottle of wine in your mitt. So mix it up, know stuff, maybe have a read of the paper. Be contentious, be funny, above all be present.
4. Put away your freaking phone.
According to a new book called The Village Effect, face-to-face interaction might actually prolong our lives and lower our risk of getting bad things such as cancer and dementia. So why not take a holiday from your hypnotic little device for a few hours? You like "interactivity"? Why not interact with the real-life human being sitting closest to you?
* If I sound grouchy and Scrooge-like, the opposite is the case: I love this time of year. I just want to make sure that – amidst all the glitz and the tinsel, the unwrapping and the cork popping – we keep an eye on what's important: giving one another the present of our best selves.