Holiday Etiquette: How to Handle Plus-Ones, Ex-Wives, Vegans and Ugly Gifts

Should I lie and say I love it? Unsplash/Toa Heftiba

Myka’s Manners is Observer’s etiquette column helmed by Myka Meier, the director of Beaumont Etiquette and founder of The Plaza Hotel’s Finishing Program, an instructional course in modern manners. Send all your questions on contemporary decorum to Myka@Observer.com

I am hosting a holiday dinner party and sent out invitations, but quite a few people have asked if they can bring a date. When is it appropriate to invite someone with a plus one?

Dear Plus One Party, 

For dinner parties, especially those at home, it can be difficult to accommodate extra numbers, as often space is limited. My rule of thumb when creating your guest list is, if you know someone has a serious significant other, they should always be invited. The “no ring, no bring” concept is completely outdated, as couples can often have partners for years—without being married. My other rule is that if you are inviting the majority of your guests with a plus one, except for one single person, for instance, you should absolutely offer that person a guest—and it’s up to them to decide if they’d like to bring someone or come alone. It’s more polite to invite fewer people with a plus one than everyone on their own and leave significant others out. On the flip side, if you are invited to a party and not given a plus one, it can impose on your host to ask to bring someone, so I recommend not doing so. If you are single and not given a plus one, try to embrace it…you never know who you’ll meet! That being said, be cautious of strategically-placed mistletoe should you be seated next to your friend’s Uncle Ernie. 

I travel almost every week, and my preference is always the window seat (be it plane or train). What is the best way to wake a sleeping stranger in the aisle seat when I need to get up? 

Dear Train Trouble, 

We’ve all tried the move where you suck in, shimmy, and squeeze yourself between the seat in front of you and “the sleeper” while trying not to wake them. It never works. In fact, while doing this, you’re more likely to graze your bum on their knees to the horror of your waking neighbor. That would be much harder to explain. Instead, don’t be afraid to just try tapping the shoulder of your neighbor and saying a simple “please excuse me.” It’s a train and not a hotel, after all. 

My family and I can’t stand the food at my Aunt’s home, who traditionally always hosts during the holidays. I would rather eat burnt spam than her food. Is it offensive to offer to bring a dish if she did not suggest it herself? 

Dear Spammed, 

You have two options. Option one is to eat ahead of the meal and then just take little bits and bobs of Aunt Martha’s fixings to show respect and not come across hurtful. A second option is to call Aunt Martha as soon as possible, and say something along the lines of “I was just reading about the most delicious recipe for green bean casserole and am so excited to try it! I know you have your hands full, so if it would fit with the rest of your meal, I’d love to help out a bit and bring this dish to share. What do you think?” Aunt Martha may say no, in which case it’s Spam for you… or she may welcome it and then you come off as the lovely family member who offered to help out. 

My guests have just told me they are vegan and coming to Christmas dinner. Do I have to accommodate the entire meal to them or can I say my meal is already planned and suggest they come for a dessert instead? 

Dear Dietary Dinner Issues,

Follow these instructions: Go to your computer; Google “Vegan holiday catering,” and click order. I’m smiling as I write this, but I’m certainly not kidding. Try ordering a few vegan dishes that you can add to your holiday spread. As you already invited them for dinner, it would be cringeworthy for both parties to unitive them. However, just because someone has a dietary requirement does not mean the entire group needs to adjust. Keep your regular menu and just add in the vegan options. 

My husband’s ex-wife join will be joining our Christmas morning with the kids this year. I really don’t get along with her—she is just plain mean! Do I have to have something for her to open too or is just gifting the kids fine along with being cordial to her okay? 

Dear Co-Ex-isting,

I would not get this woman a gift to open under the tree, as it will come off as fake and she will regift it anyway. Instead, try sending a holiday arrangement as a peace offering ahead of the holidays. Or, when she arrives, have a little basket of homemade Christmas cookies that perhaps the children made so she feels welcome in your home. Lets remember that the holidays are all about kindness and consideration; in the spirit of the season, try to put aside your dislike and show unity… if not for your relationship, then for the kids to see. Be the bigger person, and remember that if the Grinch can grow a heart at Christmas, maybe she can, too. 

Dear Myka, I think my boyfriend is going to propose on Christmas, and on top of that, I think he is going to do it in front of my family. I am NOT ready to get engaged. What do I do? HELP!  

Dear Help!

Sweet heaven you’re in a pickle and there is only one way out. Like pulling off a bandaid, I would get this over with—fast! I advise to pull your boyfriend aside ahead of the party (not the night of, but days prior) and sit down with him. Bad news is always best delivered over a hot beverage and in private. “I truly care about you so much, it’s just that I want to be upfront and tell you I am not ready to get engaged or married and I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page.” Do not sugar coat this, as you owe it to this person who clearly loves you very much to be honest. If you chicken out, you will be celebrating a white wedding instead of a white Christmas. The bright side, however, is that you will have plenty of questions to email into me for my awkward weddings etiquette column for spring.  

I’m having a cocktail party for New Years Eve and live in the city. I don’t wear shoes in my apartment because the thought of grime from the city streets coming inside my home makes me uneasy. I was thinking to ask my guests to take off their shoes when they enter, however when I told my colleagues that, they said it would be rude. Is it bad etiquette to ask my guests take off their shoes at my party?

Technically, it is up to you to decide if you want to allow guests to wear shoes in your home or not, as some people don’t allow shoes in their homes for various reasons—whether it be cultural or otherwise. But no matter the reason, if you ask people to take their shoes off when they enter, you should always offer them house shoes to wear instead. Getting back to your holiday party, I would advise you consider making an exception for a cocktail party, as people will come dressed to impress in festive dresses and blazers and it will likely be very awkward for them to be walking around barefoot—especially if they were not prepared and wore mismatched socks or did not have a pedicure (oh, the horror!!!). For special occasions, I’d allow shoes and invest in a strong disinfecting cleaner for the morning after! 

How do I react when my in laws give me another ugly Christmas sweater or gift I despise? Should I lie and say I love it or can I ask for a gift receipt? 

I have a formula for gifts you don’t like. The STUD approach to unwanted gifts: Smile, Thank, Unique Comment, Donate. 

As much as you dislike your snowman sweater, it could be very hurtful to your in-laws if you show your true thoughts about your gift the moment you open it. After all, it’s the thought that counts, and they may have spent a lot of time picking it out for you. You don’t want to come across ungrateful and instead always gracious. The trick instead, is to phrase your initial reaction so that you immediately thank them for the gift and thought that went into it, without lying by saying you love something that you really don’t. Don’t ask for a gift receipt if you are not given one. The only time this is acceptable is if you want to exchange the sizing. Asking for a gift receipt or showing dislike toward a gift someone gives you is not worth the hurt it could cause. Instead, try the STUD approach to unwanted gifts: Smile and try something like “It was so wonderful of you to think of me—thank you. Wow! I’ve never seen such a glittering snowman!”

Myka Meier is the Founder of NY-based Beaumont Etiquette and co-founder of The Plaza Hotel Finishing Program. Trained in part by a former member of The Royal Household of Her Majesty the Queen, Myka teaches dining, social and business etiquette, offering courses to adults, children and companies. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @mykameier

Holiday Etiquette: How to Handle Plus-Ones, Ex-Wives, Vegans and Ugly Gifts