Manners have seemingly become a lost art. And yet, at no time are they needed more than when we sit down at a formal holiday table. Which way do you pass the rolls? Can you take the last one? Should the men stand up when a lady leaves the table? What do you do with that place card with your name on it (if there is one)? Who clears the dishes, and how long should those empty plates sit in front of everyone? Who stays at the table while the dishes are cleared? Some of these questions have universal answers, while others need to be answered in a decidedly Southern way.
When discussing who best to talk about holiday etiquette, the answers were fast and furious and unmistakably similar: “my grandmother,” “my mother-in law,” “my great-aunt” … ladies a generation or two older than our own. That in mind, I decided to call my mother-in-law, who lives in Atlanta, GA, to help us all brush up on our manners before we sit down to a large family — and possibly formal — holiday meal.
Edith Aycock Ihlanfeldt, my sweet mother-in-law, is decidedly Southern, with a spine that has never touched the back of a chair. Her home offers scents of pound cake, and she always, always writes thank-you notes for gifts she receives. Regardless of whether she’s thanked you for the gift in person, you can count on a note in the mail with at least a paragraph on how she will use said gift and how brilliant you are for choosing it. In short, her manners are impeccable without being the least bit ostentatious. Here, she graciously answers a few manners-related questions just in time for Thanksgiving!
Why do you think manners are less important today than they were in the past?
I’m not sure they are less important. Perhaps they just aren’t taught by young, busy parents to their children.
What is the worst offense you see people committing when forgoing manners at the holidays?
When young people come to the table with electronic devices up to their ears. They are not able to carry on conversations or say, “How do you do? Nice to meet you,” to folks. People are there to carry on a lovely conversation, and the young people should be a part of it.
How do you decide who sits where at the holiday table?
The host and hostess take the head of the table. If you have special guests — nonfamily members — the gentleman is seated to the right of the head of the table. His wife or date is seated to his right. But if it is just family, I think it is fine to let everyone sit where they want.
Should the men wait for the ladies to be seated?
If you are in a restaurant, a gentleman should always pull out a chair for a lady. If you are having a formal meal at home, it is nice for the gentleman to wait for the lady to come to the table, pull out her chair and then take his own seat.
Do you expect men to stand when a lady enters the room?
As hostess, I may get up a few times during the meal. I don’t expect the men to hop up and down. But it is lovely if everyone is having a cocktail and enjoying one another to see a man stand if a lady enters the room. But you can’t expect that all during a meal.
Do you pass dishes from the left or right?
Darling, I am not at all worried about which way they go. The head of the table starts passing, and whichever way they start, everything else passed should just follow suit.
What about using the bread plate? Sometimes more than one plate seems intimidating.
Well, folks today don’t always use a bread plate. But if you have one, just take a roll or tear off a piece of bread and put it on the plate. Then, when the butter is passed, take as much butter as you need for your bread, and place it on the side of the bread plate. Don’t butter your roll straight away. The bread plate is always on your left, but if someone starts using yours, just take the one to your right. Don’t call attention and embarrass anyone.
When you were growing up, what one etiquette edict did your parents always enforce that you wish you could bring back?
We always asked to be excused from the table. Today, everyone gets up and down and starts doing other things. You should stay at the table until everyone is finished, enjoy the conversation and then ask to be excused.
Not even if someone is trying to help clean up?
The hostess should be in charge of clearing the table. If you have someone to help, let them clear the dishes and enjoy coffee. And always clear the plates from the right.
What is most important to you when it comes to behaving at the Thanksgiving table?
The main thing is for everyone to enjoy each other’s company. Lots of hugs and love. Everyone should enjoy each other and the day. I want every family member and guest to just enjoy. And of course, say please and thank you!
And for the record, the card that is placed where you are to sit at the table is intended to be name-facing-out. That way, if anyone at the table is a new acquaintance, your name is easy to recall. Happy Thanksgiving from StyleBlueprint!