We asked our dear friend and etiquette expert Therese Sterling-Little her advice for behaving yourself around the dinner table this Thanksgiving. Perhaps you are a recent kid's table graduate or spending your first Thanksgiving with the new in-laws, we promise you some great advice along with a healthy side of Thanksgiving's conflicting backstory. So with that, we turn it over to Therese.
We have writer and civic activist Sarah Josepha Hale to thank for our modern celebration of Thanksgiving. Hale was adept at cultural myth making; she counts the classic “Mary Had a Little Lamb” amongst her works. She was an early pioneer of opportunities for women and girls, and considered somewhat of a domestic expert in her time. For thirty-six years, beginning in 1827, Hale aggressively petitioned to unify the USA in one national celebration of Thanksgiving. At the time, the holiday was celebrated only in New England, and on a different date in each state. Abraham Lincoln eventually responded, and in 1863 declared Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of every November. In 1939, Roosevelt briefly moved the national celebration up a week, hoping to spur holiday retail sales. But the people wouldn’t stand for it. Two years later, the feast was moved back to the end of the month. In 2015, we will celebrate on Thursday, November 26th.
I grew up under the tutelage of a master hostess. My memories of Thanksgiving are drool inducing and bathed in hygge; roasted pears and gorgonzola, the pope’s nose, dripping gravy in a fine china boat, twenty hands clasped in a circle for pre dinner blessings. But I’m a little conflicted about this love. The Thanksgiving holiday is incredibly complicated. Of course, festivals and celebrations of the harvest bounty date back to ancient times when Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks gathered their crops and paid tribute to the gods with epic feasts. The Jewish faith historically celebrates the harvest in Sukkot, a seven day festival. Sukkot is derived from the Hebrew Sukkah–a temporary dwelling where farmers lived during harvest. Similarly, Native American commemorations of the fall harvest likely pre-date any European invasion of their shores. And the story of Thanksgiving we learn and propagate in the United States, that we want to believe, is one of peaceful collaboration amongst disparate communities.
We learn that Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, taught malnourished settlers from the Mayflower how to hunt and grow on his homeland. That he helped these same settlers form an alliance with the Wampanoag people and that together the communities flourished harmoniously. That the Native Americans and the Pilgrims celebrated their bond with feast and merriment.
Of course, none of this is true. Before Squanto met the “pilgrims”, he had been kidnapped by an Englishman and sold into slavery, eventually escaping and returning back to North America. It is likely that the Thanksgiving we celebrate today first occurred in 1621, after a violent struggle. Settlers arriving on the Mayflower found hunting and growing in their new environment incredibly difficult. Many displayed hostility towards Natives, and some were exceedingly brutal. Their three day Thanksgiving celebration occurred after a long period of hunger and a battle. The European Settlers rejoiced at the opportunity to fill their starving bellies. The United States has not made things right with the Native Americans, and propagation of the myth behind this national holiday is only one small aspect of that. The National Day of Mourning and UnThanksgivng are amongst protests that acknowledge this truth on the fourth Thursday of November every year, while our nation gives thanks.
Truth is an onion, shedding skins all across our lives. At best we leverage heightened understanding to empathetically inform our actions, big and small. It is important to remember and note the complex history of Thanksgiving. Just as we gain historical perspective with age and inquiry, we can gain insight into the lives and histories of those around us and in turn be better guests. Many of us will sit around a Thanksgiving table not starved in the least, having ate our plenty the day before at dinner. Many of us will find the holiday hectic with travel, perhaps dashing to multiple feasts, dealing with missed flights and bad weather. Everyone can take the opportunity to give back and give more. Emotionally, energetically, as a guest, a host, a citizen, or a friend. To try, in a scary and shifting world, to be earnestly thankful.
Just like I didn’t understand the full significance of Thanksgiving growing up, I was for the most part blissfully naive to the magnitude of planning and labor that orchestrating and hosting Thanksgiving, or any event, entails. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of hosting many lovely, kind people in my own home. My gatherings aren’t as fancy, but they’re still perfect. Guests mix craft cocktails, come replete with bouquets and loud laughter, hand us scented oils and tell stories. These great guests have inspired me to be more thoughtful and conscious of my behavior in other’s homes, and more appreciative. Below you’ll find some tips I’ve acquired along the way:
1. Don’t be a maybe.
Dinner Parties require a lot of planning, and this is just rude. If someone is nice enough to invite you to Thanksgiving, respond promptly. And don’t ask what they’re making or who’s coming as a predicate to your response.
2. Ask what you can bring, and bring your own tools.
Inquire with your host as to what you can contribute. Bring your own serving dish and spoon, as well as any last minute ingredients or tools your dish requires. Don’t figure out how to cook it when you get there, or bring something raw (exceptions exist, obviously). When necessary, inquire in advance about oven and counter capacity so the host can incorporate your needs into their planning.
3. Pick up a little gift.
Bring your host something! They’re going to a lot of trouble, and probably spending lots of money. Plus, you’re nice! Make something, bring flowers, pick up a jam or a knick-knack. You know them better than me.
4. Warn of allergies. And if they’re severe, offer to bring your own provisions. If your food allergies are severe, warn your host. If you are on a restricted diet, it’s nice to give a warning and perhaps bring your own food if you can’t eat most things. It’s nice to set expectations and not accidentally offend, or have a reaction!
5. Don’t be early! Or more than 45 minutes late.
Send a text if you’re running late. We all know it’s rude to be late. But when hosting a party, a half hour to forty five minutes of wiggle room between guest arrivals can give you some welcome time to breathe. As a guest, what might be worse is coming early. Unless you’ve arranged with the host, don’t ring the bell before starting time.
6. Offer to help, of course, but generally stay away from the kitchen.
Kitchen crowds can cause stress, and everyone tends to congregate near the kitchen at parties. Be conscious of your utility in keeping things moving, at times you can contribute greatly by conversating in another room.
7. Don’t be on your phone the whole time, come on.
Also, don’t be an asshole about people being on their phones, and loudly call them out. You don’t know what’s going on with them. Engaging with conversation works better than humiliation.
8. Help clean up.
Maybe insist on it–and if the effort seems discombobulated you can always arrange the willing hires and manage the situation. Step up for clean up.
9. Don’t overstay your welcome.
After spending hours prepping, planning, and hosting a party, your host probably doesn’t want you to eat and run–they can finally sit down and chat! But don’t linger too long or get too drunk, after a long holiday nothing is more relaxing than chatting with an overly imbibed guest late into the night...
10. Send a thank you.
It’s the digital age, so I think a text or email will suffice. My wife often sends a handwritten note, and I admittedly swoon whenever we receive them. No matter the medium, it’s nice to acknowledge your host after the swirl of their effort has subsided.
Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving!!
Therese lives in Brooklyn with her wife. She spends her time reading, ranting, and thinking about how we might build better communities. She has too many decorative platters.