Questions About Guest Etiquette This Holiday Season? We Spoke To An Expert

A look at some awkward holiday concerns.

hostess gifts etiquette
Sarah Ceniceros

The holidays are usually all about indulging in nostalgia: watching the same movies every year, baking the cookies you always bake, and reminiscing over old popsicle-stick ornaments from kindergarten. Of course, the season has looked different the last two years, and will in one big way for me now: This marks my first December living on my own, in New York City.

My family isn’t far away, but when I’ve headed back in recent years, it was on college breaks. I’d sleep in my childhood bedroom, still packed with a lifetime of belongings. It was the only home I’ve ever known. Now when I return home, it’s to a bedroom that’s been stripped of all my clothes, books, and favorite objects. All that’s left in the barren space is whatever didn’t make the cut for my NYC apartment. I’m now an extended overnight guest, which makes my parents my hosts—a dynamic that feels like a complete shift from what we're all used to.

Growing up is weird, huh? I first considered this internal conflict a few weeks ago, when I was heading home for Thanksgiving. I passed the big, neon, blinking sign for Junior’s Cheesecake in Times Square and scolded myself for not picking up a cheesecake to bring for our dessert spread, even though my mom doesn’t even like cheesecake. Couldn’t I have picked up some Levain cookies? Maybe a chocolate babka from Russ & Daughters? Something simple and sweet and very New York, a little token I'd give to anyone hosting me—even though, in this case, it's for the family I lived with just a few months ago. I’m an adult now (allegedly), which means I should probably not show up empty handed, right? Do I owe my parents a bit of formal politeness?

According to etiquette expert Elaine Swann, that hesitation to show up empty handed is the right instinct. She founded the Swann School of Protocol and has years of expertise in etiquette and social skills, and was kind enough to talk me through my first-time holiday anxieties.

I’m an adult now (allegedly), which means I should probably not show up empty handed, right?

“Make sure that you contribute somehow to the festivities or the weekend in some way, form, or fashion. Whether it is making a dish or bringing a dish or saying you’ll do the drinks. Come prepared to do something,” she said. “If you can’t cook, don’t worry about it. Bring some drinks or create a fun mocktail or appetizer. If you can’t do that, you can always buy something and have it delivered.”

There is a range of behaviors that are “appropriate” during the holiday season, Swann said, but hostess gifts are always a good idea, and while wine and flowers may be the standard, there are other ways to be a polite guest, especially during this time of year.

When it comes to my particular situation with my parents, Swann told me that one of the most important things to remember is that the same rules that applied in the household when I was growing up should still be the standard for me. After all, they’re the standards my parents set themselves, and how they taught me to be.

On top of that, being an active guest—rather than expecting to be served—is huge, she said. Meaning, maybe I shouldn’t wait around for someone else to figure out what’s for lunch on December 26, or should wash the dishes when I see them stacking up.

Being an active guest—rather than expecting to be served—is huge, Swann said.

There are several gourmet food gifts and wine delivery services you can use to help you fulfill these responsibilities, and at a whole range of budgets. More creative host gifts, like fresh herbs, a new kitchen gadget, or specialty tea, are also great options. Actions beyond a gift are an additional thoughtful way to help with the holiday planning without adding more to the host’s plate. Swann encouraged me to always ask how I can help with the food preparation or clean up, and if my family declines the offer, to honor that request. (Fine by me!)

Ultimately, the holiday season is about spending time with family and eating, drinking, and being merry. There are things you can do as a guest to ensure all of those things are possible, while being mindful of whose space you’re in.

“You want your presence to be felt, to be a joy,” Swann said. “You don’t want it to feel as though you were an added burden. Lighten the load!” My plan is to just that through doing the chores I know my parents each hate, taking care of my own messes—and yep, bringing some cookies.

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