Ah, you’ve received an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, and you can’t wait to sit down to a table laden with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce.
But wait. The turkey’s a chicken. The stuffing has oysters in it (or doesn’t). And the sweet potatoes have—are those marshmallows? And who in their right mind puts pecans in their cranberry sauce?
Being a guest for Thanksgiving means, above all, abandoning your expectations about what makes up a “traditional” meal and embracing the spirit of the holiday. It’s about spending time with people you care about, regardless of whether they call stuffing “dressing.”
With that in mind, here are the ten commandments for being a good Thanksgiving guest.
1. Respond—and arrive—on time
If you’re invited to Thanksgiving dinner, reply immediately. Don’t hem and haw—you’ll look like you’re waiting for a better offer. If you don’t want to go, graciously apologize and say you have plans. (And yes, eating an entire box of Stovetop stuffing while watching past episodes of The Amazing Race with your cat counts as legitimate Thanksgiving plans.) If you want to go, give your hosts the courtesy of allowing them enough time to factor you into their meal planning. Then show up on time. With a meal, there’s no such thing as being fashionably late.
2. Don’t bring surprise guests
Clear any extra guests with your host when you RSVP. Don’t randomly invite your lonely friend and her sullen teenager an hour before dinner’s supposed to start—they won’t get any less lonely or sullen when they find out there’s no seat for them at the table. And never, ever show up with your pet without asking well ahead of time.
3. Be open about dietary issues
If you’re vegetarian, gluten-intolerant, or allergic to something, let your hostess know, and offer to bring a dish that you’re able to eat. Then treat it as a non-issue for the duration of the meal.
4. Ask about attire
If you’re not sure what to wear, ask. Erring on the dressy side is fine—until it comes time for the traditional after-dinner walk around the block (or lake) and you’re all dolled up in a cocktail dress. Some families are strictly jeans-and-sweats, while others are more formal—so ask your hosts what they’d suggest you wear. After all, a three-piece suit isn’t exactly conducive to playing a pre-dessert game of flag football.
5. Don’t arrive empty-handed
When you RSVP, ask if you can bring something. If your host says no, don’t show up with random food—but you should still bring something. A bottle of wine is traditional, but something a little more creative, like guest soaps or pretty stationery, is also nice. If you bring flowers, bring an arrangement, not a grocery store bouquet that your host has to deal with just as three side dishes and the turkey all demand attention.
6. Don’t start eating until everyone is
Every family starts a meal differently. Your hosts may like to say grace. They might like to go around the table and say something they’re thankful for. They might like to sing a verse of “Nearer My God to Thee” to the turkey. Whatever the tradition, you avoid awkwardness by not digging in until your hosts do.
7. Talk to everyone
This includes Crazy Grandma, Drooling Baby and Drunk Uncle. You don’t have to chat long, but you do need to make sure you’re friendly to everyone at the table.
8. Participate in after-dinner activities
If there’s a traditional post-dinner game of Pictionary, team up with Crazy Grandma and play your heart out. If folks gather around the piano and start singing show tunes, try to remember the words to “Try to Remember.” Even if you don’t play touch football, stand on the sidelines and cheer. You’ll be remembered as a fun, gracious guest if you make yourself part of the family.
9. Offer to help clean up
Offer to help both before and after dinner, but be prepared to get out of the way if your hosts have the apparent chaos under control. At the very least, attempt to clear your plate unless told otherwise.
10. Leave on time
Your hosts have cooked dinner and kept a smile on their faces all day. They are tired. They have a mountain of dishes, but they likely feel bad about cleaning up while guests are around. Linger for about an hour after dinner, and then say a gracious “thank you” and go home. If there’s a game on, leave after the game. Don’t be the last guest to leave unless you’re actually washing that mountain of dishes.
And one bonus commandment: thou shalt send a thank-you note. It’s a small gesture, but it’s one that will be appreciated.