It happens every year—Aunt Maude gives your cherub a thoughtfully hand-knit sweater, and he grimaces as she beams with delight. Just think, if you had the perfect response ready, you’d be able to avoid a total family meltdown. Never fear! Below, we’ve pondered this and nine other sticky holiday etiquette situations (how to be polite, when to RSVP and more) and came up with the responses that’ll preserve your reputation for grace and tact under pressure. Keep reading to see them all. 

photo: iStock

Situation: Picky Eater

Polite Response: Manage (Everyone’s) Expectations

If you’re dreading dinner at Grandma’s house because you know your kids will refuse to sample her famous green bean casserole—plan ahead. Tell your kids about the types of food that are likely to be offered at dinnertime. Encourage them to try something new and remind them to thank their hosts for cooking, but set them up for success by calmly moving on if they refuse a dish and be sure to put something on their plate that you know they’ll eat (you can offer to bring a dish that is already a winner at your house). Be sure to talk to Grandma, too: remind her before you arrive that your child still gives the hairy eyebrow to anything remotely green, but you know he’s going to gobble up her prize-winning pecan pie.

Situation: Returning Gifts

Polite Response: Be Discreet—and Gracious

Returning unwanted (or duplicate) holiday gifts is a common practice—and you shouldn’t feel guilty, because keeping that stuff just promotes clutter. Even if you send it back, however, be sure to write a thank you note ASAP. The gift giver doesn’t have to know you’ll never wear that chartreuse turtleneck! Dig deep to find one kind comment you can make about the gift; sincerity always goes a long way. And if you can’t return it, consider keeping a small stash of items to re-gift. You probably know at least one person who adores that shade of green. Just be sure to attach a label indicating who gave it to you in the first place so you don’t end up in a really embarrassing pickle.

Situation: Declining an Invitation

Polite Response: Be Brief and Honest

Sometimes you’re just not in the mood, sometimes there’s a sick kid at home, and sometimes you have other plans. Whatever the reason, sometimes you just have to decline an invitation during the holiday season—and that’s okay! A good rule of thumb with multiple invitations is to accept the first invite received or make time for both. Also, respond promptly, and be honest about your intentions whenever possible: it’s perfectly acceptable to say that you already have plans (even if it’s watching a movie at home with your family) or that you have to work the next day. Always share your appreciation, however, and let the hosts know how grateful you are that they thought of you.

Situation: Holiday Cards

Polite Response: Consider Your Audience, and Be True to Yourself

When it comes to writing and sending holiday cards, there are so many schools of thought that you might be tempted to mail a yellow Post-It note and call it a day. But whether you choose to send a religious or secular card, be mindful of your audience and consider your recipient list accordingly. When addressing your card, don’t leave anyone out—address it to the family name, or list every family member, and handwrite the envelope whenever possible. If you’re composing a letter, be mindful of oversharing. Whatever you pop in the mail, let your family’s personality shine through—that’s what makes this holiday snail mail tradition so special.

Situation: Writing Thank You Notes

Polite Response: Be Prompt, and Use a Pen

If the kids are lucky enough to be spoiled by friends and family over the holiday season, you might be tempted to skip formal thank you notes—you feel like it’ll take until Valentine’s Day to complete them all, and everyone already knows you’re grateful, right? Wrong. As with RSVPs, thank you notes should be a given and sent promptly. Get your kids involved: if they’re not writing yet, have them dictate what they like about the gift, or give them a few Crayons to draw a picture (or scribble some “decorative accents”). Be sincere, and let the giver know that the thought behind the gift is what means most to you.

Situation: Hostess Gifts

Polite Response: Err on the Side of Yes

Who doesn’t like presents? Especially if it’s the first time you’ve been invited to someone’s home, bringing along a gift—it doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive!—is always a gracious gesture and shows you recognize the time and effort it takes to host a gathering. Consumables like specialty foods (a homemade touch earns a gold star), flowers, teas, or household goods are forever en vogue. If you know the host’s tastes, a book or CD shows forethought. Ask your kids to help pick something out and wrap it or decorate the package!

Situation: Potluck Dinners

Polite Response: Get Some Intel

If you haven’t been “assigned” a dish or a course, it can be tough to decide what to cook for a potluck. Is everyone vegetarian? Is there a slew of food sensitivities? Will five other people be bringing mashed potatoes? Don’t be afraid to reach out to the host and ask questions. And if you know you’ll be wrapping gifts or raking leaves or folding laundry during every spare moment of your week, please don’t arrive empty-handed. A hungry crowd will always appreciate a few bottles of a festive beverage, a cheese plate, or the best store-bought loaf of bread you can get your mitts on.

Situation: Travel with Kids

Polite Response: Keep ‘Em Distracted

Airplane travel with kids is never easy—but during the holiday rush? We’re sometimes surprised anyone survives. Keep your little ones from making a name for themselves onboard by arriving at the airport early and running them ragged (napping upon ascent, anyone?). Plan ahead and stuff a carryon full of distractions: you’d be surprised at how long it takes a toddler to cover you with stickers. And, parents, remember that there’s no shame in taking advantage of that in-flight movie. The folks in front of (and behind) you will be grateful for the silence.

Situation: Being an Overnight Guest

Polite Response: Leave No Stone Unturned

When you’re staying in someone else’s space—with kids, no less—you want to be certain that you’re taking every measure to shower the host with gratitude (They are saving you a hotel bill, after all!). Arrive with a gift, pay for groceries, lend a hand when necessary, and keep common areas neat. If you know the kids will be up early or stay up late due to a time change, have a plan for keeping them busy and quiet so that you can respect your host’s space. And speaking of respect, be sure to ask about any house rules: not everyone lets the dog pre-clean the dinner plates.

Situation: Gift Giving

Polite Response: Establish the Rules of the Game

When it comes to exchanging gifts, you’re bound to disappoint someone—and feel disappointed yourself. Why? We all operate under an unwritten set of gift-giving rules, and there’s no way to get advance notice of the rules for everyone on your list (unless you happen to have your postal carrier’s email address on file…). Ask yourself: should gift exchanges be reciprocal? Should they always be of equal value? Once you start an exchange, should it continue year after year? Do you give to every member of a specific relationship category? There are no wrong answers. Just consider the beliefs that drive your decisions and stick to them.

—Katie Brown



13 Table Manners Your Kids Need to Know

This Is How I Teach My Child Simple Manners (You’re Welcome)

The Savvy Co-Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

39 Holiday Shortcuts That Will Save Your Season