Etiquette for Thanksgiving

thanksgivingTwo weeks ago it was Canadian Thanksgiving; American Thanksgiving is still to come. When I once explained to a young American child that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October, she looked at me in bewilderment and asked, “When do they celebrate Christmas?”

For those lucky enough to be invited to share in the bounty of their harvest table, here are a few etiquette tips to help you enjoy the day.  Of course, you will recognise these as your basic dinner party dictums tweaked for this festive occasion.

It’s a good idea to ask about dress code.  Thanksgiving is not a black tie affair and is often relaxed and casual.  But there is a festive air to the occasion and trousers and a sweater or a sport shirt and blazer may be the order of the day. “Casual” never means jeans. Be assured that your hosts will have gone to a lot of trouble to prepare a special dinner and an invitation to share the day is an honour. Make an effort! A quick call to your host is good idea.

While you’re making that call to your host, ask what you can bring. You might be surprised to receive very specific instructions for this particular event but unless pre-arranged, do not bake a pie or food item as this may never make it to the table. Standard host or hostess gifts are appropriate – wine, arranged flowers (sent ahead of time – you’re a pro), a decorative candle, chocolates or candy are all appropriate.

This is not an occasion to be fashionably late. Dinner will be the focus of the day and a day to arrive promptly at the stated time.

At its heart, Thanksgiving is a time for family so expect to greet your host’s parents or other senior relatives. Remember your protocol basics at a social event, the senior lady outranks everybody and appropriate deference is due.

As always, follow your hostess’s lead.  When she asks everyone to move to the dining room, feel free to lead the way, perhaps escorting a senior relative. And when seated, be aware that there will undoubtedly be grace so resist the temptation to begin. Have a grace at the ready should the honour unexpectedly fall to you, or have an appropriate toast to your hosts but only after your host has proposed the first toast.

There will usually be just enough food to feed exactly twice as many people as are at the table and this often means that plates and dishes are passed. It is not your job to enforce the traffic patterns but if you try to keep things passing to the left, it will simplify things. Be aware that many dishes may be old family recipes and favourites that make an appearance only once a year and it is a good idea to try some of everything. Even if it’s got tiny marshmallows in it. (Especially if it’s got tiny marshmallows in it.)

On this happy, festive occasion, keep the conversation entirely above board – family, holiday plans, what books others are reading, the food and table decorations. This is absolutely not an occasion to discuss politics or the economy.

Stay alert to your hostess’s cue for the end of the meal and when she suggests that everyone move to the next room for coffee, again, feel free to be amongst the first, and again, offering to assist any who need it. Never, ever stack dishes at the table thinking you are assisting your hostess.  (Unless, of course, she asks you to.)

There’s one more cue to be on the alert for, and that when it’s time to go home. The focus of this day is the dinner and you are not expected to settle back for the evening.  Comments such as “What a lovely day it’s been, I’m so glad you could join us” are your cue to be gathering your wits and taking your leave.

Finally, within 24 hours, write your thank you note.  Considering the trouble and expense your hosts have taken to entertain you, a telephone call or an email just won’t do. The thank you letter lets your hostess know how much you appreciated the day and is a reminder that she can re-read and share.  A telephone call is over in a few minutes, and an email deleted even faster.  I could go on about thank-you letters, but that’s a whole other blog.

Happy Thanksgiving!

John Robertson
Tutor, The English Manner

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5 Responses to “Etiquette for Thanksgiving”


  1. 1 Jay Remer 26 October 2009 at 12:45 pm

    Beautifully written, John, I always passed to the right, so must mend my ways. In this day and age, getting anything passed at all is sometimes an effort. I wonder if guests think others don’t want what they’ve just helped themselves to,or more likely it simply never crosses their hungry little minds. Thank you for sharing your insights. I did love the stacking comment. Have been told Her Majesty is a plate stacker on occasion. Who should deprive her of supper in front of the TV?!

  2. 2 Kate Lewis 27 October 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Wonderful post! As a Southerner, I can appreciate the instructions regarding small marshmellows. Very true, indeed. These are specific and perfect instructions for a holiday gathering. Here’s to hoping your words travel far and wide.

  3. 3 fruitdesigner 28 October 2009 at 4:46 am

    Good post and good instruction for gathering especially people for Thanksgiving.

  4. 4 http://laanpengenu.info 26 March 2013 at 9:22 am

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  1. 1 The Best Turkey Day Traditions « Takes Juan Trackback on 23 November 2009 at 1:03 am

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