Now is the time when all sorts of unlikely people show up to play--with more or less grace--the otherwise defunct role of the old faily retainer.

From the person who delivers the newspaper out front, to the gang who comes around back later to pick it up, a varied cast acts out this peculiarly old-fashioned drama. The idea is to suggest to its audience of one the role of generous patron of the working classes.

Miss Manners, who has often railed against the practice of tipping (but who also opposes the unilateral withholding of tips until such time as the equivalent money is incorporated into those workers' wages), is not against the custom of Christmas bonuses. Appreciation for good work done is a fine thing, and the most sincere language of the business world is money.

However, the service Christmastime "tip" from individual householders to service people whom they do not voluntarily employ, but who are in a position to make their lives more or less comfortable as they see fit, is something in between these two.

Miss Manners is not unaware that such tipping often comes less from the overflow of bountiful Christmas feelings than from a hope of not finding the alley's worth of garbage on one's lawn.

The jobs of people who serve blocks or apartment buildings full of householders are not actually designed so that part of the expected fee comes directly from the customer. When that anachronistic arrangement exists -- as it still does, for example, in the case of waiters, taxi drivers and hairdressers -- one cannot fairly withhold a tip, unless under extreme provocation.

Nor is it exactly like the end-of-the-year bonus, when a business encourages merit or heightens motivation among its own longtime employes by monetary awards.

The householder is, however unwillingly, in the position of being the fraction of an employer to someone -- or perhaps a series of people -- who are assigned to do tasks in or against his dwelling. It is, indeed, the custom to tip such people at Christmastime, provided their real employers do not have a policy against this.

Therefore, yes, you must now hand out a few nice round bills this time of year when your door is rattled. (Amounts vary by region and even by the poshness of the neighborhood, but the average is $5 or $10 for ordinary services and more for extraordinary ones.) Miss Manners prefers that the bills be in envelopes, inside cards with a few words of thanks, but knows that the recipients are often willing to overlook the absence of that nicety.

The little bonus itself should be in cash, because that is something we know everyone can use; the rule of showing interest by selecting some appropriate object applies only in the social, not the business, world. If there is a team of people involved, the amount is handed to one with the request, clearly within the hearing of the others, that it be divided.

Because such tips are customary, one cannot be overcome with the sense of one's own largess.

But one can withhold them if the function that was supposed to be performed all year wasn't, or if the applicant for Christmas tips was not the year-round worker. In such cases, Miss Manners permits the householder to say: "Super? I didn't know there was a super in the building. I asked about it only recently, when my toilet was stopped up, and was told that I should call a plumber." Or: "Hello. I don't believe I know you. When is the regular carrier coming back? I'd like to give him a little something in appreciation for what he's done all year."

Miss Manners hopes this clears up the immediate problem, or befogs it enough so that you will resolve to pretend you didn't hear the crashing of lids that announces the Christmas season. But she is aware that it does nothing to solve the deeper, cultural problem.

That is that Americans have never been happy with the idea of having servants. As idealists, we reject the notion of having other people subservient to us (especially when we can't afford them). The term "help" is an early American euphemism invented to pretend that those citizens of a democracy who are waiting on their fellow citizens hand and foot are only assisting out of altruism.

There is something very attractive, if unrealistic, in this notion. Miss Manners knows truly devoted patriots who can't bring themselves to put the Do Not Disturb sign on their hotel room doors for fear that the chambermaid will get the impression that she is unwanted.

Nevertheless, the fiction leaves a lot of people looking silly. Which is sillier, the surly chap on the front porch pretending that he depends on your generosity for his welfare, or the embarrassed householder who suspects blackmail and fears retaliation, it is hard to say.Q.

My husband and I are part of an active circle of friends, and periodically have dinner at a friend's house, or have them here.

In recent years, I have noticed a marked increase in day-after phone calls, of the "Thank you very much, it was a lovely evening" variety. I had thought the bottle of wine or flowers one sometimes brought and the thank-yous on the way out the door were sufficient.

I don't like making or receiving such non-task-oriented calls. I have more than enough conversations in my life.

Am I remiss in not making such thank-you calls? When did that custom start? Under what circumstances is it appropriate or necessary? A.

Now just a minute here. It is Miss Manners who has worked to revive the custom of thanking one's dinner hosts, and she will thank you not to sabotage her work.

However, it is true that your friends have gotten one detail wrong, and therefore caused your annoyance. (Nevertheless, Miss Manners finds your reaction churlish. If you have too much conversation in your life, why give dinner parties?)

Miss Manners told everyone to write their thanks. Two lines ("What a wonderful evening. Thank you for including us.") take less of their time than a telephone call, and less of yours. If you're still feeling put upon, you can throw them away without reading them.