Are you all set to have a merry Christmas? Miss Manners certainly hopes so, because she is annually disgusted at the determination people put into having sour ones.
"Holidays depress me," they will announce, in order to spread their mood of the season to anyone who might be thoughtlessly filled with good cheer.
Ah, the sounds of Christmas:
"I never get anything I want."
"I never know what to get anybody."
"I hate all those tacky decorations everywhere."
"I'm tired of sending Christmas cards. Postage has gone up, and half the people on my list I wouldn't know if I fell on them."
"I send cards to everyone I know, and the only cards I ever get are from my gas station and my insurance man."
"I always overeat."
"I can't stand (turkey, ham, goose)."
"I can't get out of going to my (parents', children's, in-laws')."
"Other people are with their families, and I'm left all alone."
"I always get stuck with all the cooking and cleaning up."
"I'm deluged with junk; my closets are crammed with stuff I can't use."
"I always end up broke."
"I don't think people expect thank-you letters anymore, and anyway, I haven't got time to write them."
"I never hear a word of thanks."
"I hate all that mindless partying."
"I never get invited anywhere -- oh, except when people feel they have to. They don't really want me."
"You can never see people then without their children, and I can't stand children."
"I can never get anything done while the children are off from school."
"It's so boring; there's never anything to do."
"The worst thing is having to face going back to work. And then I'm going to have to hear about what a wonderful Christmas everybody else had."
Miss Manners never knows quite what to reply to all this. Ho ho ho?
So she just listens and tsk-tsks. (Miss Manners is a really good tsk-tsker. Nothing happens after she does it, but the listener feels better.)
Naturally she gets to wondering whether it is really true that so many people hate giving or attending dinners and parties, giving and receiving presents and even the sight or sound of festivity.
In that case, why don't we just forget the whole thing? (The reply to that is "It's for the children"; but who do you think are over there in the corner whining about not getting what they want, and hating the food, and refusing to write thank-yous and claiming that there's nothing to do?)
Miss Manners has noticed that while these complaints often cancel one another out, they are amazingly similarly phrased. There is always an "I," and usually an "always" or a "never." And the "I" is being victimized by relatives, friends, strangers or society in general.
She detects a premise that Christmas exists as an opportunity for everyone else, and life in general, to make up for having shortchanged one at other times. Other major occasions, such as birthdays and weddings, also seem to create that expectation.
But when attention is focused on challenging others to please one, rather than on being pleasing, rituals requiring one to do the latter -- such as entertaining and selecting presents -- are followed grudgingly and carelessly, and the undisguised disappointment with which they are met makes even that effort seem a waste.
Miss Manners has an idea that Christmas was supposed to be a religious holiday, not a selfish one. (For that matter, weddings should involve two entire families and their friends, not just a pair of individuals; and even birthdays are meant to be shared. If you want to be the sole star at an event in which only you are to be considered, the occasion you seek is a funeral.)
If you expect Christmas to be festive, you have to contribute to the festivities, not only by putting more thought into cheering others, but by putting a great deal less thought into how their wishes and habits, and life in general, depress you.
Q. At an impromptu office party of about 10 women and men, with a jug of wine and saltines for refreshment, a fellow office worker arrived about an hour late.
Someone remarked that he was too late to have wine, and I passed him the saltines, turning back to finish a conversation. To my utter amazement, he then proceeded to crumble one of the saltines on my head.
Not having seen this type of social behavior since school-lunch days, when some of the children would spit watermelon seeds at other children, I was so absolutely stunned that I said nothing and simply left to catch my car pool home.
What is the correct response to someone crumbling crackers on your head at an office party? Would it be different if he had done this to a man?
A. It probably would have been, as this is a fighting offense. Miss Manners does not approve of violence, but such an act is the equivalent of a challenge to a duel.
However, even when there were duels to settle etiquette problems, there was a verbal way out, which was to announce loudly, "I assume you are not responsible for what you are doing. I will expect an apology from you in the morning."
Q. I am a divorced woman without a family in this town. Last Christmas morning about 10 a.m., I received a call from a woman I know from church who wanted to know what I was going to do that day, and whether I had anybody to spend Christmas with, because if I didn't, she was going to invite me to join her and her family to go to her mother's for dinner.
On Christmas Eve, another acquaintance from the same church asked me about my plans for Christmas Day, and after I told her that an old friend invited me for dinner, she explained that they were going to her aunt's, and out of concern she wanted to invite me to join them there for Christmas dinner.
Is inviting someone to a stranger's house a new mode of entertaining I am not aware of?
Could it be that these people are so superficial that they do not know that a self-respecting person, single or otherwise, would not accept an "invitation" like this anyway?
This year, how can I politely tell these last-minute "do-gooders" that my Christmas plans are really not their business, without being insulting?
The irony of it all is that these people are so skillful in their meaningless little charity game that I end up thanking them for their thoughtfulness anyway and hate myself for doing so.
A. There has obviously been some talk in church about rounding up the strays, and you might want to inform your minister how offensive it is to receive a grudging offer of a meal from people who have not otherwise shown social interest in you.
The fact that it is someone else's house to which you are invited is only one of several rudenesses here. The timing of the invitation makes it clear that your company was not really sought, and it is a social error to inquire into someone else's plans before issuing an invitation (as in "What are you doing Saturday?" instead of "Would you go out to dinner with me Saturday?").
There is very little you can say to a person whose idea of charity is to say, in effect, "If you're really totally abandoned at the last moment, I guess I can get someone to take you in." A cold "You are kind to inquire, but I prefer to spend Christmas with my own circle" should do.
People who really wish to alleviate the holiday loneliness of those who do not have family within easy reach ought to understand that they owe such people the same graciousness due anyone else and to issue their invitations warmly and well in advance.
Q. At least once a day, I hear a snide remark from my dad about two certain kinds of people -- because of their skin color or their size. This is always said jokingly, and I'm sure he considers it innocent fun. He doesn't realize how prejudiced it sounds. He is in his eighties and senile.
Because I respect my dad, I don't know how to approach the subject. He would think I was being too sensitive. But I still feel I should defend my views, even though I doubt that he will change.
A. Obviously, you are not going to succeed in retraining, much less educating, your father. Attempting it will only annoy you both.
However, you can register your disapproval, in order to make yourself feel better, without being disrespectful. Just don't laugh at the jokes. Bigoted jokes depend on the assumption that certain traits are linked to certain groups, and failure to acknowledge the connection ("Really? That's not my experience") robs them of their alleged fun.
Q. Must we invite our horrible loft neighbors to our New Year's Eve party? As the festivities will generate a certain amount of traffic and noise in the building, we are unsure as to our obligation to assuage any outrage on their part. Is it permissible simply to post a general invitation near the communal mailbox in the hope that none of them will come?
A. People who post general invitations deserve whoever and whatever they get. It seems to Miss Manners the worst of both worlds to give up both the credit for being hospitable and the right to restrict who enters your house.
One is not required to invite neighbors to a party, even though it will be obvious to them that one is being given. Miss Manners leaves you to weigh their horrible presence against their inclination to call the police to complain about the noise.
Q. What does one do when presented with a carefully chosen, proudly given, truly hideous present?
Case in point: I was given a delightful gift by a friend who had just returned from overseas, but another friend was given a grotesque, hand-carved, primitive box with a nightmare face on it, sprouting horns, tusks, and other thankfully unknown appendages.
The recipient gulped while the giver gushed on about the man who made this ghastly thing, and then said, "And I know just the spot for it -- here" and placed it triumphantly on a rope-leg Victorian table, next to an arrangement of iris and baby's breath. He stepped back, beaming.
My other friend thanked him. He has no children to destroy this thing, if, indeed, it can be destroyed. Nor can he whisk it out of sight as the three of us live in close proximity -- on the same floor. He has left it in place, and tries not to look at it, which is difficult, as it is rather large and garish.
If I am the recipient of such a gift, what can I do, politely, to save both the friendship and my digestion?
A. Are there some neighborhood children who would like to earn a small fee?
The obligation of one who receives a present does not extend to spending the rest of one's life with it.
The giver overstepped himself by announcing where the object should be displayed. Should he do so again by inquiring what happened to it, the answer should be "I'm looking for just the right place for it." Whether that is in one's country home, the Museum of Fine Arts or the trash need not be specified.