Here it is, time for Miss Manners to blather happily on about the joys of the traditional family Thanksgiving dinner. But she is only too aware that it is impossible to do so intelligibly nowadays without explaining to the little ones what all these quaint terms mean.
She can just see, gathered around what we used to call the hearth, the small faces shining with curiosity. Perhaps she should begin by explaining to the children that once upon a time, the hearth was the focus of the household, where everybody gathered after the day's labors, but no, dear, not exactly a media room.
Let us begin with the basic questions:
What is "dinner"?
Is it what each person finds in the refrigerator when he or she happens to be hungry, or does it have to be delivered or picked up on the way home?
What is "family"?
Is it Grandma's live-in boyfriend? What about Daddy's about-to-be-ex-wife's son, who was a stepbrother last Thanksgiving? What is he going to be after the divorce? And the nonsmoker who loves walks in the woods, whom Auntie met through the classified ads last week and wants to bring?
What is "tradition"? Is that the way we do things at Mommy's house, or at Daddy's house, or is it the way families behave on television?
What is giving thanks?
Wait just a minute. What do you mean, what is giving thanks? You know how when someone gives you a present or does you a favor, you sit down and write that person a letter saying how pleased and grateful you are?
No? Oh, dear. This sort of thing is getting harder every year. Miss Manners really has her work cut out for her.
Well, children, let us begin before the turkey congeals in the roasting pot.
A family consists, first of all, of people who are related to one another by birth, adoption or marriage. When a divorce occurs, the couple's other relatives who have gotten fond of one another may continue to consider themselves related. Long-term members of relatives' households are now also considered courtesy relatives.
And one must remember that Thanksgiving was always the time to be generous about enlarging the table to include friends, especially people who might otherwise be lonely, which ought to cover those acquired through classified advertising.
Yes? You, over there, with the green hair.
What is a table?
You know what a table is, for heaven's sake. Oh. What does a table have to do with eating?
That has to do with what "dinner" is. Dinner is a full meal, cooked in advance so that it can be eaten at the same time by people who are sitting around the same table, as opposed to eating from trays in front of the television set or from cartons with the refrigerator door open.
There is a piece of furniture for this exclusive purpose -- true, it can also be used for cutting out dress patterns or designing protest posters, provided you clean it off by the time dinner is ready -- called the "dining table." It is covered with a cloth, and each person is given another piece of cloth called a napkin, and everybody eats at the same time and converses.
No, Miss Manners did not say that you can converse with your mouth full. Nice try.
Yes, people eat more or less the same thing. You see, they're supposed to pretend they like what they're given. But they're allowed to skip things they object to, and nobody can do anything about it because it is impolite even to notice, let alone to comment upon, what another person is eating. No, this only applies to children if they happen to be seated far enough away from their parents.
No, there is no television on during dinner. What we do for entertainment is called "conversation." That does not consist of telling people what has always annoyed you about them; it does not consist of explaining to them how they can improve themselves; and it does not consist of inquiring when they are going to get a job or a better job, make more money, marry, divorce, have children or stop having children. Nor does it consist of reciting one's grievances.
What's left? General conversation. No, not just the weather -- are there no topics in the world other than the personal that can be presumed to interest a family group?
Then Miss Manners will propose one: all the things for which you are thankful. Yes, you can. Just search your mind a little. You might start with what is on the table and who is sitting around it.
Q: I will be "coming out" at an "elite" deb party, and I need to know if I can take off my long white gloves at any time during the evening. No one has told me.
A: Miss Manners is thinking of asking for federal regulations requiring that warnings be issued whenever gloves are sold, informing buyers that eating (or drinking) with gloves on is hazardous to their aspirations to be considered mannerly. However, you may put your bare hand through the opening at the wrist, rather than removing the entire glove.
She is afraid she must tell you that using the word "elite" about anything one is involved in is equally hazardous, and the quotation marks you have around it do not constitute enough of an escape hole.
Q: I am a receptionist for a small printing company. Occasionally, when I answer the phone, the caller says, "I'm sorry -- I have the wrong number." What should I say? Hanging up seems rude.
A: The phrase is "That's quite all right." Only if the person calls back immediately are you allowed to betray a slight tone of impatience when you ask, "What number were you calling?"