If the holiday gerunds -- decorating, cooking, shopping, stuffing -- seem daunting, it is probably because you have neglected to do the first one, and have skipped to doing the last.
The last is grousing. The first is pruning.
Many people who neglect their ordinary duties to friends, relatives, acquaintances, colleagues and society during the year try to make up for it during the holidays. In a frenzy, they feel they must send cards to all the people with whom they failed to keep in touch all year, throw parties whose guest lists consist of those whose hospitality they failed to reciprocate all year, and give presents or money to all others whom they have disregarded all year.
It becomes too much for them. So they don't get it all done and proceed right to the grousing about the burden of celebrating what are, after all, supposed to be holidays.
Miss Manners, who has run up no such debts, is saving her sympathy for those who also keep up during the year, but feel extra-expansive at the holidays. They have understandably accumulated a great many friends this way, and enjoy doing special things at this time. And they have wider circles of acquaintanceship, and use the holidays for an annual check-in.
They also might find that it adds up to too much. It is on their behalf that Miss Manners makes the following recommendations for holiday pruning.
Cards: Drop from your list anyone of whom you have no mental picture. An out-of-date picture -- the way they looked when you were in college, or when they lived across the street -- will do, but if you cannot conjure up any, you needn't greet them. They are probably equally puzzled about you, only responding to your greetings. When cards arrive a week or more after you sent yours every year, they are trying to drop you, and you should let them.
Greetings from commercial establishments and from people who do mass mailings to those they hardly know may also be safely dropped. These are people who want to send you their message, not to hear yours.
Presents: People who do not enjoy receiving presents indicate this by ignoring the ones they are given, criticizing their presents, asking the donor to exchange them or trying to head off the impulse to choose presents for them by posting their shopping lists. This distaste should be respected by desisting from the practice.
Guests: People who show up at annual parties and are not heard from the rest of the year are clearly making duty appearances of which they should be relieved by the host. Even inquiries about why their invitations were not forthcoming should be interpreted as mere attempts at politeness on the part of people who clearly do not yearn for one's company.
These measures may seem harsh, but Miss Manners considers it to be in the spirit of the season to be thoughtful of others. And that includes the thoughtfulness of leaving people alone when they are not grateful to be remembered.
Dear Miss Manners:
I dress very modestly, for a variety of religious and moral reasons. I have no problem explaining why I dress as I do to those who are really interested.
However, I can tell quickly when someone is trying to pick a verbal fight or start a political or religious debate in a place where that would not be appropriate. In these cases I'd rather not explain. How do I politely respond without explaining?
What is the question to which you need a response? "How come you don't dress more lewdly?"
The answer to that would be a frozen stare. However, if you are referring to a particular symbol, such as wearing a headscarf, you need only say pleasantly, "It's my custom," and, to any follow-up questions, "because it is my custom." Miss Manners still recommends practicing that frozen stare in case of prolonged questioning or speculation.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c) 2004, Judith Martin