Thursday, 06 December 2012

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 7 December

Going to stay with friends for Christmas? Here is how to be the perfect guest, says Thomas Blaikie

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
This Christmas we’re breaking with tradition and going to stay with friends. They’ve asked the children as well. Of course we want to be the perfect guests. Can you advise?
Betty Connolly, Dorchester

Dear Betty,
This sounds a delightful plan. There’s an annoying saying: ‘House guests are like fish. After two days they stink.’ Quite the opposite, in fact. They mature and become more delicious, especially at Christmas. Seize the chance of a festive stay to deepen acquaintance, free from the limitations of routine social life.

But there are pitfalls, of course. Some guests signal unrelentingly: ‘I’d mend all your knickers and scrub your floors half the night to be rid of any obligation for your hospitality.’ This attitude is actually rather ungenerous. You should contribute something, but no more than you can afford – some bottles of drinkable wine, perhaps. If you plan to bring food, consult with your hosts in advance.

Don’t forget to take a few emergency presents in case there are extra people at Christmas lunch or dinner. But only produce these if they’ve got something for you. In my opinion, everyone at Christmas dinner should exchange presents, even if they’ve never met.

For practical reasons, as much as anything else, you probably won’t want to bring from home every last parcel sent by Aunt Binny or Cousin Marmaduke. Beware possible embarrassment if you are unwrapping mink coats and yachts while your hosts are toying with Tesco vouchers and packets of novelty pasta.

Christmas conversation is often a let-down. ‘When are you going back?’ might be the full extent. I wonder if people are crushed by the wonder of the occasion, the glory of festivity. All attempts at talk just seem impossibly banal. Banish such thoughts and try to carry on as normal with all your favourite topics: Japanese knotweed, the price of property in Alaska, your plans for summer bedding. Ideal Christmas conversation should look back and then forward. Try to be the one launching subjects for discussion if others are stuck.

Make sure your children aren’t grazing the fridge after the hosts have begun manically peeling potatoes for Christmas lunch. If the cook shows signs of breakdown (it’s only a roast dinner, but they’ll never learn), offer to help constructively: ‘Is there something I can do that won’t take you longer to show me how?’

Do not let your Christmas paper crown outstay its welcome on your head. The Festive Spirit can be overdone. When your visit is over, avoid the trashed, they-have-servants- to-clear-up-don’t-they? aspect to your bedroom. But, on the other hand, is it really necessary to strip the bed? Accept hospitality with open arms at Yuletide. Do not try to do penance for it.

Please send your questions to Thomas.blaikie@lady.co.uk or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER

WHAT TO DO … when choosing Christmas presents

I was rather annoyed with Jemima Khan last year for denouncing a scented candle as a present so unimaginative as to border on the offensive. Imaginative presents are just what you don’t want: a key-ring warmer, a knit-your-own-tiara kit, a homemade, beech-nut cluster brooch. A bag of potatoes would be more useful.

An old friend’s mother would often greet the Noel offering of her wartime bosom buddy, June Cut-Deeping, thus: ‘This is a disgrace. You gave it to me last year.’ She would then hand back the box of men’s handkerchiefs embroidered with some unknown man’s initials, which June had picked up in a charity shop and been trying to give away for years.

I have several times been given scented candles and found them a perfect present. The point was that they were nice ones, by Diptyque. Frightfully expensive, in fact.

There’s nothing wrong with dull presents. Just don’t compromise on quality. Go to the nicest shops you can find. Buy olive oil, wine, hot-water-bottle covers, bed socks, slippers – just make sure they’re the best. If you’re on a budget, exquisite tiny is better than large trashy.


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