A Guide to Thanksgiving Etiquette for Hosts and Guests
Whether you need advice on how to be a gracious host or the tips that will ensure you're invited back year after year, we're here to help.
If you think about it, Thanksgiving is the only holiday that always follows a timeline of events: Family members and other guests will arrive, you'll strike up engaging conversation as a host while final details are set in the kitchen, and everyone will convene around a dining table while a beautifully curated menu is served. Since dinner is often the highlight of any Thanksgiving gathering, you should do well to incorporate all the elements of a formal dinner—if you're hosting, that includes inviting your guests with ample notice, serving the meal, and facilitating general hospitality in your home. But even guests have their own protocol to follow; after all, you'd never imagine of embarrassing a host in their own home on Thanksgiving, especially if they are close family.
With the help of Patricia Fitzpatrick, a doyenne of class at the helm of the Etiquette School of New York, and Jung Lee, the world-renowned event designer behind party-planning firm Fête New York, we outline a set of rules for those who may be hosting or attending a formal Thanksgiving feast for the first time. Both experts share a list of dos and don'ts for everyone seated at the table to ensure a smooth, stress-free celebration.
Invite Family First, Then Everybody Else
For many of us, family is scattered across the country; and while Thanksgiving always falls on the third Thursday of November, that doesn't mean you shouldn't give them advance notice to travel. "Be sure to call and email your family first, and do so in the first two weeks of September," she says. "There's no need for a formal invitation at this point, since you'll need to discuss any pertinent details first." Fitzpatrick says her family has a policy of "rotating" the hosting responsibilities between herself and siblings each and every year; if one of your family members feels strongly about hosting, they should make their preferences clear before invitations are made. A good rule of thumb to follow is that hosts should expect their guests to extend an invite for another holiday event, if not the same one, within the following year.
While Fitzpatrick firmly believes that written invitations are of the utmost importance for larger events, more intimate dinners—where you know every single person at your table well—can be announced with charming evites. "The invitation sets the tone for any festivity or party or dinner," she says, "but you want to notify extended family of whose hosting it, and what they should expect, if anything." Custom invitations are best saved for when it comes time to invite others who may not know you as intimately as family. "At two weeks notice at the latest, earlier if possible, you should extend an invite to friends and neighbors who live in the area."
Inquire About Duties and Restrictions Upon Invitation
You may think you already know who enjoys a vegan or alternative diet in your family, but it pays to be safe and ask outright. Lee recommends being upfront with your guests well ahead of the big day to confirm any allergies or restrictions in advance. For guests, this is the only time they'll have to politely raise inquiries with their hosts, especially if it involves the menu. "When you're invited to Thanksgiving and you know there may be issues, it's polite to simply let your host know by asking them for permission to add to the menu in the first place," Fitzpatrick says. "Try something like, 'I'm on a restricted diet—may I bring a vegetable dish for everyone to enjoy?'" While it's up to the host to decide if they'd prefer to tackle the restriction on their own, you certainly want to offer bringing something for the whole group rather than just yourself, as Thanksgiving is communal in nature.
Designate an Arrival Time for Your Guests
"If you're hosting—especially if it's your first time—you often don't realize the amount of time involved," Lee says. "Keep in mind that you are responsible for everyone's meal!" To avoid unreasonable lags between courses, Lee recommends deciding on what time you plan on eating and planning the event backwards. "Set the time of when you'll be hungry and ready to eat. Then, invite your guests an hour before that. This allows for anyone who may be running a little late, as well as some time to mingle." Fitzpatrick says you should expect guests to be up to 15 minutes late, and that people will want to mingle first before dinner is served, which is something to keep in mind. As a guest, you don't want to arrive early, either. While it may not seem like a big deal to arrive 30 minutes before the invite time, it risks interfering with any last-minute preparation on your hostess' end.
Bring Candles or Fruit—Not Food or Flowers
Even if you don't have a dietary restriction, you may wish to bring something to be polite—Thanksgiving is all about sharing a meal with your loved ones. Fitzpatrick says you should act on your good intentions well before you show up at the door with a dish of your choice. "You always want to ask the host or hostess what you can contribute," she says, adding that it's impolite to make something solely based on your taste preferences. "Don't bring a dish without discussing it first—you're better off bringing a non-edible hostess gift or something seasonally appropriate (a bottle of wine or a fall fruit basket, for example) that doesn't require the host to immediately serve it." Don't forget that anything you bring, excluding special servingware, should be left as a courtesy to the host. "I would say anything you brought belongs to the host...It would be up to the host to say 'Please take it with you, I want you to enjoy it,'" Fitzpatrick says.
Another surprising no go? Flowers. "They may cause extra work for the hostess. Unless they request a certain food or décor, avoiding bringing any at all," Lee says. The safest bet for a guest who has had no communication with their host is a gift for the home—like a scented candle or a small cheese serving set, as Lee recommends.
Make Your Guests Feel Comfortable
Dining with your immediate family members is comfortable, but Thanksgiving dinner is often about coming together with those in your larger community. "If you're throwing a true dinner party, you'll invite many different kinds of people and try to include new members in your party that your family and other friends may not know—that's the beauty of a dinner party, after all. It's an opportunity to meet new people and have more fun," Fitzpatrick says. While it's important to let your family know in advance who you'll be extending an invitation to, don't feel that you have to keep it just to family for Thanksgiving—they should be gracious and help you welcome anyone to your home.
But extending the invitation is only half the work. "As the hostess, if your guests don't all know each other, it's your job to introduce them and help find common threads," Lee says. Before guests arrive, she recommends taking a few minutes to think of one special thing about each guest that can be used as a talking point for introductions or that may help them to connect with each other. If you're doing a seating plan, both Lee and Fitzpatrick suggest seating couples across from each other (or next to those with whom they may get along) in order to prevent anyone feeling left out.
Guide Everyone Through Dinner
Your hosting duties do not end once everyone is seated. Gently lead your guests through polite table talk in between bites. Even if you are very familiar with those at your table, one topic that should be mostly off-limits is politics; if political disputes do come up, try and break the ice with some positivity. "You can say, 'We all agree to disagree!' or bring it back to how great it is that everyone is gathered together over a delicious meal," Lee suggests. She even recommends designating a significant or close confidante as the official "jokester" in case any tense moments need a humorous fix.
Beyond conversation snafus, guests may feel awkward at any physical missteps like spilled gravy or wine—but the host should do everything they can to play if off, even if dinner is served on your grandmother's vintage linens. "Thanksgiving is messy; accidents will happen!" Lee says. "Simply wipe it up and say, 'No worries, I do this all the time.'" The same is true for the kids' table, which can get quite messy even before your guests have had a chance to be seated. Lee shares that some families may choose to actually supervise the kids' dinner in the hour before adults are seated, leaving the kids to their Thanksgiving fun in a living room or den that's adjacent to a formal dinner. While your mother may have taught you to always lend a hand in cleaning up after the meal, it's important for guests to ask first before assuming a host needs help. "Only clear if she has asked you to help," Fitzpatrick advises. "If you see your host getting flustered in the dining room, try asking something along the lines of, 'Would you like a bit of help?' But if they say no, you shouldn't insist."
End the Evening Gracefully
While Thanksgiving may be one of the most special dinners you'll enjoy all year, that doesn't mean it should keep your guests at the table for more than two hours maximum. "There shouldn't be a tremendous amount of time between courses, excluding dessert; that course could even be served in a sitting room or a more comfortable space to wrap up the evening," Fitzpatrick says. You can serve coffee and tea alongside dessert, and let guests taper out as they desire. Let it be known in advance that you'll need guests to depart in order to properly clean up and get little ones to bed on time—try printing this detail on your invitations. That way, guests will keep this in mind and (barring any mishaps) begin to head out accordingly.
In the same manner that hosts should extend invitations in advance, guests shouldn't wait too long to actually send your host a thank-you note. Fitzpatrick says a thank-you note is essential for hosts, because it lets them know that you enjoyed the holiday together, and all of the work that went into the meal to make it possible. You should feel comfortable about sending your host a thank-you message in the same medium that you received an invitation; so if it was an evite, you can send a thank-you email. But the best way to send along gratitude is in handwritten thanks, Fitzpatrick says, since it's a sign of true appreciation that both sender and receiver will cherish.