Experts share the five things you should remember at these celebrations.

By Zee Krstic
December 17, 2019
RgStudio / Getty Images

Whichever holiday you choose to observe in the month of December, there's no denying that this is one of the most joyous times of the year—but it can also be stressful for those who open their doors to visitors. Between prepping their homes and checking off all the to-dos on their long list (including planning, shopping, and executing all those meals!), it's easy for a host to feel overwhelmed, which is why it's important to be the best possible houseguest when you arrive at their doorstep.

Whether you're staying for a few weeks or simply stopping in for an afternoon of festive fun, there are a few things you can do to make your stay as easy as possible on your host this holiday season. We spoke with leading etiquette experts to answer some of the most frequently asked questions guests have when traveling away from home during the holiday season: From gift choices to dining at the holiday table, they've shared a few of their recommendations for visitors who wish to make a good impression.

Related: Unique Hostess Gift Ideas from Our Editors

Show Thanks Before It's Time to Leave

Whether your host is your best friend, a family member, or a total stranger, there's a good chance that he or she will be very aware of you and your surroundings the minute you step into their home. Richie Frieman, author of the best-selling Reply All… And Other Ways to Tank Your Career ($8.90, amazon.com), says you should operate as if someone is always watching. "The very last thing you want to do is be the punchline of a story featuring an unmannerly houseguest over the holidays," he shares, adding that you should think about how you move about the home itself. "Did the tissues make it into the trash can? Are clothes flung across the room? Are towels laying on the floor? Even outside of being neat, always make sure the host realizes how much you appreciated the hospitality." Frieman suggests bringing a handwritten note as well as a small gift for your last day, and to actively compliment their space throughout your stay. "You always want to leave on a positive note."

Offer Your Aid Without Insisting on Always Helping

You may have good intentions, but you should never take it personally if a host declines your offer to help around their home or kitchen. Kate Hanley, author of How to Be a Better Person ($8.99, amazon.com) and host of an etiquette-infused podcast of the same name, says you should think of "help" as more than just washing the dishes. "Every host appreciates at least the offer to help, but if they decline your offer to help in the kitchen, don't force it—some people need to load the dishwasher the way they like it loaded, and that's okay," she says. "Keep your eyes open for a way to help that would be a relief to them; maybe they have a dog that needs a walk, or a child who would like someone to play tic-tac-toe with at the dinner table."

Make Yourself Scarce

This might seem counterintuitive, but you don't have to engage your host every single minute of the day from morning until night—giving them time to reset between activities and meals can be a godsend, according to Jodi Smith, an etiquette consultant with Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. "Retire to your room for a nap, read a book, or take a long walk; even better, take the day to see the sights. Invite the host but be sure to leave them the opportunity to decline," Smith says. Acknowledge where you're off to and be sure to make details as plain as possible, while also making it clear that your host doesn't have to change his or her plans to tag along.

Be Prepared to Fix an Awkward Situation

With all the excitement around the holidays, there may be a time where you accidentally offend a host ("Resist the urge to correct their children or pets [and] don't balk at their customs, either; happily remove your shoes if they say it's a shoe-free zone, and don't sleep through breakfast," Hanley says). It shouldn't be up to your host to address the mishap, either. "The best way to defuse tension is to admit a misstep; if you said something that didn't come out quite right at the dinner table, say so," Hanley shares. "Own your role and apologize for what you may have messed up—it creates an opening for the other person to do the same, which helps you reconnect. People tend to remember more how something ends rather than how it began, so if you end the uncomfortable incident with a short but sincere apology, that's what will stay in their memory, and not the original offense."

Arrive Fashionably Early

It should go without saying, but when you've committed to attending a holiday party or even an intimate Christmas dinner, you should always follow through if you've RSVP'd (even if it's just online!). Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, a behavioral expert, says hosts really appreciate it when you add a personal response to their invite, especially if it's via social media. "Consider sharing that you are looking forward to the event right away," she says. And while you may usually prefer to show up at parties a bit later to avoid being the first in attendance, being on time for a holiday meal or formal event is essential. "Some holiday gatherings include speeches, musical performances, and other types of presentations where you will be expected to be in place by the time they start. Don't be the guest clumsily arriving when your host is in the middle of a welcome speech—or in the middle of a piano performance, for instance."

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