How many in-laws should absolutely be on your guest list?

Unlike formal family events that might have their own invitation etiquette, Thanksgiving offers the flexibility to fill a guest list with the loved ones you are most excited to see. "If you are the host, your guest list is completely up to your discretion," says Lisa Gaché of Beverly Hills Manners. "Thanksgiving is known for being a most welcoming holiday where the purpose is to bring people together and share in a marvelous meal." Ahead, etiquette-approved tips for curating (or culling) your own celebration's head count.

How broad should your family outreach be?

There are no firm rules, says Gaché, about how much family is too much on Thanksgiving: Whether you choose to include just one side of your family or extend invitations to your wife's sister's brother-in-law's in-laws is entirely up to you. "Which family to invite and when should be a shared decision by the hosts and dictated by the size of their home and how many relatives they can accommodate," she says. "It's truly up to the host. If they take pride in creating a large Thanksgiving and get pure joy out of cooking and entertaining for 40 family members, including distant relatives thrice removed, then that is their prerogative."

If you prefer a smaller gathering for practical reasons, like a too-small dining room or COVID-19 precautions, Gaché recommends alternating invitations between one set of in-laws and the other from year to year. "Start with the side of the family that you are most eager to host first and then rotate each year," she says. "Creating an agreed-upon schedule well in advance puts everyone's mind at ease." Worried about presenting a holiday rotation to the traditionalists in your family? "Sit down with your family when everyone is in a good mood, share with them how much you love them and enjoy their company, but that you simply have to create a way for all family members to have equal opportunity to celebrate together," recommends Gaché. "Reassure grandparents, aunts, and uncles that you can still spend quality time together in other ways, especially if it is a year you will not be seeing them for Thanksgiving."

family around thanksgiving table
Credit: skynesher / Getty Images

Can you invite your friends?

Inviting your best friends to join your immediate family meal—instead of savings spots for distant cousins you never see—is perfectly appropriate. "I love a good mix of family and friends," says Gaché. "Thanksgiving can be stressful for some, especially those who feel forced to invite family but would rather be with their friends. Inviting friends to join you and your family lightens the mood and makes for a much more enjoyable experience for all." And while most get-togethers require giving your guests advance notice, you can always offer a spontaneous invitation to your neighbors, local pal, or friends who preferred not to travel. "You may have a few obligatory invitations, but the best parties are a last-minute mash up of family, friends, and a sprinkling of lively neighbors," says Gaché.

Who should be cut?

Your Thanksgiving guest list really only needs to be cut if you're running out of chairs or money. "Consider the number you can comfortably seat at your table or in your home," says Gache. "Do you have enough silverware, dishes and glassware to set a nice table? Your pocketbook might be the barrier between a large party or an intimate gathering, especially if you like to provide the absolute best of everything, from the finest table linens to an organic, hormone-free, fancy farm-raised turkey." You might be 99-percent sure that your cross-country family won't fly in for the holiday, or know for certain that your aunt always visits her son, but you can still let them know they're welcome with you if their plans change. "You can make mention, especially if you know it would make them feel good to hear how much they are loved," says Gaché.


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