8 Traditional Holiday Etiquette Rules Experts Say No Longer Apply

Vintage family christmas
PHOTO: FPG/GETTY

When it comes to holiday traditions, Southerners can be real sticklers for the rules. Mama’s etiquette lessons pay off this time of year when we put on our best manners to welcome out-of-town guests and celebrate the season. However, Southern experts say that not all conventional etiquette rules for the holidays still apply. In many 21st-century Southern households, families are forgoing strict etiquette protocols that have become outdated. 

  • Reverend Dr. August Abbott is a certified etiquette coach with about 40 years of experience teaching etiquette classes and the Etiquette Expert for JustAnswer. 
  • Maralee McKee is an expert for The Etiquette School of America in Orlando, Florida and the author of Manners That Matter for Moms
  • Christine Carmichael is the CEO of The Flemming Academy of Etiquette & Protocol in Richmond, Virginia.

Etiquette coach Reverend Dr. August Abbott reveals that conventions for “good manners” can be lost to time for three reasons: They’ve been forgotten, they no longer align with social standards, or people simply don’t care about them anymore. Well, we humbly suggest a third reason. In some cases, a steadfast rule can fall to make way for words and actions that, while they may be outside the boundaries of classic holiday etiquette, can actually be more effective at its main goal: showing appreciation and respect.  

As etiquette professional Maralee McKee puts it, “The heart of the holidays is love in action. Any expression of love in word or deed, whether through sharing a meal, giving or receiving a gift or card, helping someone in need, being generous with your time and talents, or being slow to get frustrated and generous with praise and gratitude, will never be outdated.”

So even if the rule is outdated, the crux of holiday etiquette never will be. Plus, experts assure us that some holiday etiquette rules will never go out of style.

“Bringing a gift for the host of a holiday party is the unwritten code of festive gatherings, and it’s a tradition that’s about as timeless as Grandma’s fruitcake,” says etiquette and soft skills expert Christine Carmichael.  

Here are etiquette rules that professional minders of Ps and Qs say might be negotiable these days. Of course, each home and every holiday host has their own rules and expectations. At the end of the day, it’s all about respect and gratitude.

Assigned Seats

“While assigned seating at formal dinners used to be common, modern holiday gatherings often embrace a more relaxed approach,” reveals Carmichael. “But now, in the era of hip holiday gatherings, we’ve chucked the seating chart out the window faster than you can say ‘pass the gravy.’ Open seating can feel more like a buffet. Choose whatever you like! This open style encourages mingling and allows guests to choose their company, fostering a more laid-back and enjoyable atmosphere.”

The Kids’ Table

For some children, being banished to the kids’ table is a pout-worthy punishment, but for other young’uns, the kids’ table is the ultimate time to reconnect with cousins, siblings, and other young guests without constant parental supervision. Plus, a kids’ table affords the adults a bit of a break.

However, as years go by, the kids’ table may include “children” in their 20s or 30s who have not yet graduated to the adult table and become unwilling babysitters. Even though a kids’ table has worked for your holiday crew for decades, it may be time to loosen the reins and reorganize a bit—or eliminate the kids’ table altogether. If the host’s dining room can accommodate, a multi-generational holiday meal can build lasting memories with the whole family.

If you do opt for a kids’ table, McKee recommends having a craft ready for rambunctious young ones who will undoubtedly finish eating first.

Fine China

Hosts who love to take any opportunity to show off their best dinnerware are more than welcome to continue the tradition, but it’s no longer a requirement to use your finest china for the holidays.

“As the host of the meal, you decide how formal or informal you want the event to be,” says McKee Whether you’d like to use your heirloom china or the adorable paper plates you spotted at the local paper goods shop, feel free to do so. The holidays are about creating lovely memories. With creativity, you can create a memory-making tablescape with either.”

Anyone who has hosted a holiday meal knows how much hard work it takes. These days, no one will fault the host for opting for disposable dishes and utensils that make clean-up significantly easier. When opting for paper plates, however, be sure to choose sturdy ones that can handle the full feast.

Holiday Dress Codes

For many, cozy and casual is the new normal for holiday affairs. This goes beyond the dinner table and applies to what guests are expected to wear. 

“In the past, holiday parties often had strict dress codes. Nowadays, it’s all about casual atmospheres and embracing joy rather than worrying ‘if your tie is in perfect symmetry,’” says Carmichael. “You can ditch the tuxedo and opt for something that screams, ‘I’m here to party, not attend a black-tie circus.’ It’s more acceptable to dress in a way that reflects the specific event’s tone rather than strictly following traditional dress norms. You may have ditched the tuxedo but don’t ditch the instructions in the invitation. Be a good guest and dress appropriately.”

Holiday Cards

If you’ve noticed fewer holiday cards gracing your refrigerator this year, you’re not alone. With technology, there are many alternative ways to send warm holiday wishes to all the folks in your life that are becoming the norm.

“Ultimately, the decision to send holiday cards is a personal one,” says Carmichael. “If you enjoy the tradition and find it meaningful, go ahead and send cards to those you want to connect with during the holidays. If the process feels overwhelming or is not in line with your preferences, it’s perfectly acceptable to opt-out. Oh, and if you prefer to send an email or an E-card, that is also acceptable!”

Decorating Timelines

If you were raised hearing that you can’t put up those Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving, then boy do we have news for you. 

“For better or worse, depending on your preference, for many Millennials and Gen Xers, the holidays at home loosely follow store dates more closely than traditional dates,” reveals McKee. “As soon as Halloween decorations disappear from stores and yards, and peppermint lattes appear on coffee shop menus, you’ll likely see Christmas decor in stores and homes. Decorating takes a lot of time, and life is hectic and unpredictable. People want to extend the holidays by starting them as soon as possible.”

Just One Cook In The Kitchen

“The host of the holiday meal no longer has to be the only person providing food and beverages,” says McKee. “If the host enjoys providing everything for guests, that’s fine. But anyone who has ever hosted a holiday meal understands the hours and sometimes days that go into creating a feast for a crowd. Holidays are communal events, and while the host will usually provide the beverages and entrees, it’s okay to ask guests to pitch in with their favorite side dish, dessert, salad, or appetizer.”

These days, proper holiday etiquette may mean something like a potluck. This rule isn’t exactly new, though. After all, Mama always said to never go to someone’s home empty-handed. Take this old-school rule a step further and show modern-day good manners by planning to bring an integral part of the dinner service rather than a small gift. 

“It’s kind to let your host know that you genuinely want to bring something and offer suggestions for things you’ve cooked before that have earned you rave reviews,” McKee adds. “In this way, you’re giving the host freedom to plan the menu and offering food you know will help the food be memorable.”

Irrelevant Family Traditions

Like etiquette rules, outdated family traditions can also be discontinued or changed. We’re certainly not suggesting that you abandon beloved and sentimental rituals, but many Southern families are choosing to respectfully put to rest habits that are no longer meaningful. 

“It’s normal for [family traditions] to evolve over time. People’s lives change, family dynamics shift, and practical considerations come into play. However, keep in mind that if you have been maintaining a tradition for many years, don’t expect to change it overnight. It’s important to honor the past while introducing the ‘new,’” says Carmichael. “Remember, the goal is to create holiday traditions that bring joy and meaning to your family. Being respectful, communicative, and open to change can help ensure that your holiday celebrations remain special and enjoyable for everyone involved.”

Abbott recommends starting with an open and honest conversation and being open to compromise. McKee also emphasizes the importance of a sensitive approach when it comes to family traditions, understanding that customs may hold more value to some family members than others.

“Family holiday traditions that no longer serve you can be changed as long as you’re sensitive to how important the tradition is to other family members and weigh how changing it will affect the holiday for everyone involved,” she says. “For instance, if Grandma insists certain foods be on the holiday menu because they were Grandpa’s favorites, and this is how she honors his memory at the holidays, you can offer to bring new food items but include the traditional foods as well.”