Along with holiday greetings, the mail is surging with belligerent invitations.
As Miss Manners recalls, offers of hospitality used to be written in a charmingly suppliant tone. Would-be hosts didn't simply invite people, they begged, pleaded and cajoled:
"Please come ... we would be so happy if you would join us ... it would be such fun to have you here ... I would be thrilled ... We were hoping ... " Even the most formal invitations emphasized what a pleasure the guests' company would be or what an honor their presence.
Some of this ingratiating wording is retained through habit, but Miss Manners fears that the spirit is lost. The modern invitation soon turns to snarling:
"Reply by December 16."
"Female guests should not wear black, red, white or orange."
"By invitation only."
"Send in an original poem for our memory book."
"Submit a square for our quilt."
"Bring a dish that serves eight."
"Bring a food donation for the cause."
"Bring your checkbook."
"Monetary gifts preferred."
And a new one on Miss Manners to which a Gentle Reader reports being subjected: "Leftover food and drink welcome."
She recognizes that part of this bossiness -- the part that isn't screaming greed -- is the guests' own fault. If they behaved themselves, it wouldn't be necessary to bark orders at them. Hosts turn surly when they are fed up with guests who habitually put off replying (in many cases forever), dress incongruously, arrive late, leave in the middle for other parties, bring along uninvited children and friends, offer minimal thanks and are never heard from again.
Perhaps all that has contributed to the greed factor. The conceit that it is the guest who confers a favor by agreeing to allow someone else to plan and prepare his or her entertainment, not to mention cleaning up afterward, gets less and less plausible.
"Why should I do this for those ingrates?" is an understandable question. Many hosts unfortunately stop right there, and thus the graciousness of home entertaining is becoming rare.
But the solution of making so-called guests pay their own way is a crass one. Cooperative parties and fund-raisers are viable social forms if properly labeled, but do not replace the ancient and sacred ritual of exchanging pure hospitality.
There is a certain amount of direction that hosts must legitimately provide. They set the date, time, place and style of the event, and get extra credit if they throw in how to get there and where to park. And as a sad commentary on human behavior, requesting a reply has crept into the language of both formal and informal invitations. It used to be obvious that if someone asked you over, you had to reply, yes ("I'd love to") or no ("Oh, I'm so sorry, that's the day I wash my beard").
Additional orders, especially any concerned with money or presents, are rude. Miss Manners lives in hope that guests will tire of hearing them and just go ahead and do their duties.
After all, it only took a decade or two for everyone to learn to wait for the beep before attempting to leave phone messages. Some day, perhaps, people will know to turn off their cell phones in the theater. Wouldn't it be worth it to be spared all that nagging?
DEAR MISS MANNERS: Do you think if you have guests coming for the Christmas holidays you are thereby required to decorate your home and buy a Christmas tree?
My mother is joining me and my husband for another Christmas season and, although I am looking forward to the time off to spend with her, I just don't want to get a tree this year.
Normally, it falls on me to decorate and generally carry the festive attitude throughout the visit, but this year I just don't feel festive enough and am giving myself a break. I plan to make merry and will probably decorate in some fashion, but just not a tree this year. My mom reckons I should have a tree for my "guest." I say she is a woman visiting her daughter for the holidays and that should be enough.
GENTLE READER: So your mother wants a Christmas tree, and you don't feel like getting her one. But as you pose your question in general terms, Miss Manners has to admit that no, there is no etiquette requirement that hosts provide Christmas trees.
But your mother wants one. Can't you ask yourself how you would have felt as a child if she had told you she didn't feel festive enough to get one for you?