From unwanted gifts to spats over the sprouts, Christmas can be fraught with social pickles. Etiquette expert Philip Howard gives Hannah Stephenson a crash course in minding your festive manners
Christmas is a time of good cheer - and of good manners.
Indeed, along with all the other stresses the festive season brings, manners can make or break this time of goodwill.
All sorts of dilemmas arise - table manners at Christmas lunch, party invitations accepted or declined, thank you letters written and presents, even horrendous ones, graciously accepted.
"The golden rule of all good manners - the only one that really matters - is to cause least pain to other people," says Philip Howard, who has presided over The Times' 'Modern Manners' column for more than 20 years, and has now penned a book of the same name.
The Eton-educated author attended Oxford University before doing National Service and forging a career in journalism, first as a reporter in Glasgow and later as literary editor of The Times.
"The only golden rule is treat other people as you'd like to be treated yourself. It doesn't matter how you pass the port around the table. There's quite a lot of snobbery and people make an astonishing fuss about things that don't matter."
"Manners have changed so much," he continues. "In Henry VIII's time it was good manners to chuck lamb bones over one's shoulder for the greyhounds to feed. That would cause raised eyebrows these days.
"Our manners are completely different from those of our ancestors and we are living in the age of computers and emails. Men do jobs around the house and women are out working."
Here are just some of the dilemmas you may face over the festive season and Howard's solution to them:
* Can I thank someone for a Christmas present by email?
"In modern manners, for those who don't have good handwriting, it's OK to thank for your presents by email - provided you do it by Boxing Day with warmth and, if possible, a joke, and remember what you've been given. Certainly do it before January. The only thing that matters is that you do thank them for the present. The medium doesn't matter particularly."
* If you receive a present you really don't like, is it acceptable to be honest with the giver so you can change it?
"No. There's no way out of that. It can cause terrible trouble. There's no good way of saying to someone, 'Thank you but no thank you'. It happened in my family. A rich brother of my in-laws used to send his sisters a posh Norfolk ham and one year one of the recipients found that hers had arrived mouldy. She wrote back to him, saying, 'Thank you very much for the ham, but it was rather rotten when it arrived'. For years after that, the others received a ham and she got a diary. The solution is to give an unwanted present to someone else who doesn't know the person who gave it to you. Even with a close member of the family, you have to consider their feelings as well as yours."
* How do you stop an argument breaking out over the Christmas table among relatives who don't get on?
"Bang on the table and say, 'Family members, I now propose a toast to mother, around whom our whole family revolves', or something that stops them in their tracks."
* Are there any rules of etiquette concerning the office Christmas party?
"Don't drink too much, which I know can be difficult as everyone's letting their hair down. Drinking too much can cause unpleasantness. It can make you indiscreet, unkind and say things you didn't mean or insult the boss. If you are having to make a speech, drink nothing at all before you've spoken. The same rule applies to flirting - don't do it to excess and certainly don't do it with the boss's wife."
* Is it acceptable to party-hop?
"If you're going to more than one party in an evening, on no account say to the host of the first party that you're going on to another one, which is by implication better than hers. Tell a white lie on leaving one party early to go to another one."
* What is the correct etiquette when someone brings a good bottle of wine to your dinner party?
"The host should thank the guest warmly, put the bottle away for another time and serve the wine he had already arranged for dinner. If the gift is red, wine snobs would say that it is too late to open it now and let it breathe. If it is white, it is too late to chill it to the right temperature. If it is disgusting plonk, you and your guests had better stick to your own bottles."
* When entertaining vegetarians at Christmas, is it considered offensive to carve the meat at the table, or seat them next to carnivores?
"Your veggie friends must know that they are being entertained in a 'turkivorous' household. They must have the good manners to fit in with your Christmas customs, without demur or even raised eyebrow. It is not your duty to cater for their sensitivities, other than providing delicious vegetables."
* Are there any general rules of etiquette when having Christmas dinner?
"It used to be a sign of male virility that the one thing the man did was carve the turkey, but we've now moved away from that patriarchal society. If you have a young man or woman in the family, ask them to carve.
"If the person carving has any sense, he or she should tell the other diners to start and not to wait until the carving is finished, because if it's a big party you could be sitting there for 15 minutes until the carver has finished.
"It's different in hotels and restaurants, when you are all being served at the same time.
"Don't gobble your food, try not to finish before everyone else. Fiddle around with the potatoes if you happen to be a quick eater. Even if you dislike the food, make some pretence about enjoying it."
* What about bringing mobile phones to the table?
"All mobile phones should be switched off and not allowed at the Christmas table. To have the possibility of taking calls on a mobile at a meal or even when you're just having a conversation with someone is bad manners. It's saying, 'I'm sort of enjoying talking to you but I may well have something more important to do in a minute.'"
* When should you allow children to leave the table?
"After Christmas dinner, there's nothing worse than making a child sit listening to conversation he doesn't much enjoy. I would let them go, although it depends on their age. If there's going to be a considerable pause between the turkey and the Christmas pudding, I would let them go and give them a shout when the pudding's ready. That's not really manners, it's more man management."
* Modern Manners by Philip Howard is published by The Robson Press, priced £12.99. Available now