Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Some of the advice still holds up.
Holiday parties can stir up some sticky etiquette situations: Is it creepy to lurk under a sprig of mistletoe? How rude is it to snatch up the last Santa-shaped sugar cookie?
Women strutting out to holiday soirees in 19th-century Boston faced some quandaries, too, besides the sheer mechanics of navigating snowbanks in swirling skirts. Some of them turned to The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, penned by Florence Hartley in 1860. The guidebook schooled upper-crust guests and hostesses in rules for festive occasions.
The text is full of outmoded advice—archaic gender roles, for instance, and the absurd suggestion that there won’t be a mutiny if you only serve drinks instead of finger food. (Please don’t do this.) But there are some nuggets that still hold up today.
You have friends! Some of them want to spend time with you! That’s great. Don’t just ignore the invitation, or shove it under a pile of cheese-of-the-month catalogs until you’re sure that there’s no better offer coming along.
Hartley beseeched prospective attendees to answer any invites immediately, and, “if, after accepting an invitation, any unforeseen event prevents your keeping the engagement, write a second note, containing your regrets.” Facebook has nixed its “maybe” button for events, so it’s time to make up your mind one way or the other.
Dress for the occasion
Hartley suggested that guests “show that you honor the occasion by a tasteful dress.” In 2015, “honoring the occasion” means pulling on an ugly sweater if your host asks you to. There’s no shame in a giant reindeer.
If you’re going to talk trash, do it in private
In a picturesque, snow-globe version of the world, maybe we wouldn’t make fun of each other. But that wasn’t true in Hartley’s time, and it’s not the case now. She suggested: “Avoid all confidential communications or private remarks in the dressing-room. You may be overheard, and give pain or cause annoyance by your untimely conversation.” Still a solid suggestion.
Don’t overdo the karaoke
Hartley wrote that musicians invited to play or sing should “comply gracefully, and after one piece, leave the instrument.” She was talking about classy string instruments, but it applies to anything loud. Probably best to check with a friend before belting out any rendition. The best laid plans can go awry after too much spiked eggnog.