My knowledge of etiquette comes in handy sometimes. Friends know that I'm the one to ask if they have questions about what to give someone as a wedding gift, who to seat where at a dinner party, what to bring someone as a hostess gift – rules I know by heart but would otherwise take them time to research.
Whether I like it or not, I can't scrap these rules – my mother made sure of that. You simply don't show up at a dinner party full, disregard an invitation's RSVP, or let your kids ask, "Who is this?" when they answer the phone. My mother's words about the correct rules still parade in my head, their marching orders intact.
Besides, people appreciate manners, and I like getting questions about them. In fact, until a few years ago, I thought I knew all the answers.
But shortly after I got married, I learned I was wrong.
I discovered this while reading a magazine article on the etiquette of Christmas letters and realized I knew nothing about the subject. Our family had never created Christmas letters.
The article spelled out topics you should avoid at all costs. I was astonished. In fact, I was so immobilized by the list of dos and don'ts that I refrained from writing such letters, even though, when I first got married, I had wanted to start the tradition.
Instead, when my husband and I sent out cards, we wrote a short personal note on each of them the way my mother always had.
No way was I going to fumble through this new Christmas letter endeavor, risking my reputation. I was in unfamiliar territory, and everything I even thought about writing fit neatly into one of the article's "don't" categories.
At the top of the list was, "Don't brag." It sounded good, but what else would you say in a Christmas letter if you couldn't brag a little?
Would you report that Fern, despite the new spa treatments and a trip to Rio, is just not herself?
That Joey (who is all grown up now) is taking the bar exam for the third time with little hope of passing?
Or that Lucy is the worst player on her softball team?
Such remarks would be cruel, which is why no one includes them in their annual yuletide greetings.
I was thinking about all this when we were addressing our cards last year. That afternoon, there was a beautiful scene in the backyard, and I realized I wouldn't be breaking any rules if I described it in a Christmas letter.
After all, the snowstorm and the ducks and the geese on the lake were lovely, and many on my Christmas list didn't live in cold country. I figured they'd enjoy reading about it.
A few weeks later, one of my daughter's friends was having dinner with us. We were almost done when she said, "Your Christmas letter made my mom laugh. She wondered why you'd write about birds at Christmas."
My fork slipped, splattering sauce on my shirt cuff. I stared at the girl. Could I have heard her right? Following etiquette rules had never gotten me into such deep – and humiliating – water before. I was back to square one and unsure about how to proceed in the years to come.
But then something dawned on me: Sometimes life is bigger than etiquette. Sometimes there are no rules that cover what we feel in our hearts and want to share with others. I got up and searched for the article on Christmas letter etiquette and tossed it out.
So when November rolled around this year, I was ready. I got out a pen and started my letter. I had little more to brag about than our summer garden, but caught folks up on the geese, who were lingering on blocks of ice after the recent freeze.
And although my daughter's friend has moved, her family's new address is on our Christmas list, so I sent them the letter.
By the time they get it, the mother will most likely be knee-deep in Christmas stress, overwhelmed with all she has yet to do. The description of the geese might give her just the chuckle she needs to help her get through it all.