Gina Barreca (opinion): Here’s what will trigger your holiday guests

It takes planning to prevent a holiday gathering from during into a boxing match.

It takes planning to prevent a holiday gathering from during into a boxing match.

Getty Images

We once prepared for guests by wondering what they like to eat and drink, but now we prepare by asking them to list their food allergies and trigger warnings.

Yes, the world has changed.

As we enter this fraught 2021 holiday season, we are like boxing contestants who are eager to understand the rules of engagement. Stepping into our own rings of interaction (see how I’m ducking and weaving the boxing analogy into the argument here?), I find myself wishing for a clear set of regulations so that we know what to do should we find ourselves against conversational ropes with family and friends.

What, for example, counts as a topic that hits below the belt? Is the phrase “below the belt” part of the civil lexicon if we’re not specifically discussing the art of pugilism or the Cuomo brothers?

I wish I knew. I’m discovering that eccentricities, mannerisms and simple tastes once treated as preferences are now in danger of breaking unwritten and unspoken rules.

My husband and I are lucky enough to have friends from many parts of our lives, and a couple of family members with whom we still speak. Yet to gather them at one event is less like preparing for a party and more like drawing up the Marshall Plan.

That’s why my advice to you is to forget every piece of advice you’ve ever heard about etiquette except for two that I’ll state at the end of the piece.

Remember how George Bernard Shaw’s Professor Henry Higgins, in “Pygmalion” (which is known by every Audrey Hepburn fan as “My Fair Lady”), suggested to social-climber Eliza Doolittle to keep to two safe topics? Eliza could talk about everybody’s health and the weather. But you can’t do that anymore because you’re introducing the topics of climate change and Medicare for all.

I’m practically getting out maps with pushpins for seating arrangements. Should I place the gluten-frees next to all-protein eaters and away from the vegans, with the pescatarians next to the low-fat no-salt heart-healthy gang? At this point in the table blueprint, I make a note to remember to put away our two cats, not to keep them safe from the protein eaters, but because I don’t want the “pet-owning-is a-form-of-species-colonization" conversation occurring too early in the evening.

“Early in the evening” is anything before the second round — of drinks, that is.

Just as you wouldn’t seat the aunt who reminds you of Dolly Parton next to the neighbor who reminds you of August Strindberg, so too must you avoid placing the uncle who will recite every line from “Larry the Cable Guy” next to the young cousin who, having just returned from a Fulbright in Delaware, is passionate about the recycling of bobble-head dolls. There’s no chance of a fair fight.

We gather during the long holiday evenings to repeat old habits handed down through our families because we feel the compelling warmth of their legacy and because we don’t want our ancestors to curse us if we don’t use the nice dishes at least once a year.

But as carbon copies become less legible with every use, so repetition can wear down the mechanism.

Also, do not seat someone who is prone to making references to antiquated things such as “carbon copies” next to someone who is 16 and believes any use of the word “carbon” is a signal that she should begin practicing the presentation she’s giving next week for her AP poli-sci class concerning the death of the coal mining industry.

But there are two things I am happy to pass along: While you may not say the addition of cloves to the baked potatoes renders the entire dish inedible, you are free to point out that something in the broccoli appears to be writhing.

That’s it.

Until there are professional holiday referees, these are the only two facts you can trust.

Come out of your corners looking cheerful and wearing a mouthguard.

Gina Barreca ( ginabarreca.com ) is Board of Trustees Professor at the University of Connecticut.