When it comes to the holidays, especially the older I get, it seems there is ever more work to be done. Why does tit seem adults have more side celebrations and events than the children? There are two group scenarios that make this painfully evident, participating in team sports, and working out of an 'office' or close knit group of employees. During my retail management days I always wanted to generate such events within my store, but my staff never seemed organized enough to pull it off. Today, part of 3 bowling leagues and several very large, reputable, blogging organizations, my participation reaches worldwide. I am talking, of course, about the exchanges of food and gifts that come along with traditional seasonal events such as group Potlucks and Gift Exchanges. Whether you've been to a dozen, or are preparing to participate in your first, I have a few guidelines to answer your nagging etiquette questions.
1.) It's great to have some organization. If you are not hosting the event, try suggesting a simple checklist of necessities, if they are not being provided by the host. This includes disposable plates, cups, dinnerware, and napkins. Don't count on others to bring these items without direction. In most cases it should be the organizer's sole responsibility to provide these items for the event.
2.) Try to avoid sweets. Yes, I'm sure your grandmother made the most amazing Banana Cream Pie from her secret recipe, but those who are caught off guard, or forget the event, will often swing by the grocery and make a beeline to the bakery. I have yet to attend a Potluck that lacked several options for dessert. If you simply must make a dessert, try to inform your group in advance, so others can take that into account when making their plans.
3.) Consider food handling. If you're going to bring a food that should be served warm, or kept at temperature for safe consumption, so not bring it unless you can accommodate this. Most warm pasta, soup, and chili dishes can be kept warm with a Slow Cooker on warm. For finger foods like dumpling, mini sliders, and hotcakes, invest in a disposable chaffing dish setup that will run you about $8 at Walmart. Add 2 TBS of water to the base of the pan for moist dishes like stuffing and pasta.
4.) If you are bringing an 'and dip' scenario, bring some throw away dixie cups or foil muffin cups for guests to spoon individual portions into. No one likes globbing a spoonful of wet dip onto their potluck plate! Along with this, bringing food that requires a bowl to be served is generally a faux pas without prior blessing from the host.
5.) If you absolutely must bring a cake or cupcakes (see #2), spray your plastic wrapping, foil, or lid, with PAM prior to covering. This will keep frosting and glaze from sliding and sticking when removing your lid/cover.
6.) Think vegetarian. Okay, so you love meat. Chances are any dish with meat will require an unusual amount of food handling to keep the contents safe for consumption. Be the person that brings a vegetarian item, if even a fresh salad. You will be, at minimum, the hero to one person. And that, non-meat eating, person will be forever grateful. Besides, potlucks tend to lack the texture of fresh, crisp, greens.
7.) Expect to clean up your own mess. Bring disposable containers and serving utensils if you don't feel like cleaning, but expect to at least clean up the area where your offering was displayed. It's common courtesy, folks.
8.) Potlucks are an arena for competition. While the majority of the crowd will often opt to bring store-bought, or ready to make, dishes; there will always be a handful that use it as a showcase for their perceived talents. You do not have to eat dishes you don't have interest in, but keep the vibe positive. If you're asked about a homemade dish use compliments like "What a creative use of such and such" or "It was so kind of you to bring home cooked food!"
The most common gift swap these days seems to be the simple and often undefined Holiday Gift Exchange. This is an event where an office, organization, team, or group decides they will bring a wrapped gift to a specified time and location. Participants are often given a maximum budget for these gifts so as to not intimidate those who have tighter finances through the holidays. Let's face it, no one wants to receive an iPad after handing over handmade potholders; it's a WIN, yes, but it's also a pretty awful feeling. Most event organizers will specify whether you should make your gift gender neutral, or specify the gender of the gift somehow on the wrapping. In larger groups men will often bring gifts for men, and vice-versa. Some generally good gift ideas include; coffee or cocoa mug gift sets, food gifts (non homemade), mass retailer gift cards, none seasonal merchandise (try to avoid gifts that will only be of use for 2-3 weeks after the exchange), picture frames, and wine (if appropriate).
A White Elephant Gift Exchange is very similar in premise, except the sole purpose is to wrap your most quirky gift ideas and swap them at random to hilarious results. For added fun package your gift in oblong shaped boxes, bags, and more, using loud or even handmade wrapping paper (newspaper, magazines). The key to this event is to be tacky, but not offensive- often the most unusual looking gifts will be picked first. These gifts often have no practicality whatsoever and can literally contain something lying around in your garage. Some of my favorite white elephant unveilings have included; a half empty liquor bottle, a bowling ball, kitchen utensils (this year I am gifting a cheese grater), a seat cushion, a hubcap, hotel soaps and concessions, a hand drawn portrait of president Obama, and a box of chocolates with one bite taken from each (to see what kind each was).
Lastly, the Secret Santa Gift Exchange is much like the first, but includes randomly assigned recipients, in which you will be given a budget and a designated person to shop for. In some cases you may not know this person very well, and may request the organizer ask the person to provide a simple list of general interests. At the end of a Secret Santa Exchange the giftees often reveal themselves, so, when in doubt, reach for that gift card kiosk.
What Daughter Says: Whatever event you're participating in this year, remember their sole intent is to bring people together. Just have fun!