A Champagne Lifestyle

Symbolic of celebration and success, champagne never fails to get the party started. Whether it’s a few romantic glasses à deux, or dozens of bottles for a party, there is a right way and a wrong way to serve a bottle of fizz.

It is rumoured that a monk, Dom Pérignon, in the village of Hautvillers in the Champagne region, first invented champagne in 1668. Only champagne made from the Champagne region in northern France is allowed to be labelled ‘champagne’.

Champagne is made from a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. Méthode Champenoise – the method used to make champagne – is the process of creating the bubbles. A solution of sugar and yeast is added to wine to create a second in-bottle fermentation.

Champagne is governed by numerous exacting rules that aim to maintain the highest standards, including: the wine must only come from the Champagne region, the vines must be grown and pruned in a specific way and the grapes must be picked by hand.

Go Vintage

Vintage champagne comes from the crop of a single year. A vintage bottle, therefore, always has a date on the label. A champagne house will only produce vintage champagne from very good years and will typically release it after about six years. Non-vintage (NV) champagne is blended from the crop of different years; there is therefore no date on the label.  It can be varied in quality but there are many very good non-vintage champagnes available.

How to Store

Ideally, bottles of champagne should be stored horizontally, but it is more tolerant of vertical storage than wine. Find a dry, dark place with a consistent, cool temperature. Non-vintage champagne is generally released for immediate drinking rather than cellaring, so don’t hesitate before popping the cork…

How to Open Champagne

•Ensure that the bottle hasn’t been shaken.

•Peel off the foil from over metal cage covering the cork.

•Make sure the bottle is pointing away from you, companions and valuables.

•Remove metal cage over the cork.

•Hold the cork in one hand and the bottle in the other.

•Smoothly twist the bottle (not the cork) so that the cork comes out gently.

•Aim for a sigh not a pop

Resist the temptation to shake the bottle to create an explosive opening – it is criminal to waste good champagne, even if you are celebrating, and considered much better etiquette to ease out the cork as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. Popping a cork can be dangerous: the pressure inside a champagne bottle can launch a cork at an alarming speed of 13 metres per second.

How to Serve Champagne

Champagne should be served chilled (optimum temperature is about 7°C), and glasses must be scrupulously clean – even the most minuscule remains of washing-up liquid can cause the champagne to lose its fizz. The sign of a good champagne is a consistent stream of small bubbles, that create a light froth around the edge of the surface, called the ‘mousse’.

Pick up the glass by the stem and tilt it to a 45-degree angle. As you gently pour the champagne ensure that it touches the side of the glass to prevent foam and excessive bubbles forming. Stop once you have poured approximately one inch into the glass and wait for any foam to subside. Resume pouring until the glass is half full, or to the widest point in the glass. You should never fill a champagne glass to the rim; you need space to allow the aroma to release in the glass.

Champagne Glasses

Champagne coupes (or ‘saucers’) were the original champagne glasses, which became very popular in England in the early 19th century. They are broad, with a shallow bowl, and a short, elegant stem. It is rumoured that the shape of the bowl was modelled on the breast of the ill-fated French Queen, Marie-Antoinette (other contenders include Madame de Pompadour); these stories are almost certainly apocryphal. These glasses are the best way of allowing flavours to develop and displaying the effervescence of the champagne, but the fizz will dissipate more easily because of the larger surface area.

Champagne ‘flutes’ first began to appear in the 1920s and have become the default contemporary choice. They are tall, slender and elegant, and designed to preserve the flavour and carbonation of the wine.

Tulip glasses began to appear in the 1930s and offer an excellent compromise. Similar in design to the flute, they have a broader, rounder middle and a narrow top, which helps to funnel the aromas which develop inside the wider bowl towards the nose and ensures that the bubbles do not escape.

In all cases, the glass should be held by the pinching the top of the stem between your thumb and forefinger which ensures that your hands do not warm the champagne.

Delicious Champagne Cocktails

•Kir Royale
Add one measure of crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) into a flute and then top with champagne. Garnish with a fresh blackberry or raspberries.

•Peach Bellini
Add approximately one finger’s depth of peach purée to a flute and then top with champagne. A slice of fresh peach makes the perfect garnish.

•Mimosa
Also known as a Buck’s Fizz, this is a combination of champagne and orange juice. It’s a refreshing drink, popular at brunch, that can be mixed to your taste.

Are Table Manners Old-Fashioned?

Recent research into table manners has caused something of a storm. Findings seem to indicate that 60 per cent of Generation Z (12–27-year-olds) believe ‘traditional’ table manners are no longer relevant; other age groups are not far behind, with 54 per cent believing manners are outdated.

High-ranking irritants include chewing loudly, using the phone at the table, taking food off other people’s plates and including pets at the dining table, yet many of those polled admitted that they answered calls and texts at dinner. ‘Old-fashioned’ pleas to keep elbows off the table or wait until everyone is served before starting to eat, were seen as increasingly pointless. Respondents felt that good food and good conversation were the main priority.

Traditional Manners

The etiquette of the dinner-table should be mastered by all who aspire to the entrée of good society. Ease, savoir-faire, and good breeding are nowhere more indispensable than at the dinner-table, and the absence of them is nowhere more apparent. How to eat soup and what to do with a cherry-stone are weighty considerations when taken as the index of social status; and it is not too much to say, that a young woman who elected to take claret with her fish or eat peas with her knife would justly risk the punishment of being banished from good society.”

Dunbar’s Complete Handbook of Etiquette, 1884

The unwavering Victorian supposition that a guest who is lacking the myriad refinements of table manners considered to be indispensable is therefore unworthy of “good society” and hence seen as something of a social outcast now sounds irredeemably old-fashioned. The ideal of impeccable table manners has gradually evaporated over the intervening century and table manners today are very much a reflection of a more relaxed and democratic society.

It is certainly no longer a guarantee of social death to use the wrong fork, tilt the plate in the wrong direction or hold a wine glass by the bowl. It would be wrong to conclude, however, that table manners have effectively disappeared – they are still important.

Contemporary Manners

Our manners are to some extent being moulded by a change in our diet. The Victorians did not have to contend with the vast range of foods that we now consume; pizzas, bowls of ramen, sushi, and so on all present different dining challenges. Many of us are adept users of chopsticks and use our fingers to eat pizza or mop up curry sauce with naan bread.  We use upturned forks on their own to eat rice dishes. We have adopted dining manners from different cuisines, and in many cases, it is a practical option to do so.

It was notable, even in a survey that highlighted a growing disregard for table manners, that certain behaviour was still considered irritating, and a half of the Gen Z respondents admitted that they had recently been ‘unsatisfied’ with fellow-diners’ etiquette. Bad table manners apparently still have the power to offend.

While it would certainly be rare today for a child to be schooled in the various functions of different cutlery, accepted practices for napkin-wielding, cruet-usage and finger-bowl deployment, basic table manners (see below) are certainly still a social skill that should be taught to young children and will stand them in good stead in adulthood.

The aim of good table manners is not to cause offence to your fellow diners. You should appear to be someone who is enjoying the meal as a social, as well as a gastronomic occasion, so you should do your best not to appear greedy or voracious.  If your table manners are noticeable, it is generally a bad sign (unless, of course, your etiquette is outstandingly impeccable).

Basic Table Manners

So, the focus should be on the following:

•Put your phone away and mute it.

Don’t look at it until the meal is finished. Try and accept that a shared meal is about face-to-face socialising, which must be prioritised, and curb any compulsion to keep checking your phone.

•Try and sit up straight and try and keep your elbows off the table when you’re eating

Many respondents to the survey felt that this advice was increasingly irrelevant, but it is simply positive body language to look alert and upright when you’re eating, rather than slouching and sprawling across the table, which looks like you can’t be bothered.

•Look after other people before you help yourself

This means passing serving dishes, condiments, butter, water, and so on. Never stretch across other people to reach a plate, always politely ask for it to be passed to you. If you follow this advice, you will never look greedy or self-obsessed.

•Wait for other diners

As a general rule, do not start before everyone has been served, so look around and take a lead from others. An exception may be if it is a large party and the host asks people to start, as the food may get cold. Or you may find that service is staggered in a restaurant; just ask “do you mind if I start?”.

•Never eat with your mouth open or talk with your mouth full

It is fine to carry on eating during a conversation – if you’ve just taken a mouthful when someone asks you a question, you can just nod, indicate your mouth is full and wait a few moments before speaking.

•Never eat audibly

Try to avoid making noises of any kind while eating, either with implements against the plate or teeth, or with the actual ingestion of the food, such as slurping soup. Avoid washing mouthfuls of food down with noisy gulps of water.

•Pace yourself

Try not to bolt your food, which looks greedy and unappreciative, and match your pace with fellow-diners.

•Don’t double-dip

There are dishes where dipping is part of the way of eating the food, such as satay or crudités. Never bite the vegetable and then re-dip – many people will see double-dipping as unhygienic.

•Polite refusals

If you’re offered an unwanted second helping a simple “no thank you” covers most situations. There’s no need to say “I’m full” – if you want to soften your refusal a compliment such as “that was delicious” will go a long way.

Top: Dinner at Haddo House, 1884, by Alfred Edward Emslie (d. 1918)

Best Man Briefing

To be offered the role of best man (or woman, which is a non-traditional and increasingly popular choice) is a great compliment and if you are ask you should feel deeply flattered. But bear in mind that it is an important undertaking, which requires organisational skills, reliability, charm and deep reserves of tact and diplomacy. If you feel you are deficient in these qualities, think carefully about making the commitment to take on the role.

It is the job of the groom to warn potential best men of any sensitivities or difficult family situations when he first asks him to take on the role. If the best man understands that he may be walking on eggshells he will be better able to make an informed decision about accepting the role.

The fundamental requirement of the role is for the best man to ensure discreetly and efficiently that everything is running to plan. If there is a crisis or a mishap, or if things don’t run smoothly to plan, he will be the first point of contact.

It may be helpful for potential best men to understand all the possible ramifications and requirements of the role. The best man is referred to throughout, but all these points would be equally applicable to a best woman:

Before the Wedding Day

•Organise a stag night or weekend, preferably several weeks before the wedding day to ensure that the groom is not incapacitated on the big day. This can be quite a major organisational undertaking. In the first instance, the best man must make an informed choice about what activities/destinations would best suit the groom. He will then need to assemble a guest list and enter on the complex, and possibly drawn-out task of ensuring that the guests’ diaries align. He will need to create a detailed budget for proceedings, and costs – which should be fully explained – will be shared equally amongst the guests. Moreover, he will have to organise proceedings (booking a hotel or restaurant, organising flights for a European city break etc).

•If ushers are going to be used, it is the best man’s responsibility to liaise with them and ensure that they have the correct clothes and an understanding of their duties on the day.

•It is traditional for the best man to meet up with the parents of both the bride and groom, as well as the bridesmaids, before the day.

•It is imperative that the best man visits the venues for both the ceremony and the reception, assesses any potential problems or complications, and is familiar with them.

•He must also attend the rehearsal.

On the Wedding Day

•Conventionally, the best man stayed with the groom on the night before the wedding. This is by no means a hard and fast rule, but even if he stays elsewhere, he must ensure that he is with the groom bright and early, ready to check that he has everything he needs (eg rings) and is not suffering from last-minute panic or nerves.

•He is expected to accompany the groom to the ceremony venue, ensuring that he arrives at least 45 minutes before the start of the proceedings. Good timekeeping is of the essence throughout the day.

•On arrival at the venue, it is wise to check that reserved seating for the bride’s and groom’s families has been correctly allocated (remembering to include parents of baby bridesmaids and pageboys).

•As the guests begin to arrive, he may find it congenial to stand outside with the ushers and welcome them. It is his job to keep an eye on the seating of the guests (even if ushers are actually showing guests to their seats) so that he can avert any potential problems.

•He should be sure to take up his position next to the groom before the arrival of the bride.

•During the ceremony he may be required to hand over the rings at the critical moment. He will certainly be required to join the bridal party in the vestry (in a church), or at the register for the signing of the marriage certificate. At the end of the ceremony, he will accompany the chief bridesmaid down the aisle immediately behind the bride and groom.

•Once outside the ceremony venue, it is his job to oversee the whole process of photography, if necessary liaising with the photographer and helping him/her to organise the bridal party for the formal photographs, as well as rallying all the guests together for group shots.

•Once photographs have been completed, he must then usher the newly-married couple to the wedding car if the reception is taking place in a different venue. He must then ensure that the rest of the wedding party have all been guided to the correct cars and, if necessary, offer advice and directions to the rest of the guests.

•At this point he should call the caterers to notify them that everyone is on their way to the reception.

•On arriving at the venue, he should act very much like a co-host. The bride and groom may be feeling overcome by proceedings and are likely to find hosting duties onerous, so it is the job of the best man and chief bridesmaid to circulate amongst the guests, making introductions, and ensuring that everyone is catered for (eg looking after elderly relatives and parents with young children).

•The big moment of the day is the delivery of his speech: for many best man candidates this is a daunting ordeal. Click here to see our advice on best man’s speeches.

•Towards the end of proceedings, depending on the honeymoon plans of the couple, he may have to ensure that luggage and travel documents have all been loaded into the appropriate going-away car. If there is an appetite to decorate the car, then he should supervise the proceedings (usually enthusiastically undertaken by ushers and bridesmaids).

•He will need to stay to the end of the reception, ensuring that all the guests have found their way to cars, hotels or taxis, and sorting out any last-minute glitches.

This list of a best man’s duties covers the main areas of responsibility, and of course will be shaped by the style of the wedding, the number of guests, the complexity of family relationships, the scope and ambition of the celebrations. Suffice to say, the best man’s role on the big day is pivotal and should never be undertaken lightly.

Click here to purchase Debrett's Wedding Handbook

A Warm Welcome

When somebody comes to your home or office, it is a basic tenet of hospitality to offer them a drink (tea, coffee, glass of water etc). This is a fundamental social transaction, which has very long antecedents. The obligation to offer hospitality to travellers and strangers was a simple act of humanity at a time when journeys were long and hazardous and facilities for travellers were severely limited or non-existent. It was seen as a moral obligation, and it went without saying that visitors would be paid the same compliment.

It may seem an obvious gesture, when someone comes to your house, to offer them a cup of tea or a glass of water as soon as they arrive – it signals that they are welcome in your home in the clearest possible way – but it is all too often forgotten. In the flurry of arrivals, especially if the visitor is unexpected, some of us overlook this gesture, creating an awkward hiatus, which may make visitors feel as if they are imposing on hosts. Make it a rule to always do the following when visitors, whether they are expected or unexpected, comes to your home:

•Open the door wide to indicate they are welcome – no peeping defensively around a barely open door.

•Usher them over the threshold and take their coats – this signals that you are expecting them to stay, and you are not going to hustle them away.

•Make sure that they are comfortably seated – all too often, hosts and visitors stand awkwardly in the hallway, creating an uncomfortable feeling of transitoriness. Guests will interpret this limbo as a signal that the host does not really want them to stay.

•Once they are seated, offer them drinks – in the UK the offer of a cup of tea is a universal failsafe, and these days it is the norm to also offer an alternative of coffee. If guests have turned up in the late afternoon/early evening an alcoholic beverage (eg a glass of wine) is a suitable alternative.

Guests should also seal the deal by accepting offers of drinks if possible. Even if they have no interest in tea or coffee, just asking for a glass of water will reassure the host and give them something to proffer.

“Pop-ins”

Some people are inveterate fans of the “pop-in”, when they ring on your doorbell on the off-chance that you’re in. This is often the way in which neighbours interact, especially if there is a pressing issue (rubbish collections, tree surgery, fallen fences etc) that needs to be addressed.

If you are just popping in, decide whether your visit is a brief and business-like transaction or an actual social visit. If it is the former, announce it at the outset: “I won’t come in, I just wanted to ask you about the recycling bins”. Stick to your agenda and don’t loiter awkwardly on the doorstep.

If it is the latter, react positively when you are invited in, but check first: “are you sure now is a good time? I’m not inconveniencing you?” etc. Be alert to any signs of hesitation on the part of your host and downgrade your visit (“I’ll just come in for five minutes”) accordingly. Politely refuse offers of drinks and stick to your promise – keep an eye on the clock and don’t outstay your welcome.

Workmen

Many people will come to your home who are not friends or neighbours: builders, gardeners, broadband engineers, electricians, plumbers. Make it a simple rule that, if their visit is going to last longer than five or ten minutes, you politely offer them a drink. In many cases they will refuse, but they will certainly appreciate the offer.

If you have builders in the house for the long haul, you may feel that you are on permanent tea duty. Try and grin and bear it, as your hospitality may well reap rewards; the builders will be better disposed towards you and might go the extra mile.

Offices

These simple rules of welcome hospitality apply to offices as well as homes. If somebody comes to your office, whether they are an important client, a colleague or an interview candidate, it is always a good idea to offer them a drink on arrival, show them to a seat and take their coat. This social transaction will make visitors feel welcome, will break the ice and may well build trust.

Some offices formalise these hospitality arrangements. For example, they make drink-offering part of the reception teams’ duties, or they request that PAs and office juniors are responsible for hospitality. However, offering and making drinks doesn’t need to be about asserting an office hierarchy: in more democratic environments, colleagues are cooperative and will offer to make drinks when one of their co-workers is “hosting”, allowing them to focus on the visitor, rather than the kettle.

Thoroughly Modern Manners

When Debrett’s first started publishing in the 18th century, etiquette codes were complex and prescriptive. Knowledge of how to behave was a precious social asset, a passport to the most elevated drawing rooms in the land and a guarantee of respectable social status. Etiquette guides were widely distributed to young ladies and gentlemen as they stood on the brink of adulthood, and they were advised to take careful note of the advice they contained.

To deviate from these codified norms of behaviour guaranteed standing out for all the wrong reasons: an inability to recognise complex conventions of respect to elders and betters, a display of ineptitude at the dining table, a risqué anecdote or an over-bold demeanour could all condemn a social aspirant to calumny. Once the pillars of society had identified these transgressions, perpetrators became social outcasts, who were not invited to the best homes and, most damagingly of all, were not allowed to marry into the best families.

Our society has changed in so many fundamental ways. While the remnants of these codes of behaviour still exist, they are for the most part seen as dispensable, only to respected and adhered to on the most formal of occasions. Ignorance of such arcane knowledge is no longer a form of social suicide: formal manners can be acquired if necessary and, if they are lacking, nobody will be roundly condemned for their deficiency. When once a code of good behaviour was wielded as a weapon designed to protect the upper classes, wrapping them in a bubble of respect and ritual, good manners are now seen as a much more pragmatic asset, which is open to all comers.

Debrett’s first published the A to Z of Modern Manners in 2008, largely as a response to the ways in which society was obviously changing. A new digital age had dawned and we were all trying to come to grips with a range of new challenges, from mobile phones and online dating to civil partnerships and plastic surgery. At the same time, we wrestled with all too familiar etiquette minefields, from chivalry and christenings to oysters and port etiquette.

Over the intervening years, the entries have changed with the times. We have become less transfixed by conventional dilemmas (challenging foods, confusing cutlery, rituals such as christenings, traditional wording of invitations), though we still do our best to address pressing questions of ‘good form’ (how to tie a bow tie, what you should wear to a funeral). In addition, we find ourselves increasingly looking at the way in which changing times impact on behaviour, constantly throwing up new etiquette challenges.

In 2008 we would not have considered addressing topics such as ghosting, humblebragging or virtue signalling. But all these behaviours have emerged from a world of instant communication and social media, where lives are lived online and we have learnt to curate, and safeguard, our own digital personas.

Our methods of communication have changed immeasurably: not only do we all have mobile phones, but the way we use these handy devices has changed fundamentally over the last decade. We tend to eschew phone calls in favour of texts, we enjoy group chats, and increasingly ignore voicemails. We are riveted by our phones, fiddle with them compulsively, even when we’re walking down the street, jeopardising other people’s safety, and causing much resentment when we seem to prefer phones over people.

We find ourselves confronted with a host of persistent social challenges, from bullying, boasting and gloating to manspreading, multitasking and oversharing. Post-Covid, we are wrestling with hybrid working and video calls and many of us have become digital nomads. Theatre and cinema audiences are becoming ever rowdier, tending to treat these public spaces much like their own homes. Even electric vehicles are bringing their own etiquette dilemmas.

Despite all these changes, there are still recognisable traits that define us, from stiff upper lips and reticence to discretion and self-deprecation. These are all familiar British characteristics, which have been eroded over the last decades, and to some extent repudiated, but they remain surprisingly resilient and have evolved in interesting ways.

We hope that the latest edition of the A-Z of Modern Manners will reflect all these transformations and provide some guidance to help us navigate our way through a volatile social landscape. We have learned that manners are no longer fixed and immutable, but are dynamic and adaptable, constantly being tested and updated to cope with fundamental changes.

Underpinning it all is a recognition that, no matter how much the trappings of social life change, the fundamentals remain the same. Good manners are about being aware of your environment, and observant about the people around you. Well-mannered people like to put others’ comfort ahead of their own, to set other people at their ease, making the world feel a more civilised, friendly and calm place. Everyday politeness is a vital ingredient in the cocktail of manners that makes the world a better place; somewhere basic survival is finessed into a more subtle pleasure.

Click here to purchase your copy of the Revised Edition of the A-Z of Modern Manners

A Green Light for Beards

The British army has announced that soldiers will be allowed to wear beards, as long as they are kept neat and properly groomed. This is the last bastion of the British forces to allow facial hair: the RAF changed their policy in 2019, and beards were always allowed in the Royal Navy. The Army finally succumbed to the facial hair question after a long review; given the popularity of beards, it was probably felt that a new policy might help them to attract new recruits.

A message to troops over the Easter break stipulated that beards must be 2.5mm–25.5 long and trimmed off the cheekbones and neck. No “patchy or uneven growth” or “exaggerated colours” are allowed.

The whole beard question is closely tied up with the military. In the early 18th and early 19th centuries it was de rigueur to be clean-shaven and beards were seen as a sign of poverty. Middle- and upper-class men relied on barbers for their grooming regime, visiting a barber’s shop two or three times a week, or paying a barber to visit them in their homes. The Victorian vogue for facial hair arose when the returning heroes of the Crimean War came home with bristling moustaches, bushy side-whiskers and luxuriant beards, which instantly became a macho fashion statement. By 1860 moustaches were compulsory in the British Army and beards were frequently sported.

Beards, however, were seen as nests of bacteria and germs and a further blow was dealt in World War I, when it was discovered that facial hair prevented gas masks from forming an airtight seal. Since 1916 beards were banned (with some exceptions) by the British Army, while moustaches only were allowed in the Army, Marines and RAF.

Members of the royal family, who are expected to wear uniform on ceremonial occasions even when they are long-retired from service, did occasionally wear beards with Army, Marines and RAF uniforms (eg King Edward VII, George VI, Prince Harry), when it was an exception from the normal rules.

Beard Etiquette

While it is more straightforward to look smart and well-groomed if you have no facial hair, as long as a beard is kept well trimmed it is perfectly acceptable. Use clippers to keep the beard neat and tidy and ensure that there is no hair on your neck, just on the underside of your jaw above your Adam’s apple.

Resist the temptation to treat your facial hair like topiary, and the urge to create complex beard sculptures. While they may certainly be striking, many people will find the hours clearly lavished on your facial hair an off-putting sign of vanity.

Designer stubble, which does not require the full commitment of the beard, has become hugely popular. This may well be because in the last few years the world of strait-laced offices, high-powered meetings, business lunches (and the smart appearance required) has been superseded by a more relaxed, hybrid working model, based on the virtual world of video calls. Men have become relaxed about the perceived necessity to shave every day and have chosen to shave less regularly – however, they should bear in mind that stubble requires regular maintenance, especially if they are going to be subject to the close and unforgiving scrutiny of their colleagues on regular Zoom calls. They will have to use an electric beard trimmer to define the shape of their stubble on their cheek and neck area and use a razor to eradicate stray hairs. 

It goes without saying that beards must be kept spotlessly clean, so use shampoo 2-3 times a week and pat dry with a towel. Beard oil will keep your facial hair in good condition and use a beard comb on longer beards to ensure that they are neat.

Whether you’re sporting a full bushy beard or designer stubble, try not to be self-conscious about your facial hair. It is tempting to fiddle with your beard or stroke it pensively, and there is a danger that this will become a compulsive and irritating habit. Train yourself to leave your beard well alone.

Easter Entertaining

Children love the Easter iconography of lambs, baby rabbits and chickens and enjoy making hand-crafted Easter cards and decorating their own eggs. And of course there is always the chocolate…

Cruising the laden aisles of supermarkets, Easter may seem like a very secular feast, but it is in fact a Christian holiday with ancient pagan origins. It was named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess, Eostre or Ostara, who symbolised fertility, dawn and light and was honoured at pagan festivals celebrating the arrival of spring, and these pagan traditions were eventually blended into Christian holidays. The date of Easter Sunday changes each year because it is linked to the lunar calendar. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the full moon that takes on or after 21 March, the start of spring.

This year the annual Easter holiday falls early, on the last weekend of March, when the clocks also go forward, ushering in six months of British summer time. An early Easter can provide challenges to even the most optimistic amongst us: the weather is fickle, and sometimes downright unpleasant, at this time of year. Leaden grey skies, blustery winds and heavy rain can make spring feel a very distant prospect, and bedraggled and battered spring flowers and soggy blossom can present a somewhat discouraging prospect.

But we should not despair: the seasons really are turning and the days are getting longer. The important thing is to make Easter plans that will accommodate changeable weather and are flexible enough to ensure that everybody is able to have a good time. 

Bring Spring Inside

Even if the weather outside is dreary you can still make your house look festive and spring-like. Florists offer a profusion of inexpensive spring flowers at this time of year and potted hyacinths, tulips and other spring bulbs will thrive indoors.

Decorate your lunch table with sprigs of blossom, catkins and spring greenery and – if you’re having friends to stay – brighten up the guest room with a posy of spring anemones or a bunch of daffodils or narcissi.

Lay on an Easter Lunch

Whether you’re catering for your family, or hosting a large group of friends, make a special Easter lunch. The tradition of eating lamb at Easter is bound up in Jewish and Christian beliefs and symbolism and is a widespread convention. A roast leg of lamb with all the trimmings is certainly a traditional Easter meal but you will need to think carefully about your guests and their various dietary requirements. As well as vegetarians and vegans, many people opt not to eat red meat, so you might have to contemplate an Easter spread that accommodates a wider range of options. It’s always a good idea to check this out beforehand so you can be prepared for every requirement.

Easter guests should not turn up empty-handed: now is the time to bring gifts of spring flowers or a beautiful potted plant, which will reflect the fact that you’re celebrating a new season and new beginnings.

Indulge in Chocolate

The egg is a symbol of life and rebirth and the tradition of giving eggs at Easter time can be traced back to Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Gauls. In the medieval period eating eggs was forbidden during the 40-day fasting period of Lent, so Easter Sunday – the day on which the fast ended – was greeted with feasting and merriment, and eggs were very popular amongst poorer people who couldn’t afford meat.

Chocolate Easter eggs date back to Victorian times; they were launched by Fry and Cadbury in the 1870s and were embraced with enthusiasm. Today, Easter sales make up for 10 per cent of all the chocolate consumption in the UK.

While most of us have not been undergoing a rigorous Lenten fast, the annual orgy of chocolate-eating indulgence is very much a sign that the long, dreary days of winter are over. Easter hosts should certainly ensure that they are well supplied with chocolate treats – eggs for the children and more sophisticated choices and chocolate-based desserts for the adults.

Bear in mind, however, that not everybody has a sweet tooth and that some people will be trying hard to resist the chocolate temptations because they are watching their weight or have a health issue. It is therefore important to ensure that you have alternatives: a delicious selection of cheese and biscuits and a well-stocked fruit bowl will ensure that chocolate refuseniks don’t feel left out.

Make Contingency Plans

An Easter egg hunt – preferably outside in the garden – is an excellent way of keeping children entertained and it will ensure that they are given plenty of opportunity to run around and burn off some of the energy and excitement that often accompanies over-indulgence in chocolate. All you will need is plenty of small, wrapped Easter eggs and a basket or bowl for each child so they can stow their booty. Older children will love responding to written clues, especially rhyming couplets or terrible puns. You can write them on coloured cards and tape them to trees or walls.

If Easter Sunday is wet, be prepared to bring the whole hunt indoors. Eggs can be concealed around the house and children will still enjoy the treasure hunt.

But beware: if you’ve got a full house, and especially if you’re entertaining older relatives, you might find your guests are somewhat frazzled by a stampede of hyped-up, hysterical children, who are high on chocolate.  It is always a good idea to make one room out of bounds to egg-hunters and excited children and to create an oasis of civilised calm.

Get Out and About

At this time of year weather forecasts are a confusing jumble of sunshine and showers. So make sure you’re ready to take advantage of sunny interludes and get out and about with guests and children. A countryside walk and a visit to a pub or a trip to your local park will blow away the Easter cobwebs and burn off the excess calories.

Just remember, if you are an Easter host, that you must not act like a bossy sergeant major, dictating plans and marshalling your guests with scant regard for their wishes. You might feel that a bracing walk is an excellent idea, but not everybody will share your enthusiasm, so canvas opinions and make tentative suggestions. Always offer alternative options for guests: you could float the idea of a walk, but also suggest a visit to a local garden or stately home. You’ll soon be able to detect your guests’ true preferences and act accordingly.

Finally, remember that Easter is also a religious festival, and it is therefore important, whatever your beliefs, to accommodate other people’s wishes. This might mean making arrangements for guests to attend a church service on Sunday, or explaining to your guests that you will be going to church and, if they wish, they are welcome to accompany you. Guests should never be pressurised to conform to your own choices.

Nervous Habits

There are many ways in which we can display our stress, frustration or discomfort when we are interacting with other people. We may feel we are handling a difficult situation with ease and aplomb, but all the time a jiggling leg is betraying our inner turmoil.

Fiddling and fidgeting can undermine the persona you are trying to project and can transmit your own feelings of discomfort to other people. How do you control your own nervous tics and what do you do if another person’s irritating habits are driving you mad? We’ve taken a look at three common problems:

Nail Biting

We refer to perilous situations as “nail-biting”, ie causing great anxiety and tension, so there is little doubt that a tendency to gnaw at your nails and cuticles communicates nervousness. This compulsive behaviour may well be a reaction to anxiety, stress or boredom, and the first step towards eliminating it is to identify situations in which nail biting occurs, focusing on the emotions that are prevalent at these times. Once you have identified which scenarios send you into nail biting overdrive, you might be able to modify these situations. Most importantly of all, you will be beginning to monitor your own behaviour and it is important, if you are really going to kick the habit, to be extremely self-conscious and self-aware about your behaviour.

If you are tending to bite your nails because of stress or negative emotions, you might find it helps to find other ways of occupying your hands – twirling your pencil, tapping your finger and thumb together, clasping your hands and rotating your thumbs etc. All these habits are much less intrusive and will not communicate the same level of anxiety to other people.

Another approach is to make the whole process uncomfortable. Keep your nails short (they will offer less temptation), or invest in a regular manicure, which will mean you are less willing to ruin something you have paid good money to maintain. There are various nail polishes available which have a bitter taste – a foul taste in your mouth may prove to be a powerful disincentive.

The important thing to remember is that nail biting is a highly visible nervous habit, which may also leave an unsightly aftermath of chewed and inflamed cuticles and ragged fingernails. Other people will be uncomfortably aware of your nail biting and this is particularly so in an era when many of us interact through video calls, which tend to magnify nervous habits and tics because they force people to focus, without other distractions, on your face.

If you have a friend, relation or partner who is a compulsive nail biter what should you do? Nagging someone about an unfortunate personal habit may well increase the negative feelings that propel the behaviour, so tread with care. Registering, as tactfully as possible, that there is a problem is a good starting point, and it is often easier to do this if you are talking about a third-party situation, rather than your own revulsion. So if, for example, a nail biter is preparing for an important job interview, it would be helpful to point out that you know they have a tendency to bite their nails when they’re nervous and it would be a good idea to find a way of controlling the compulsion. In this scenario, you are offering useful advice rather than airing your own frustration.

Hair Twirling

Fiddling with your hair, twirling it around your fingers, scrutinising split ends, stroking… these common habits are all self-soothing behaviour, a reaction to stress or boredom. In the case of hair twirling, there may also be an element of flirtation, of drawing the eye towards an attractive physical characteristic, or the habit might be revealing a sense of anxiety about your appearance. On the face of it, this is a relatively innocuous habit; but it can mutate into a compulsion and can eventually lead to damage to the hair and scalp, especially when fiddling with the hair turns into pulling it out.

As with nail biting, the solution is to identify the problem, and to be self-aware about the occasions when it takes over. Again, it is a highly visible nervous habit, especially in the era of video communication and other people may well find it both distracting and disturbing.

If you do identify yourself as a hair twirler, you should recognise that your habit is communicating feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem. These are not attributes that you want to convey to the rest of the world, especially in a job interview or at an important meeting. Women with long hair might take the simple precaution, in these situations, of tying their hair back or fixing it in a tight bun to avoid easy temptation.

Mentioning the habit to a hair twirling friend is awkward, but at least in this instance you can encase any criticism in a compliment, by saying something like “you’ve got really lovely hair, but if you keep touching it, it makes you look nervous”.

Leg Jiggling

Compulsive foot tapping or knee jiggling is a very prevalent nervous habit. It can communicate high levels of energy and restlessness, which many onlookers will interpret as impatience. Alternatively, it is yet another way of relieving stress and nervous anxiety.

Shuddering limbs may be concealed beneath a table or desk, apparently making this a less visible nervous habit, but this compulsive movement can be so fast and intense that it sets up vibrations, or is audible, and therefore communicates itself, irritatingly, to other people.

It has been theorised that when we are anxious, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol build up in the body. The body prepares itself to deal with the stress with a “fight or flight” response, which means it is flooded with excess energy, which is discharged through, amongst other things, leg jiggling.

This habit will not cause you long-term physical harm, but it is certainly a good idea to acknowledge it, and to try and assess what is setting your leg off. Calming yourself down through breathing exercises or other self-soothing behaviour, or even getting up from a sedentary position, walking around and discharging some of that excess energy will all help. A regular exercise regime is also an excellent way of controlling energy levels.

If someone’s leg bouncing is driving you mad, it’s probably a good idea to point it out. You can do so good natured and humorous way –“Did you know your leg is going up and down like a piston? My whole desk is shaking!”, rather than waiting until you feel like screaming at the offender.  Alternatively, you could directly, and compassionately, question them about their stress: “are you okay about that deadline? It’s just that I’ve noticed that your leg’s been jiggling all morning”, which is a good way of alerting them to the habit. A more oblique approach is to suggest that they do something physical – make you a cup of tea, take a lunch break, take out the dirty dishes etc – just as a way of breaking the cycle.

Ultimately, you may just have to leave the room, or move desks. As with all these nervous habits, stopping the behaviour is only possible when the person responsible is aware of their compulsion and conscious of the impact it is having on other people, and that can be a long journey.

Best Bridesmaids

A bride may have one or six bridesmaids at her choice. No particular number being fixed, it is often determined by the number of sisters, or of intimate friends, she may have. The bridesmaids should be dressed in white, and all alike, and may wear orange-flower bouquets; they should avoid dressing like brides, which is out of place.”
Beeton’s Manners of Polite Society, 1876

The Victorian idea of suitable bridesmaids was straightforward and prescriptive. White dresses and orange-flower bouquets were the order of the day and there was no room for argument.

Today, we have elaborated and liberalised the whole wedding ritual, and we are free to select and deploy bridesmaids as we see fit. At best, they will enhance the day, provide assistance, emotional support and encouragement to a nervous bride, and will act as willing ambassadors during the post-wedding celebrations, circulating, making introductions and ensuring that all the guests are looked after. They should also take responsibility for organising the hen night.

However, if the bride is temperamental and self-involved, with unshakeable notions about how her own ‘big day’ should be organised, bridesmaids may find themselves in the firing line. The most obvious risk is that they will be shoehorned into a themed look, squeezed into unsuitable and unflattering dresses, and made to wear uncomfortable shoes. They may spend the day feeling self-conscious and out of sorts and may even become suspicious that their own shortcomings are only serving to make the bride look much more attractive.

If you are organising your wedding, bear the following considerations in mind:

Bridesmaids’ Dresses

Sophisticated and elegant, bridesmaids should complement the bride but in no way draw attention away from her. Brides should choose bridesmaids’ outfits that will flatter all figures: a sensible option is to dress the bridesmaids in various styles made in identical material. Creativity can be combined with tradition to create an individual, memorable look.

Of course, the choice of dress should reflect the style of the wedding: long evening gowns are customary for traditional elegance, but shorter styles are also a practical option. Dresses can be adjusted, and the hem shortened, after the wedding if the bridesmaid wishes to wear it again. The choice of colour should fit in with the bride’s dress and flowers: bear in mind that certain colours are more likely to suit all skin tones and hair colours: purple, teal, dove grey, soft white.

Buying bridesmaids’ dresses from a specialist shop can be an extremely expensive outlay, although it is an excellent way of getting ideas and inspiration. If you plan long enough ahead, you can commission dresses from a good dressmaker, though bear in mind that each bridesmaid would have to be available for several fittings and allow six months from start to finish. If you take along pictures from magazines, or even a dress that a member of the bridal party already owns and would like copied, a competent dressmaker should be able to take care of the entire procedure.

Beautiful and affordable dresses can also be found on the high street. Traditionally, the bride’s family would pay but this is no longer to be expected. An adult bridesmaid may wish to pay for her own outfit, especially if she is not being railroaded into buying a dress she does not want and feels that she will be able to wear it on other occasions.

Flowers

Bouquets should be understated and simple, perhaps hand-tied singles or small bouquets. A basic version of the bride’s bouquet is a safe option, or the bouquet can coordinate with the bride’s dress and bouquet.

Shoes

Bridesmaids spend much of the day on their feet, so comfort is an important consideration. Shoes can be dyed to match dresses. If bridesmaids are different heights, heels can be varied to create a balanced group, but this should be done rationally – it is quite unfair to ask a petite bridesmaid to spend the day in cripplingly high heels, just because she looks incongruous next to a 6-foot Amazon in the group photographs.

Hair

Within reason, it is conventional for the bridesmaids’ hair to coordinate with the bride’s. So, if she is wearing an ‘up-do’, long-haired bridesmaids should follow suit. Matching hair clips, flowers or slides can also help to create a uniform look.

Baby Bridesmaids

If little girls already own a party dress or bridesmaid’s dress that matches the outfits of the bridal party, it is perfectly acceptable for them to wear this. A ballerina-length skirt with a high waist will suit small girls, ankle or mid-calf length can be a good choice for girls aged five and above. Fabrics should complement the bride’s dress – silk, satin, organza and chiffon are the most popular choices. Natural fabrics can be dyed after the event and turned into party dresses.

Ballet shoes or pumps with rubber shoes prevent slipping on wet days. Elastic across the top or ribbons around the ankles will prevent shoes from falling off.

Either the bride, her family or the parents of the bridesmaid may pay the bill. Sometimes the cost is shared: where a dressmaker is used, the parents might pay for the fabric and the bride for the making up.

Getting children to carry flowers and remember to keep hold of them can be tricky, so a pomander with a ribbon around it, attached to the wrist, is a safe choice for girls. Alternatively, a small basket containing flowers or petals that reflect the bride’s bouquet or church flowers can look good. Flowers can also be worn in the hair or fixed to a slide or Alice band – slides and flowers tend to slip out of clean hair so wash the child’s hair the day before.

Managing Expectations

Brides should focus on the emotional support that bridesmaids can supply and relish the opportunity to share a joyous experience with their closest friends. Becoming over-fixated on the overall appearance of the bridal party, and over-preoccupied with how the bridesmaids will appear in photographs will certainly taint the experience. If you are a bride that is prone to being a bit of a control freak, it might be more sensible to concentrate on the inanimate aspects of the day, such as the flowers, table arrangements, setting, music etc, which are tractable, rather than trying to impose your own very specific aspirations on a disparate, and quite possibly non-cooperative, group of friends.

That said, it is important to remember that agreeing to become a bridesmaid is, first and foremost, an act of friendship. Inevitably, you will be forfeiting a sense of agency and will be consenting to, within reason, go along with your friend’s wishes, because you want to make her happy. Remember that, ultimately the wedding is about her, not you. Even if you loathe the dress you’ve been allocated and feel frumpy and out of sorts, try not to be grumpy.  If you’re taking obvious pleasure in your friend’s big day and doing your utmost to ensure that it goes well, nobody is going to care about the dress…

Click here for Debrett's Wedding Handbook

Ten Hosting Faux Pas

Blunders and misjudgements are an inevitable part of entertaining, and you must accept that not every event will run smoothly. But with a little forethought and caution you should be able to avoid the most obvious mistakes.

We all know that having people round to dinner, even if it is an informal supper party, can be a stressful experience – every host wants their event to be memorable for all the right reasons (food, ambience, good conversation), rather than a notorious evening that has become the stuff of dinner party nightmares. If a host is feeling stressed about entertaining, it will communicate itself to the guests and may lead to an edgy evening. While some anxiety is to be expected, identifying the main potential pitfalls, and pre-empting them, will go a long way towards making the evening a success.

1. Alcohol Awareness

It is important that, as a host, you cater for all contingencies. If you are planning a boozy evening where the wine flows freely, you should not assume that all your guests will be joining in. Ensure that you have plentiful supplies of alcohol-free alternatives (sparkling mineral water, elderflower cordial, lime and soda) and take requests for soft drinks in your stride. Never interrogate guests about why they’re choosing not to drink – intrusive questions about health issues, addiction or pregnancy will go down like a lead balloon – and never try and persuade a teetotaller to drink alcohol.

2. Allergy Alert

Seeing one of your guests go into anaphylaxis because you carelessly forgot to check whether the cheese biscuits contained peanut traces is a social gaffe from which it is hard to recover. Obviously, a guest who is seriously allergic will alert you to the problem, but you must be rigorous in your screening of ingredients, especially if you blithely tell the allergic guest that the food is safe to eat.

3. Intolerance Tolerance

These days we’ve all become familiar with food intolerances. Guests who are, for example, lactose or gluten intolerant, will not suffer a full-blown allergic reaction but may find that the offending ingredients irritate the digestive system and cause discomfort. It is tempting, if you are blessed with a robust constitution, to be dismissive of a growing list of food intolerances, but good manners dictate that you take these issues seriously. Check with guests beforehand and if you unsure take the precaution of offering oat or almond milk or gluten-free alternatives.

4. Food Poisoning

No host wants to see guests running from the table, retching and clutching their stomachs. Poisoning your guest is probably the worst faux pas of all. Take some simple precautions: cook meat well and, if you really want to play safe, avoid shellfish and molluscs – if there’s just one bad one in the batch everybody’s life will be a misery. Remember you should only cook whole joints of meat rare; never leave burgers pink.

Practise basic food hygiene measures: wipe down surfaces and chopping boards with an antiseptic spray, keep food refrigerated, adhere to freezing and defrosting guidelines, never serve food beyond its sell-by date.

5. Inadequate Supplies

Realising that you’ve run out of booze or butter half-way through the evening and making a quick dash to the 24-hour supermarket is deeply discouraging. Your guests will be irritated by your disorganisation and may even feel insulted by your lack of forethought. Avoid this faux pas by making comprehensive shopping lists before the event. Always over-cater – it is hard to know how much your guests will eat and drink, and leftover food and extra drink will come in handy the following day when you really don’t feel like cooking.

6. Poor Timekeeping

It is important that you keep events running along smoothly and that you work out your timings well ahead. Leaving your guests with aperitifs and a handful of nuts for a couple of hours while you have a meltdown in the kitchen because the main course is still a work in progress is a real faux pas. Inevitably, hungry guests will drink too much, and tempers might become frayed as a result. By the time you serve the main course, your fine cuisine and excellent conversational skills may be of no account because your guests will be feeling too fractious to enjoy them. Always try and serve food within an hour of your guests’ arrival.

7. Drunk and Disorderly

Hosting an event can be stressful and it’s tempting to enjoy swigging the cooking wine as you stir your sauces. But it’s a real faux pas to get drunk before your guests arrive, and scarcely preferable to lose the plot during the evening.

As a host you’re in charge of the event and your cooking and entertaining will soon deteriorate if you hit the bottle. If you don’t want the evening to descend into anarchy drink moderately and alternate alcohol with water.

8. Guest Gaffes

While you may not wish your evening’s entertainment to be bland and boring, it’s risky to court controversy. So, take a long, hard look at your guest list beforehand.

Think carefully about inviting ex partners, estranged partners accompanied by their new love interest, people who have fallen out in the past, people at opposite ends of the political, cultural or religious spectrum. For example, an ardent atheist, paired with a crusading Christian, might get the sparks flying, but it may take all your social skills to keep the conflict light-hearted and entertaining. 

9. Do Unto Others…

If your guests arrive at an informal supper in full evening regalia, are horribly late and start swigging the lemon-scented water in the finger bowls and eating the outer leaves of the globe artichokes, what do you do?  It’s a real faux pas to comment on other people’s mistakes and misjudgements. Gloss over their errors, don’t make a fuss, and if the occasion demands embrace their errors yourself.

10. Stay the Course

Hosting a dinner party can be an exhausting business and you may well want to wrap it up early and take to your bed, but as the host it is your duty to take the lead from your guests. You will inevitably have to take the dirty dishes into the kitchen, but ostentatiously clearing the entire table, then clattering around at the sink or putting on the dishwasher is a real faux pas, since it clearly conveys your desire for your guests to be gone.

Try moving your guests into a different room or seating area for coffee and liqueurs: this will subtly signal that the end of the evening is approaching. If you find yourself stuck at an ungodly hour with an obstinate hanger-on, you need to take executive action: offering to order a taxi, proffering a spare bed, or simply announcing that you are going to bed.

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