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Tip #4: Navigating religious or cultural differences at holiday parties

Every family will have different ideas of what it means to be a great host or a respectful guest. While typical advice on how to be a gracious host or respectful visitor may work in one family, it could also land you on the “naughty” list in another depending on their religious or cultural beliefs.  If you want to host an amazing interfaith or cross-cultural holiday gathering, or are going to be a new guest for an in-law family dinner, follow these cross-cultural communication tips.


While the holiday season is filled with tradition, there can also be lots of new experiences too, like meeting your future in-laws for the very first time at their annual family gathering, or hosting your first Chrismukkah (combined Christmas/Hannukah event) with friends of both faiths, and an atheist or two thrown into the mix.

If you’re like most people, you want to be a respectful and pleasant guest or an amazing host, and you’ve landed on this page for some pointers.  Too often etiquette rules provide stale, one-size-fits-all approaches to navigating new relationships personally and professionally when you are hosting others or a new guest in someone’s home.

At The Bridging Principles™, we emphasize that every single person, family, and situation is unique, so we need principles, instead of hard and fast rules, to help guide us to be our most kind, gracious, and respectful host/guest selves!

In the last two blogs for our holiday series, we’ll be providing tips on how to be a great guest or host in cross-cultural or new familial situations. Your in-laws and friends of all faiths will be singing your praises!

Be curious and ask questions.

Whether you are hosting or going to be a guest, questions are your friend! Don’t assume that the people you will interact with have the same holiday traditions or ideas of appropriate behaviours. Differences could be obvious or more subtle, like religion, differing expectations of gender roles or the way food is prepared and served.

Are you going to be a guest at someone’s home for the first time? Prepare yourself to be the best kind of guest by asking the person who invited you (i.e. your boyfriend or a friend) some or all these questions:

“Is there anything I should know about how to be a respectful visitor with your family/group of friends?”

“Are there any traditions that usually happen at an event like this, and what is appropriate for me to do as a guest?”

“Who else will be attending, and is there anything I should or should not do when I greet them or talk with them?”

“Are there any specific cultural expectations of what guests are supposed to do or how they are supposed to behave?”

Are you planning to host the most epic holiday party of the season with some new guests?

Share your intent that you want them to have a wonderful experience at the gathering, and that you have a couple of questions you want to ask them to make sure it’s an awesome time for everyone. Then, ask this simple question of any new guests (preferably in advance of the party):

“Do you have any food restrictions or cultural/religious requirements you will need to attend to while at the party?”  For example, someone could need a quiet place to pray during the event, or you might have your very first vegan attending.

Everyone is an expert in their own needs, so if they say yes, listen to their specific needs or worries and ask a follow up question like: “How can I help make sure that it is easy and comfortable for you to meet those needs?”

Lastly, ask something like: “Is there anything else I should know or do that would help make this a great time for you? I am so excited you are coming to this party!”

Questions like this assure your guests that your intention is for them to have a great time, and you are open to learning more about what that might mean for them, specifically. People with special dietary needs, religious obligations, or other issues they need to attend to during your party will be very grateful that you took the time to ask and learn.


Share your sacred.

Especially during the holiday season, everyone has something that is sacred to them, and we can’t assume it will be the same as what is sacred to you. For example, you could be a devout Christian hosting your new son-in-law-to-be that is atheist, Hindu, or Muslim.

Even if you are hosting or being a guest with someone of the same cultural or religious background as yourself, every family has slightly or very different ways of celebrating that are sacred to them.

Whether you are a host or a guest, you can use this one question as a conversation starter that will deepen your relationship with just about anyone: 

“What holiday traditions do you do in your family or with friends that you love?” Their answers to this question will give you cues on what is important to them, and should inspire follow-up questions from you to understand more about who they are and how to be an awesome host or guest.

As a host, it is your job to guide your guests on what is most sacred to you in your home. This could mean something as simple as you need to guide them in where to sit around the table because you hate when someone sits in your favourite spot. Or, it could be that saying a prayer around the dinner table is important to you, but you know that it might make your atheist son-in-law who is visiting uncomfortable.

Take the time beforehand, or early on during the event, to share with your guests what is important to you and sacred to you during the holiday season.

If you know that some of the things that are sacred to you, might be uncomfortable to them, it’s okay talk about it. Consider for yourself where your boundaries are, and what you can accommodate. For example, if prayer is going to happen, but you know your guest doesn’t follow your faith, a simple solution to find a balance between both of your needs is to let them know this will be happening, and ask them what would make them most comfortable as guests in this situation. They may want to be in another room during the prayer time, or they may be fine with praying right along with you, if that’s appropriate.

Or, if you’re an atheist and you are hosting people of another faith, is it possible for you to accommodate some of their traditions, or create an appropriate space or time for it while also feeling safe and comfortable in your own home?

There are not always easy answers to these questions, but if your intent is to be a good host, and their intent is to be a good guest, a calm and thoughtful dialogue on how to meet both of your needs can result in some unexpected solutions that will help everyone feel valued and respected.

As a guest, you may need to strike a delicate balance between respecting the traditions of your hosts, and also taking care of what is most sacred to you. If you’ve done your homework and asked the questions for guests listed earlier in this post, you’re on to a great start.

However, you may have also discovered or already know that there are some areas where what is sacred to you is not what is sacred to your host.  In a situation like this, you have a few options. Ask yourself these questions to decide what the best path forward will be:

“How important does this tradition or thing that is sacred seem to be to my hosts?”

“Given what is most sacred or important to me, will I be able to accommodate their tradition as their guest, even if I disagree or don’t believe in the same things?”

If abiding by their traditions is a violation of what is most sacred to you, find a respectful way to share that you can’t participate in this aspect of the event, and ask them what alternatives there might be for you to do that would help them meet their needs, while also respecting yours.

You could say something like “I know that x is very important to you, but I follow a different tradition and I am not comfortable participating in x activity. My intent is to be a respectful guest, how can we meet in the middle so you and I can both feel good at the end of the day?”

In the final blog of this series, we will touch on some additional hosting and visiting tips designed to help you navigate even the most awkward of holiday gatherings!

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