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Social Etiquette and Good Manners/My mother-in-law is throwing her own birthday party.


My 85 year old Mother-in-law is throwing her own birthday party.  She is throwing it in the town where she grew up and her brothers and sister still live in the area. She is having cake and coffee in the afternoon and a catered dinner later.  This seems all fine but she wants a candle lighting ceremony to honour her parents who passed away 25 and 30 years ago. I feel this will put a damper on all celebration and just suck the life out of the room.  What do you think?  

Thank you

Dear Anne:

Thank you for your question.

Your mother-in-law is hosting the party, so she gets to run the show. Clearly the candle lighting ceremony is important to her, so please stop thinking about how this won't work and offer your love and support to make sure that it does.

A birthday party for an 85-year-old is usually not about frolic and fun.  It's not even about the food and beverage. It's more about gathering together the people who matter to the honoree. Your mother-in-law is gathering not only people who matter in her present life, but those who mattered in her past life, her parents. I assume that the party will be multi-generational, so use the ceremony as an opportunity to share information about her parents with younger members of the family who will attend. Offer to make a photo display that includes pictures of her parents that can be front and center during the candle lighting. Guests who knew the parents could be asked to share a memory or two, and you and your spouse should be sure to add a few humorous reminiscences to keep things on the lighter side.

Help your mother-in-law make this party special by supporting all of her decisions, including the candle lighting ceremony. Things could be worse. She might have asked her guests to join her for a polar bear plunge or a group sky dive.  

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Nancy Mitchell


Social etiquette; Business etiquette; Entertaining etiquette; Wedding etiquette; Protocol, domestic (US) and international; Flag etiquette; Dining etiquette; Restaurant etiquette; Spa etiquette; Travel etiquette


Nancy R. Mitchell is a nationally recognized etiquette and protocol consultant and trainer with more than 30 years of experience in the field. She owns the firm The Etiquette Advocate and is an owner and founding partner of the firm Protocol Partners-Washington Center for Protocol. Currently, she is an adjunct faculty member at The George Washington University, where she developed and teaches protocol courses in the School of Business and the Career Center, and at Stratford University, Falls Church, VA. She serves also as protocol and special events consultant to the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library and cultural center. For 23 years, Mitchell was director of special events and protocol at the Library of Congress where she and her staff were responsible for planning and managing over 400 events each year. She coordinated the institution’s major special events, visits of heads of state and other distinguished visitors, galas, conferences and meetings. As the Library’s chief protocol advisor, Mitchell served as liaison to the White House, U.S Department of State, the Congress, the Supreme Court and other government agencies, embassies, academia and corporations.

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Mitchell is quoted on matters of etiquette and protocol by CNN, ABC Nightline, Martha Stewart Living Radio, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Washington Business Journal, the Associated Press and Washingtonian magazine, has been featured on ABC Good Morning America, Fox News and National Public Radio, and is an etiquette columnist for, etiquette consultant to Alexandria Woman and to Engaged! magazine, and technical editor of Wedding Etiquette for Dummies (Wiley, 2010).

B.S., University of Utah, 1969

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