The proper procedure for serving holiday dinners is about halfway in formality between that for family dinners, and that for dinner parties.

Miss Manners would settle comfortably down at her own table, satisfied that she had delivered a piece of blindingly enlightening information, were it not for two things: A chorus of children asking, "Family dinner? What's that?" and a chorus of adults saying, "Dinner parties? Who gives dinner parties anymore?"The family dinner is a quaint old routine by which everybody in the same household would gather nightly at a specific time, rather than each head for the microwave when hungry; sit around a table, rather than stand in front of an open refrigerator; share the same food, rather than argue for competing standards of nutrition, taste and morality; and be entertained by one another's conversation, rather than by that of celebrities on television.

As such a meal happens to be the centerpiece of family life, as well as the arena at which the survival skills of civilization are taught and practiced, Miss Manners thinks it worth reviving. Without in the least minimizing the demands of work, homework and working out, she nevertheless argues that the chief ritual that binds family and civilization is sacrificed at too great a personal and social cost.

In family-style eating, platters of food are placed on the table, and either passed around or served by a parent to each person in turn. The details - adults presiding and outranking children, everybody waiting until all have been served before beginning, and no one leaving the table until all have finished - quietly teach the habit of respect and consideration. The requirement to take a reasonable portion, delivering it to the plate, not the mouth, and with the serving utensils, not the individual ones that also visit the mouth, re-enforces the idea that nobody's appetite should ruin anybody else's.

The habit of family conversation has deeper meaning, too, which is why electronic distractions are banned. The requirement that everyone at least feign interest in everybody else's contribution not only develops social charm and disseminates family news, but conveys the psychologically priceless idea that each person's daily life is important to the others.

Etiquette training for children should be slipped in casually: "Darling, please wait till you've swallowed that before you tell us about soccer practice," "No, I'm afraid nobody wants to see how high you can build your mashed potatoes," "OK, everybody, please sit up and stop hunching over your plates."

Notice the low-keyed tone. People who bark etiquette orders, fail to distinguish between the honest accident and the deliberate infraction, and issue harsh and humiliating personal judgments do Miss Manners' cause no favor. On the contrary, unpleasant memories of etiquette being used illegitimately as a weapon have probably contributed to the unfortunate downfall of the communal meal.

The dinner party routine is most startlingly characterized by a total obliviousness to etiquette infractions.

The guest who arrives unpardonably late is pardoned. "I knew you would want us to go ahead," says the sympathetic host, who has seated polite guests (who arrived less than 15 minutes after the stated hour) so as not to condemn them to more than an hour, tops, of drinks and tidbits.

The guest who starts eating when served, rather than waiting for the hostess to begin, prompts her to say to the others, "Please do go ahead before it gets cold" even if the dish is supposed to be cold.

And nobody ever, ever notices if anyone eats with that dreaded Wrong Fork. That's why company dinners are served by candlelight.

If this didn't make dinner parties easy enough, the manners are the same as for the proper family dinner, except that more courses generally mean that no seconds are offered, and if the food is offered by a waiter bringing a platter around, everyone has to remember to wait until it appears on the left and quickly calculate a proper portion by dividing the food on it by the number of people not yet served.

At holiday dinners, the correcting of children's manners should be confined to parental looks, whispers, or the sort of reminder designed to pass itself off as a cheerfully idle observation: "Children, wait - the grown-ups don't have their plates yet."

Holiday dinners may be served family style, from a sideboard where people fill their own plates to bring to the table, or by waiters who may double as the children of the house. And family informality (which is to say picking up a drumstick, provided it isn't used as a weapon against siblings) is permissible.

But not what passes for family conversation these days: When are you going to get a decent job? When are you going to lose weight? When are you going to get married?

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Miss Manners denies that the guests being related to one another makes demands for accountability proper conversation at family gatherings. That particular form of rudeness may be more responsible than anything else for the demise of the jolly old family dinner.

Dear Miss Manners: I am a widow, and my friend has asked me to be her honor attendant in her wedding. Would I be called the matron or maid of honor?

Gentle Reader: Miss Manners does not want to be the one to break the news to you that maidenhood is not renewable. So she will confine herself to saying that a widow would have to be a matron of honor.

In a dilemma about giving or receiving presents? Help is available in Miss Manners' "Present-Giving" pamphlet. Send $2, plus a long self-addressed stamped envelope, to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper, P.O. Box 4465, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163-4465.

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