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Catherine's Rules

12/17/07 5:55PM By Allen Gilbert
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(HOST) Is it possible that Catherine the Great can help out with holiday plans? Commentator Allen Gilbert thinks so.

(GILBERT) Getting along with in-laws at a holiday dinner, or sharing a New Year’s Eve with buddies from high school, can present serious challenges. There are many guides to social interaction that can help, but my personal favorite happens to be one from Catherine the Great of Russia.

The 187th-century empress was so proud of the art museum that she built, the Hermitage, that she established 10 rules for the behavior of visitors. I first encountered these rules when I visited an exhibit on Catherine in Montreal last year.

Some of the rules seem made to order for the holidays. For example, Rule 9 states, "Eat well of good things. But drink with moderation, so that each should be able always to find his legs on leaving."

Rule 8 is, "Agree to partake of any innocent entertainment suggested by others." I think that means you have to play Risk with the grand-kids.

Rules 1 and 2 establish some basic guidelines. "All ranks shall be left outside the doors. Similarly hats, and particularly swords." And, "Orders of precedence and haughtiness, and anything of such like which might result from them, shall be left at the door."

"Be merry," says Rule 3, "but neither spoil nor break anything, nor indeed gnaw at anything." Spoiling and breaking sound like good things to keep in mind, as you clear the table and wash dishes. But don’t "gnaw" at anything? It makes you wonder what Catherine had to contend with at the Hermitage.

"Argue without anger or passion," says Rule 6. That’s likely not a rule that would work very well if you’re watching a bowl game on New Year’s, or discussing politics. But I do like Rule 5, which says, "Speak with moderation and not too loudly, so that others present have not an earache or headache." And Rule 7 notes other ways to avoid giving offense: "Do not sigh or yawn. Neither bore nor fatigue others."

Rule 10 offers sage advice if you want your host to invite you back next year: "All disputes must stay behind closed doors: and what goes in one ear should go out the other before departing." Be circumspect and discrete, Catherine was saying.

Catherine even prescribed punishments for breaking the rules: "If any shall infringe the above, on the evidence of two witnesses, for any crime each guilty party shall drink a glass of cold water, ladies not excepted, and read a page from the Telemachida out loud."

It took me a bit of Googling to understand the reference to the Telemachida. Telemachus was the son of Odysseus; a Russian poet of Catherine’s time wrote a long poem about him. All agreed that the poem was extremely boring and tedious.

Catherine’s rules reveal a woman of sharp perceptions and wit. I’m guessing that she was the sort of person you’d like to have at a holiday dinner or party -- and you'd be wise to follow her rules.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.
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