Monday, December 19, 2011

"Rockin' around the Christmas tree...

...let the Christmas spirit reign." Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee

This week is a "special treat," as my dad (and now my husband) would say. :) At the request of one of my loyal readers, and since I have so much experience (ho ho ho) entertaining, I'm going to give my top ten hostessing tips for your upcoming holiday gatherings. These are tried and true lessons from doing big events, but they work just as well (sometimes better) at home.

Let's discuss Dinner Parties!

1. First things first: Get YOU ready. 

"Wait, really, me? What about the bathroom, or the roast beast, or the presents?" No. Forget that stuff for a moment. Obviously you want to have plenty of time to prep all that, but face it, you will not enjoy yourself if you feel unkempt, exhausted, and frazzled. And more to the point, as hostess (or host), if you are freaking out and frazzled, your guests will probably pick up on it. You know what they say, "If momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." I'm not just talking about putting on your cute duds and getting the curlers warmed up - I mean get completely ready; hair, makeup, the works - and that way if you run out time you don't have to freak out because you're hair is still in curlers! You can always run to the restroom after guests arrive to "freshen up," and it will only be a few loose strands rearranged instead of a total (awkward) transformation. Don't forget to wear your cute party apron!

2. Do as much in advance as far in advance as you can.

This is totally obvious, and I know you all already do this, but seriously. Are you serving stuffing or pies? Do them ahead. Do you have presents to give? Wrap them as soon as you get home with them, set them under the tree, and keep a little running list somewhere so you don't miss anyone. Guest bathroom need to be cleaned? Clean the day before and only touch up the day of. And decorate early, and set up your centerpiece as soon as the table is available. If you need to have the table for prep ahead of time, I'd recommend having a "staging area" set up (laundry room, perhaps?) with trays holding all the table settings so they are easily found, ready in advance, and don't accidentally get used by anyone for anything leading up to the big event.

3. Plan for "helpers." 

Granma and Aunt Carol getting birthday stuff ready.

There is always that five-to-ten minutes when things are still being put together but there are guests standing around, asking if they can help. If any of you are like me, you have to intentionally set aside tasks (preferably simple and non-complex) that will give your guests the ability to be useful and feel useful while simultaneously giving you a few moments reprieve to finish what you're doing! Just make sure that you are considerate in what you ask people to do - don't call someone's bluff with an empty offer to scrub's not a very gracious experience for your guests when you force them to use your ratty old sponge! (Except when they are compulsive, or relatives; in which case, go crazy.) I generally suggest jobs like setting out the napkins or filling water glasses.

4. Atmosphere!

Ok, so this was in a jazz lounge on our cruise,
but the ambiance was PERFECT. I kept expecting Dean Martin to show up.

Decorate, plan a playlist, put out some snacks, and light some candles! It's the little things that really make a difference. Music helps with awkward silence, and as a wise bear once said, if they're chewing at least their mouths will be moving. Also, place cards, centerpieces, all these things simplify things for your guests and give them lots of stimulus for conversation, plus giving you a chance to make all those pretty things you've been dying to try!

5. "Freshen up," "Call of nature," "Step away..." 

It may not be delicate, but the restroom is a vital part of entertaining. Whatever you want to call it, make sure you communicate which restroom is available to use and point them in the direction of it so there is no awkward squirming and desperate inquiry three hours later. Make sure there's enough toilet paper, hand towels, and other amenities your guests may require.

6. Plan so you can eat too.

L to R: Aunts Judy and Carol, Great-Aunt Joann, Cousins Jodee and Sarah.

No guests likes to be urged to eat while the hostess is stirring something at the stove, and although every grandmother struggles with this one, I promise you, the dishes can wait until after they're gone! No one cares more that your kitchen is spotless than retiring to the living room for coffee or drinks with you. If you can't stand it (like me), then just pull out the dishpan, throw the dishes in it with soapy water, and it will all clean up like a breeze when you're ready.

7. Don't pry.

Yes, it's your house, and yes, it's impolite to refuse the food your hostess serves you. However, if someone turns down a dish, do not attract attention to it or try to talk them into it by saying it's not that high of calories or it doesn't have that much alcohol in it. Don't force someone to explain dietary restrictions, reveal pregnancy or alcohol issues in front of other guests. The goal is to make guests as comfortable as possible.

8. Go with the flow.

If you were envisioning a sophisticated soiree but the guests are constantly on their phones or someone found your laptop and started sharing Youtube videos...just roll with it. You certainly don't want to make a scene, and you can communicate issues one-on-one after the party. If you find one of your guests is allergic to (or merely annoyed by) your beloved pet, be gracious and remove the animal to a different part of the house. Make note of any dietary restrictions and try to make provisions for them. That being said, don't go crazy - you are their hostess, not their dietician. Also, in these days where people don't know what RSVP stands for and hostess gifts are a thing of the past, don't be offended by people who perhaps weren't brought up as nicely as you to know all the secrets to being a good guests. (For an amusing read, see Martha Stewart's take on cell phones and picky eaters.)

9. Make it easy to be a good guests.

If you create an environment where the easiest action is the action you want a guest to take, you will generally get your way--for example, if you hate double-dipping, provide a ladle and little plates for the hors-d'oeuvres. Maybe this is just me, but I love, love, LOVE when a hostess has put out name cards or makes little specific "areas" for kids and such. It is so helpful to have a box of toys and an area clear of breakables if your guest list includes little people.  It sounds terrible, but I like to think of guests as sheep needing a shepherd. They need clear instructions, with the easiest choice being the right choice, a clear traffic flow, and extreme patience and flexibility on the part of the shephe-er, I mean, hostess.

10. Small Talk.

My dad is totally the king of conversationalists. <3
Again, this may be obvious to some...but as the hostess, you are responsible with making everyone feel comfortable at your party. If you are usually the political aficionado and one of your guests is from a different party or preferes to discuss the latest offering from Hollywood, make yourself familiar with a little news from their world and try to contain yourself about the latest horror from the White House. Not to say you can't talk about anything you care about, but make sure everyone has a little light banter about something they are interested'll be surprised how much this lightens the mood. If you need to talk about politics or religion (Ryan's and my top-two favorite subjects, by the way) wait until the coats are off and there's been some lighter discussions first - you don't want to scare them away!

Much love!

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