Party season is in full swing, but what truly makes a great event?
There’s Martha and her ruler-spaced candlesticks; Epicurious & Williams-Sonoma (& the rest of the internet) offering festive recipes and drink pairings; Pinterest has an unending supply of décor ideas; but in the end, what makes for a holiday event that stands out in the surging sea of parties, gatherings, & get-togethers?
I’ve enlisted help from the best & most prolific hostess I know to offer her thoughts on the what and the how (and a little bit of the why) of being a great host.
Carolyn & Peter love hosting people and have built their life (and their home) to suit. Their house has been the locale for numerous birthdays, dinner parties, farewells, welcomes, retirements, and, during this month, their annual Sunday evening celebrations of Advent.
After attending a number of these events, I can say without hesitation that a party at their house is always a good time!
But it’s not just the food (which is delicious) and it’s not just the company (which is delightful). They have a way of hosting people whereby the guest feels so very, well, hosted! People feel cared for and appreciated. You get a sense, as a guest, that while a lot of work has passed to pull it off, they’re just thrilled you are there to enjoy it.
Once, as we left from a birthday party, my husband said, “That party was for Carolyn’s birthday, but it really felt more like a celebration of their friends. They showed us a good time!”
(C: I know that you’re reading this, and that you’re thoroughly embarrassed. Noted.)
I asked Carolyn to share in her own words how they host people in this way, and some tips & tricks for how they pull it all off with a large crowd. Read & learn! [I’ve got my notepad ready…]
I really don't think we do anything differently than other people, and we don’t do anything remotely original. Most of what we do, we learned from watching other people host. I guess every now and again I read a magazine article that has a good idea about table centers, or something like that. But overall, every time, the basics for us are:
Food, drinks, candles, flowers, low expectations.
All we really consciously think about in preparation, to be honest, are:
1) What we’re going to serve, & 2) How to do that most efficiently.
Beyond that, Peter and I are concerned about totally different things. I'm mostly attentive to atmosphere or things people don't care about ("We're having people over? I need floral arrangements and the hood fan needs to be cleaned for sure!"), whereas he wants the food to be good ("The flank steaks need more fresh lemon and we need to make sure they go in the marinade 2 days beforehand"). And that is why he cooks, and the food is delicious, and I light candles. :)
More specifically, here are some things we keep in mind, especially now as we’ve been doing weekly preparations for Advent:
Come As You Are
We mostly operate under the assumption that we’ll be providing the majority of the food. We usually only serve a couple of things, but I feel that if we’re doing all the prep anyway (when we’re in the zone of prepping food for a crowd), it’s just as easy to do ALL the dishes as a couple of them.
Another reason for this, especially for Advent, is that December is such a gong show for everyone. It’s quite a bit of effort for another person to go and buy/prep all the ingredients for one dish; we don’t all have to go to the grocery store! I’d rather they used the day to do something else, and come and just enjoy the time together.
Of course, our friends are kind and generous, and more often than not arrive with a delicious cheese ball or fresh cookies, etc. Plus they're all easy to cook for because everyone is just happy to be together and won't judge us if things go wrong. We stress out a smidge more with a crowd we don't know as well.
Speaking of food:
- It must be delicious and accessible to the majority. We usually stick to things we know people will like – flavours that are familiar and seem comforting, especially in winter.
- It must be efficient to make, assemble, and serve for big crowds.
- It needs to be robust enough to sit for a few minutes without turning, shall we say, suboptimal (pasta is a no go, so far, for us).
- It should be relatively easy to eat with one hand, because almost everyone is standing up or eating on their laps.
(Some ideas: Tomato Soup & Open-Faced Cheese Melts; Vietnamese Flank Steak Sandwiches; Fancy Mac & Cheese with Ham; Sheppard's Pie; Chili & Fixins)
We generally do most of the work ourselves. If it's a cocktail party, we will likely order a few items from our favourite Vietnamese restaurant, but still do the majority of dishes ourselves. If we're serving a meal though, we (and when I say "we", I mean "Peter", because he really does the majority of the actual cooking) like to cook the whole thing.
We love our friends so much, and we know that they love us too. So that's easy. But we also want the ones we don't know as well to feel genuinely cared for, and personally cooking for them is a way to do that. We want there to be a difference between the party they experience at our house and the catered event they went to last week.
We are happy to make custom drinks for guests, but it's definitely much less work to pre-plan a few key drinks to offer. We often do a stock cocktail, one “go-to” to offer to stave indecision & variety. Especially if we're having a party for someone specific, then we cater to their faves (e.g. G&Ts, French 75s, Margaritas)
We also usually try to make an interesting non-alcoholic option because not everyone drinks, for a variety of reasons. And just because alcohol is a terrible idea for someone, doesn't mean they should have to drink water or Coke the whole time (it could be as simple as lemonade + club soda).
Then we have red, white, and prosecco (my fave!) open, and usually an ice bucket full of other random choices. Juice boxes if there are kids, and coolers, beer, pop. A summer party is likely to have more options than Advent. And again, the crowd we have will determine what gets opened.
Real Dishes & Glasses
It has saved us so. much. money. having bought some sets of plain, white dishes from Ikea many years ago. They are sturdy and identical, which means less awkward holding (for guests) and cleaning (for us).
Dry-erase markers was a recent discovery for wine glasses: you can just write your name *right on the glass!* and then it washes off in the dishwasher. Genius!
Having it all here & set aside for events means I never have to scramble for supplies (save paper napkins, which I try to buy en masse). And, I think that people simply like eating on real dishes.
I like the house to look a certain way; maybe that's shallow, but I do. We like it to be warm and welcoming. It doesn't need to be perfectly clean, although we personally just enjoy our house more when it's reasonably clean and sorted.
We like candies in dishes for the kids to sneak on the sly.
We love warm lighting and candles (which double in function by creating a mellow atmosphere as well as hiding the spots that I missed with the vacuum!).
And I like there to be fresh flowers, because I think flowers are one of God's most beautiful creations, and I like the little reminder of God's creative genius. They're a different art installation every time. Plus, they're just fresh and pretty!
I'm not sure we would call ourselves great entertainers, but we do love hosting people, and we're happy that people keep coming back to our house, since that's what we were hoping for when we built it. Beyond these things, any "skill" has just come from practice & learning from errors. Mostly, we just like a good time. :)
Phew! So, there you go. Take it. Learn from the best. Of course, few of us will host on this kind of scale, nor on such a regular basis, but I hope that there are some gems that you can apply to your own hosting this season.
And in the spirit of these friends, I encourage you: Invite your neighbours! Invite somebody who needs an invitation (in a deep & true sense of the word)! Be open and you will not be disappointed.