Remember when I wrote about my traveling wine glasses, here? Well. Time to get them out of storage.
Every family has their own holiday traditions, and one of ours is to host an open house for friends and neighbors. This began innocently enough 40-odd years ago when Steve and I lived in Peoria and wanted a Christmas celebration at our house before we headed to Chicago to spend the holiday with family.
Then we moved to Chicago and reinvented “the party” a bit around our own young family. The kids got older, our careers got more demanding and still we hosted “the party.” In fact, it grew to include our children and those of our friends. Then the children grew up. But “the party” continued.
Sometimes people would ask how we did this with two full-time jobs and a busy family life. (By now we were also hosting the extended family holiday anyway.) I just said the party had a life of its own, which it has. And forty-odd years of parties has taught us a few things.
First, entertaining two or three dozen people is definitely a two-person project. We could not do this if Steve and I both did not enjoy it. However, when it’s “tradition,” you get to do some things the same each time. And that makes it easier.
Our party has always been on the same Sunday afternoon in December and is a true open house. People come and go over the course of 3 or 4 (or 5) hours. I used to send snail mail invitations (I think they are fun to get), but now I send electronic invites. They’re easy, economical, and – best of all – guests seem to find it much easier to respond electronically. Who knew? We have always invited a close circle of friends, neighbors, sometimes people we wanted to get to know a little better. (This is fun. Friends from one group meet another, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.)
Our guests are the heart of the party, but they expect food and drink. Food can be complicated or simple, and I have done both. Lately I opt for simple. This is not a party to impress a client or anyone’s boss. It’s getting together with friends.
After years of busily pushing trays of appetizers in and out of a hot oven (in a hot kitchen) and missing much of my own party, I avoid anything that requires much in the way of last-minute prep. Cheese platters dressed up with fruit, olives, nuts, are go-to choices. Since guests are drinking, I like to serve something a little on the hardy side: store-bought meatballs in my husband’s burgundy sauce, beef tenderloin on baguette slices, or ham on mini rolls. (After one experience with a fairly expensive platter of shrimp that a friend’s eight-year-old planted himself beside and devoured a significant portion of, I didn’t serve it again until all the children were grown.)
I try to vary the menu a bit from year to year, and I like to occasionally introduce something new just because I get bored (so what must my guests think?). But my bottom line is borrowed from Ina Garten: buy some, arrange some and cook some.
Steve is the drinks man: red and white wine, beer, and soft drinks. Last year we found some well-priced prosecco at a wine tasting and it was a big hit. I offer coffee towards the end of the party (though almost no one ever drinks it).
Like food, decorating has grown simpler. A while back it occurred to me that the more I put up, the more I have to take down. We start on Thanksgiving weekend. (I have never been able to bring myself to do this any earlier. I enjoy that holiday too much to confuse it with any other.) I focus my decorating on a few strategic areas — the mantel in the family room, the buffet in the dining room, the tree in the living room, and some greenery and candles in the entry to welcome guests. Anything else is just frosting.
Did I say candles? I rely a lot on candles, tapers in every holder I have and an army of pillars. I am the lucky beneficiary of a substantial stockpile of pretty plates and platters that belonged to my mother and my aunt and I use them! (Even when I order deli platters from the grocery store, I re-plate them on my own serving pieces – casual or fancy.) A little glow, gleam and sparkle looks festive and makes guests feel special. And I think my guests deserve a bit of fussing.
I was one of the last holdouts for a fresh tree, but when we began spending the actual holiday with the grandkids in Ohio, I was uncomfortable leaving a potentially dried-out fire hazard in an empty house. Switching to a pre-lit artificial tree was a no-brainer. (Yes, it is different from those Fraser firs I used to water, decorate, and water some more, but different is not always a bad thing.) It’s easy to set up, we don’t have to string the lights on it, and I can concentrate on hanging my collection of glass ornaments.
As I’ve simplified the party I’ve realized more than ever that enjoying the time together is everything. I really do try to spend time with my guests, because that’s the whole point.
I’ve also learned that some of us like to give parties and some of us don’t. And that’s okay. But I do think your comfort level with entertaining shows. (For example, the birthday party where we all stood in the kitchen balancing paper plates of carry-out pasta while the hostess’s dining room was dark!) So if you aren’t comfortable having people at your house, if you worry about spilled drinks, tracked in snow, whatever, for heavens sake, don’t do it. Plan to meet friends at a favorite restaurant, for drinks after a play, or tailgate before the big game.
But I’m throwing a party today and totally looking forward to it.
See you next time!