I do not have a tree this Christmas.
When I moved to New York last year, I trekked out to buy a tree while my mom and brother arranged the furniture around my new apartment. It was almost closing time for the tree sellers by the time I found one on that cold November night, but I wasn’t going back home without an evergreen over my shoulder.
We ordered pizza after we’d strung the lights, and I remember standing back at one point to observe Mom sitting on the floor hanging ornaments as this tender-hearted emotion washed over me. She and my brother had decided to stay in town an extra nigh so I wouldn’t have to put up the tree alone. In our family — probably in a lot of families — decorating can test loved ones’ patience. But when we make it work, there’s something special about cooperating with the people we’re closest to.
But this year, I haven’t made the time to gather friends for a tree-trimming brunch, nor have I felt inspired to decorate by myself. But last week at my book club’s monthly party, my friend Claire restarted the urge to do some holiday entertaining.
From the seasonal wine glasses to the reindeer coasters and the stockings hanging from silver hooks on the wall, Claire said every year she grabs a new Christmas accessory to add to her collection that started five years ago, when she and her husband moved into their first apartment together. As I gazed around, I noticed that holiday housewares weren’t Claire’s only domestic tendency: the mini-bar which was stocked with an array of wines, a glass ice bucket and bottles of sparkling water, all for her guests’ easy access. Then, when I thought I couldn’t be any more awed over Claire’s knack for hosting, dinner was served: homemade pizza margherita, and a second pizza topped with butternut squash, goat cheese and carmelized onions. Pasta in a dish so big it took up half the serving table. (Wait: Claire had a serving table.) When I’d hosted book club the month before, I served the girls my mom’s chicken enchilada recipe out of a foil pan sitting on top of my stove. Sure, I’d set out a giant pitcher of sangria too, but Claire was putting my fiesta to shame.
I hated taking inventory of her apartment like that — Claire’s one of the humblest, most genuine people I know — and I was breaking my Number One rule of thumb between women: never compare yourself to each other. But suddenly the question dawned on me … do most married people have more talent for entertaining than singles, and is that part of what got them married in the first place?
The deeper question: should I be more concerned about impressing people when they come to my home? The flat-screen TVs, the DVD players (yes, plural; plus the Blu-Ray, the Play Station, the DVR and the other four rectangular boxes sitting atop most American entertainment centers), the glass coffee table and the seasonal coasters: it all said something about Claire’s concern that people have a memorable time when they come to visit her. I’d served tacos; and, looking back, I’m not even sure I’d thought to pitch the Old El Paso box before my guests arrived. No bueno.
Claire’s execution was impressive for sure…but Dana LaRue, creator, editor-in-chief and CEO of BrokeAssBride.com, says not being a tricked-out, Crate & Barrel kind of hostess doesn’t make you a total dunce at entertaining — it’s all about making the party personal to you. “I think the magic of hosting comes from perspective,” she says. “It’s an art, an extension of one’s creativity that doesn’t necessarily depend on budget numbers or matching flatware.” If you’re a single in your twenties or thirties, you’re probably not going to splurge on Kate Spade dinnerware when there’s a chance your roommate could try to entertain on it or when you’re on a one-person budget. But, says LaRue, you don’t have to be coupled up to be a great host. Instead, “Being a good host is about creating an atmosphere, setting a mood, making sure everyone is comfortable, fostering introductions.” The secret to making your friends feel welcome? Create a space in which you are comfortable: “A great party is a reflection of and an extension of the host,” says LaRue. “People come to be part of your event, your circle, your sphere. The more comfortable you are in the environment you create, the more your guests will enjoy it.”
As Claire exited her marble kitchen with a platter of snowflake sugar cookies, we all cooed at the pride she takes in the simplicity of showing care for others. She has inspired me to host a holiday brunch, don a happy face and put up a tree after all — even if I’m only around to enjoy it a few days before I head home for the holiday.
The tips I’ll take from Claire’s savvy presentation for my tree-trimming brunch with some married and single friends:
– A cocktail cart or mini-bar is an intelligent way for the hostess to stay hands-free while making her guests feel at home. Line up wine glasses and bottles of red and white; place napkins and a full ice bucket there. Drinking glasses and a few bottles of sparkling water are a thoughtful touch that you’ll see nearly everyone take advantage of.
– Don’t fuss over fancy dishes, and it’s considerate to play it safe by serving meat-free. Prepare-ahead dishes are key, and Claire’s gourmet pizzas felt like such a treat. A menu that’s both simple and special is totally achievable.
– Take guests up on their offer to clear dishes so you all can enjoy dessert with no mess, and to allow them to feel as though they’re contributing. Then, don’t get stuck doing the dishes while your guests are still visiting. That’s what tomorrow’s for.
– Smile. Nothing shows guests a good time like a hostess who’s having one herself. When you’re planning, if any aspect of the gathering feels tricky, scratch it.
Thanks to Claire for possessing enough holiday cheer to go around.
[photo credit: Flickr, gordonflood.com]