During the year after undergrad, I spent most of my free time (to say nothing of my limited funds) with one simple goal: I wanted to become a hostess. Every few months, I’d invent an occasion for people to gather in my home, and then pour hundreds of hours into polishing every detail. Elaborate menus, glitzy centerpieces, meticulous playlists of thematic music – songs not too slow for spontaneous dancing, but not so quick-tempoed that guests were subconsciously guided to chew at an uncomfortable pace. Yes, I wanted to be the lovechild of Jay Gatsby and Martha Stewart, and no detail was too trivial to obsess over.
It sounds rather old-fashioned, doesn’t it? Looking at the social gatherings of my peers has nearly convinced me that hostesses are a dying breed. But especially during the holiday season, it strikes me that – cut-glass punch bowl or no – the art of gracious hosting is as vital now as ever.
Not that I’m advocating wasting hours of your hard-fought time coordinating obsessive-compulsive playlists. Oh my heavens, please don’t ever do that.
But when you toss aside the centerpieces and signature cocktails, you see the true heart of hosting. When we welcome people warmly and graciously into our homes, I believe we’re communicating a few important things: that their presence is worth a little extra effort on our parts. That we want them to feel comfortable and enjoy themselves. In short, that we value them.
Some of the most gracious hosting I’ve ever witnessed wasn’t exactly at affairs you’d call Martha Stewart-ready. This Thanksgiving, for example, my sister’s boyfriend invited me to join them for his annual Thanksgiving bash – one with a Star Trek theme (can you imagine what Martha would do with that?!), where dozens guests have gathered annually for over a decade to guzzle beer with frattish intensity and entirely release their inhibitions. Not exactly an heirloom-candlestick affair.
Nontraditional though the party was, I was treated with a charm and grace that wouldn’t be out of place in an old Cary Grant movie. The host – aware that I might feel anxious among so many strangers – regularly sought me out to make sure I was comfortable. He accepted the wine I brought with a compliment. When he found out I’d only packed flipflops for a 40 degree Fahrenheit weekend on Cape Code (hey, I claim California-girl sandal amnesty!), he tracked down a spare pair of socks and sneakers and forced them on me, despite my weak protests.
Call me crazy, but I think there was more charm to that pair of ratty running shoes than in all the pinkies raised over all the antique teacups in the world.
Hosting, it seems to me, has nothing to do with table linens and hors d’oeuvres, and everything to do with keeping an eye on your guests’ needs so you can help them feel completely at ease. How else is someone supposed to feel welcome in your home?
In fact, I’d argue that hosting isn’t just a set of skills to be dusted off for special occasions; it should be an everyday mindset. The greatest hostess I’ve ever met is my best friend, who – if the world were run in a charmocracy – would rule an elegant little kingdom tucked alongside Monaco. Though we’ve known each other for years and are close enough to be sisters, when I am in her home, she never lets the intimacy of friendship obscure her grace at hosting.
It’s the little things, primarily: offering a drink when I come in so I don’t have to demand one myself; when we are with other people, checking the pulse of the whole group to make sure no one is excluded or unstimulated; one cold night last winter, giving me the blanket off of her own bed without a word, so I didn’t realize the sacrifice she’d made until days later. Like I said, it’s the little things. But it seems to me that life is more or less exclusively made up of little things.
The holidays are the time when our thoughts most universally turn to hosting. Family dinners, office blow-outs, cookie swaps with neighbors and friends. And it’s easy – especially for party perfectionists like me – to get so caught up on the logistical details of cramming bodies into our parlors that we forget the reason we’ve gathered these guests in the first place: because we care about them, and want them to have a good time.
So for everyone hosting this season, my holiday wish to you: don’t stress about the centerpiece. If cookies come out of the cutters deformed, people will still eat them; nobody really cares about the playlist. When you decide to throw a party, it is out of a sense of grace and generosity of spirit. And whatever party-day disasters arise, just keep channeling that grace, and ten years from now it’ll be all that anyone remembers.
Scenes from The Great Gatsby, 1949