Here I just want to put down the little things that make people feel truly welcome and comfortable in your home; the generous touches of warm hosting I have observed in others, that make for a culture of friendship and festivity.
Your preparations should be as fabulous as you want them to be (and sometimes you're aiming at simple, so by all means, do that), but you need to plan for your own calm presence and that of your family.
If you are in the kitchen frantically dealing with things, it's no fun for anyone. It's better for your guests for you to forego those extra (and time-consuming) details you pride yourself on, if it means that you can sit down and enjoy the conversation.
I have found that I am most peaceful when almost everything can be made beforehand, but there is one task that I can have a friend help me with. This depends, of course, on the gathering, but often people do feel more comfy if they can help with something. It's a balance, because you don't want to be so harried that they end up with the sense they have to take over for you — or get out of the kitchen entirely in self-preservation!
In other words, don't be so stressed out by your vision that you're just not good company. Be humble enough to know your own limitations and work with them. This is a virtue, really! Offer up your own mortification at not having three layers of fine china at each setting or a shrimp fountain or some sort of flaming appetizer.
Trust me, your guests will love being with you and truly won't know what they… don't know. As you do more hosting, you will learn what works for you and what doesn't, but do learn!
Greeting your guests warmly sets the tone for everything you want to happen!
We feel awkward because our culture doesn't have forms or patterns for greeting (and leave-taking) the way traditional ones do. We lack invocations of God's blessing and goodness that give us, at a minimum, something to say during the bustle of entrance, coat-shedding, and introductions.
It's going to be good to just think beforehand of things you will say as people come in. Regardless, we need forms. No matter what your temperament, rely on a set ritual to get you through.
"So good to see you, thank you for coming, wonderful that you made it, please come in, welcome, welcome!" Not as comfortingly ritualistic as "Blessings of the evening, God bless the evening in you, May we find you in good health, God is good… " but these efforts of ours will have to do.
The physical entryway might not be the most graceful — at my house, the large front door is ignored, New England–style, in favor of the mudroom door, followed by a tight passage hemmed in by a brick wall and an ill-conceived counter, after navigation through yet another door.
Ideally there would be a maid, not to say a butler, at the real front door, to usher people inside, where you could sail towards them with your well planned words of greeting.
This is likely not the scenario...
So do your best with the inevitable fumbling. Take coats, step back while simultaneously leading the way past the obstacles (maybe keep an eye on your spouse to see who will take which task), and try not to pay more attention to your obnoxiously ill behaved dog than the duty of greeting your guests!
(At our house, said animal's behavior has been much mitigated by the advice I picked up from a dog-savvy friend: if your pet sees it as her bounden duty to guard you from and/or alert you to these intruders in the most aggressively loud and jumpy way possible, put her on the leash. It's the entrance that makes her crazy. It's just not hospitable for people to be greeted not with hugs but with shouts of "ROXIE BE QUIET BAD DOG SIT LIE DOWN SHUT UP NO BAD DOG" etc. I hadn't realized this, as our past pets had been better behaved and more responsive to commands. But Roxie is a border collie and just can't help herself when it comes to protecting the fold. So leash it is. I find that after the initial bustle is over, I can just take her off it and she is fine.)
Do greet your guests. If the party is large enough that people are coming in without knocking, as one does when the festivities are in full swing, and you're already in deep conversation with some guests, take a moment, saying "Excuse me," and greet the newcomers.
Never let someone stand uncomfortably while you finish up your point. Don't assume people will be fine with sidling into the fray. If you see them charging up to the beer cooler without you, fine — but make it a point to welcome them anyway.
Keep an eye on needs. In any large gathering that you are hosting, be prepared to say, "Excuse me," to tend to a guest's needs at any time. In general, all the people in a gathering should make eye contact with anyone on the periphery; don't form a tight little knot that others can't easily enter into.
(Even if you're not the host, do look around and smile and at least nod, if not verbally greet, other guests. A party is not the time for that intense tête-à-tête that leaves someone out in the cold, as it were.)
The food and conversation:
Bless the food. When it comes time to serve the food, do it with some sort of ritual flair. Gather people (I have a bell for larger parties — people do make a little fun of me, but it works). Reiterate your gratitude for their presence.
Say grace. Above all, especially at a sit-down affair, do not get your own food before your guests have theirs!
Lifting your own fork and muttering, "Help yourself" or "I guess we should dig in" is not the way! Serve them first. Be sure they have everything — the rolls, the butter, the condiments — before you attend to your own plate.
A rule to discuss beforehand: Family Hold Back (FHB). This concept was introduced to me by a monk of our acquaintance who is from a large family. His mom would suddenly realize that they didn't have as much of one dish as she had thought; she'd whisper, "FHB!" — and they all knew that they were relied upon to restrain themselves in favor of the guests. Now the monks do this too, and so do we.
Make connections. Have a few questions to ask your guests, to draw them out. Don't filibuster or dominate; let them speak. Some people are shy, and need a little encouragement.
Where dinner is at the table — say, up to twelve people — do your best as hosts to maintain one conversation. Perhaps your guests will engage in little side discussions, but try not to do it yourselves.
Be diligent about letting your guests get to know each other — don't let them go the whole evening only interacting through you.
A well placed tidbit of information — "John, did you know that Tom also used to live in Bangalore?" — "Grace, Mary is an expert at training falcons and I know you love birds of prey" — can foster a conversation while you tend to something (or someone) else.
Let your guests go. Graciously allow them to begin making little winding-up comments ("Well, this has been lovely!"); it's a little dance; know the steps.
Hopefully you won't be driven to change into your pajamas to give them the hint that it's time to leave, so enchanted will they have been with the evening's conviviality, but things do wind down on their own, usually. Maria von Trapp says that it's better to end things a little before they seem really to be over, rather than to keep them going for too long. Observe the little ways people have of doing this, and make them your own.
Easter is around the corner — perhaps our resolution for the coming season of holidays, first communions, graduations, and other parties could be to give some thought to improving our practice of warm hospitality.
Leila M. Lawler. "9 Hospitality Thoughts." Like Mother, Like Daughter (April 6, 2019)
Reprinted with permission of Leila Lawler.
Leila M. Lawler is a wife of one, mother of seven, and grandmother of four (and counting), living in central Massachusetts. She is a convert to Catholicism from nothing-ism with a brief, completely uninformed and unconvincing stop as a Moslem (now called Muslim but not when she made that stop, which was sometime in middle school). Leila practices "kitchen-sink philosophy" at "Like Mother, Like Daughter", a website offering practical and theoretical insight into all aspects of daily life. She is the author of The Little Oratory: A Beginner's Guide to Praying in the Home.Copyright © 2019 Like Mother, Like Daughter
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