Dos and Don'ts for Hosting a Holiday Gathering

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Hosting family and friends for the holidays can be extremely rewarding. Opening your home to bring the most important people in your life together to share in the ritual of celebration and communion is satisfying and life-affirming.

But all that mushy stuff aside, hosting a big holiday gathering is also incredibly stressful and not for the faint of heart. What sounds like a fun idea in the summer can (and probably will) turn into a nightmare scenario by mid-November while you’re attempting to coordinate everyone’s travel schedules and sleeping arrangements and preparing a huge meal that all your guests can enjoy. Although there’s probably no way to totally eliminate the stress that comes with hosting (and isn’t that ultimately part of the experience?), we're here to help mitigate some the issues that may arise.

Don’t Feel Tied to Traditions

To me, the best part of being the host is the ability to take what you want from old school holiday traditions and cut out what you don’t. It’s important to be invested in your role as host and not feel like you’re just playing someone else’s part in your home, so feel free to do things your way, whether that's bucking cultural customs or simply trying new dishes that your guests may not be used to. Of course, it would be nice to give your guests a head’s up about any particularly big changes you plan on making, but beyond that, don’t sweat it too much. An atypical holiday once in a while never hurt anyone, and you may find yourself building new traditions in the process.

Do Ask About Accommodations in Advance

Welcome the diversity of your guests by reaching out to each person in advance and asking about any special accommodations they may require. The most obvious of these would be dietary restrictions that you would need to plan for, but this could also include pet allergies (when applicable) or accessibility requirements, among other potential adjustments to consider. Whatever it may be, your guests will likely be willing and able to explain how you can help accommodate. Contacting guests in advance will give you plenty of time to prepare and ensure a safe and satisfying experience for everyone.

Don’t Go in Without a Plan

Once you know roughly what direction you want to go in with the food and activities for your big holiday party, make a plan. Many potential issues can be easily avoided by simply coming up with a basic plan for when and how you will execute different tasks both before and on the big day. A simple spreadsheet document on your computer (or a handwritten list for the low tech crowd) is an easy way to keep track of all the moving parts that come with organizing multiple people and preparing a large family-style meal. Going a step further into “Type A” territory, you can even create an official (though always malleable when necessary) itinerary for the different activities you’ve planned. Having a formal plan will also help you identify what tasks can be accomplished before any guests even arrive, which will free you up to focus on the most important stuff and also hopefully relax a bit and enjoy the holiday.

Do Find (Age Appropriate) Activities for All Your Guests

Depending on the makeup of your guests, you may find yourself with a wide range of people of different ages to keep occupied during your holiday gathering, and finding activities that will satisfy both the toddlers and great-grandparents in the group may prove difficult. As part of your general preparation, brainstorm some different activities that can be fun and engaging for all your guests, and find ways to work these into your plans for the gathering. For instance, drinking games after dinner may be fun for the adults, but make sure the younger folks have board games to play or movies to watch before you get started. Don’t be shy about reaching out to your guests to see what they (or their kids) would be interested in doing while they're visiting. 

Don’t Overdo It

A common misstep for hosts (especially inexperienced hosts) is to dream big for their centerpiece holiday meal, before ultimately finding themselves with too many time- and labor-intensive dishes to prepare that keep them busy all throughout the actual festivities. This is the quickest way to add unnecessary stress, either because it just takes a long time to get everything completed, or because there are so many small factors in play at once that something is bound to get awry and cause a setback. Of course, some initial planning can help alleviate these problems up front, but also keep in mind which dishes are required to make the whole meal a success and which ones can be seamlessly swapped out for something less complicated. And when you’re planning for activities and meals for before and after the actual holiday, simplicity is absolutely essential, so have your favorite local pizza place on speed dial and prepare some casseroles. This advice can also be extended to all aspects of the party planning experience. When there are two (or more) options on the table, always favor the simpler one.

Do Make Space for Everyone

Before you begin inviting people into your home, make sure that you have ample room to safely and comfortably accommodate all of them. Around the holidays, that centers around making sure you have a large table with enough chairs to seat *most* of your guests (though some auxiliary options may be necessary). Once you’ve covered where you'll be eating dinner, carefully survey and rearrange your living room or family room (any space where people are bound to gather) to make it more accommodating to a group and add seating where it may be necessary. And if you have people staying overnight, consider an adult bunk bed, so that you can fit more people in a bedroom or guest room without sacrificing floor space or leaving your guests feeling cramped.

Don’t Forget the Essentials

Stock up on toilet paper, soap, towels, extra toothpaste, and even phone chargers (it is almost 2020, after all) before your guests arrive. A surplus of essential daily items will keep things running smoothly and drastically eliminate excess stress from your already full to-do list. Streamline the process even more by giving all your guests a quick tour when they arrive, so that they know where they can get these items on their own without having to ask you for help (and obviously keep them in easily accessible locations).

Do Invest in Quality Containers

It can sometimes seem like excess is an unavoidable aspect of hosting a holiday gathering. Just ask anybody who somehow comes home from the holidays with more food and baggage than they left with. Rather than feeling bad about this, make a point of investing in several high quality storage containers (I’m personally a fan of Pyrex products) — or asking your guests to contribute their own — so that you can save all the leftovers you accumulate and keep them edible after the party. When you send food home with your guests, simply label your containers with a permanent marker or tape, so that it will be easy to identify them until they make their way back home to you.

Don’t Do It All on Your Own

If there’s a common thread between all of these different tips, it’s to prepare in advance so that you can alleviate the avoidable burdens that come with hosting. There is perhaps no more significant way to do this than by enlisting your friends and family and delegating any and all available tasks. Ask people to prepare easily transportable dishes to help eliminate some cooking, request snacks and drinks from others to cut down the amount of items you have to purchase in advance, and have your guests with the proper means bring extra dishware or seating options that you may be lacking, so that you don’t have to spend money on items that you won’t use more than once a year.

Do Take Some Personal Time

When it’s all said and done, you’ll have earned yourself a pat on the back and some well-deserved rest and relaxation. While I would contend that it’s important to set aside time during the holiday to just hang out and spend time with your guests — I mean, you did invite them for a reason — it’s also a good idea to unwind once your visitors have cleared out of your home by taking a day or two after the holiday to recuperate and do a few things for yourself. Whether it’s a movie marathon or a spa day, make a point to destress in a way that’s not just cleaning up the mess you made hosting everyone. This will obviously feel good in the moment, and it will also help you have a more positive overall impression of the holiday experience when it’s all said and done. Just the fuel you need to agree to do it again next year!

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