A long time ago, I went on a weekend college trip where the main speaker at the event made a huge impact on my 19-year-old heart. I returned home to a large family gathering of at least 35 people. My mother was always enthusiastic about such gatherings and worked at a clipped pace, smiling throughout—a picture of frenetic energy.
I had a tape of one of the talks that I desperately wanted my mom to listen to with me, and I told her so. She looked at me incredulously, in the midst of her hustling and bustling, a deafening crescendo of noise all around, and said, “Later, honey, OK?” In my shocking inability to see beyond my own nose, I expressed disappointment and walked away.
A few minutes later, my mom returned with a small cassette player, led me to the living room, and sat on the carpeted floor with me, this one quiet space apart from the chaos and cacophony of the rooms beyond. We listened together for 30 minutes while the tape played.
Even now, I tear up as I remember this sacrifice of time. As ridiculous and selfish as my request was, my mom saw something deeper. She saw the importance of this moment. Right here. Right now. She found a spot and she led me to it, her heart melding with mine at an adult level. A passage between us formed.
She proved to me that even amid the busiest of festivities, the most chaotic of gatherings, we can and should carve out these moments of care and genuine connection. These are the moments that build and strengthen bonds, and that, if we’re not careful, could easily slip away forever.
The holiday season, of course, is prime time for gathering. As you prepare to host family and friends, take some time to thoughtfully plan your space and your time for those precious moments. It starts with your home: Make your house work for you so that you can open it up as a haven of love and acceptance.
Here are four tips to help.
Move Guests Through Your Space in a Pattern That Works
Sounds easy, right? Not so fast—this takes planning! As family and friends enter your home, they will most likely take longer than a few minutes to arrive and settle in. Take a moment to walk through your home the day before your celebration and act as though you are an arriving guest.
What is the path from the front door to the kitchen to the bathroom? Will it become an obstacle course? Your normal traffic patterns may not work, so you may need to adjust furniture a bit.
Where will you ask your guests to put their coats and boots and the stuff of holiday celebrations? Did they bring a food dish? Plan to gratefully take this from them so that they don’t have to fight through shoes and outerwear while also balancing a casserole. Did they come bearing gifts? Show them where these go and make this area spacious enough to be easy and accommodating.
These pathway moments of guiding your guests to the various locations of hot spiced apple cider, a requested chair by the fire, or an introduction to someone new will create a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere for the rest of the day or evening, removing anxiety and offering an opening for warm fellowship.
Mind the Kids
How often do you plan a family celebration and then scramble to figure out what to do with all the kids? They need to play and eat and then play some more and then rest and then eat and finish the day with playing and eating and napping and playing. How do you sort through all of this?
First, find a place for the kids to play. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; it can be as simple as a corner of a room with a mat on the floor, a small table and chairs, toys stacked all around, and coloring projects at the ready. If you have an unfinished basement, you can set up play stations for particular activities. Children love to put on shows, and draping sheets from ceiling joists can transform an ordinary space into a stage—just watch the fun begin. Always have a list of activities for the kids, from a simple art or craft project to a sing-along music time that can be programmed onto a screen, to playing duck-duck-goose to get the wiggles out.
Food is an essential part of a child’s good time. Smaller meals that allow for healthy snacks in between do the trick every time. My mom used to give her 25 grandchildren small plastic cups of chocolate chips mixed with raisins, and away they would go, happy as clams.
Small children will always say they aren’t tired and don’t need a nap. But trust me on this—if you provide a place for quiet storytime, soft music, and dimmed lights, they will fall asleep. I have seen this time and time again—first the protest, then the snore. Adults should take turns checking in on the kids, and you will find grateful glances all around as tired parents enjoy a moment of peace.
Prepare a Place for Quiet
Sounds are everywhere during the holidays, and they are wonderful and wanted. But once in a while, a moment of peace is perfect. Just as my mom led me to a quiet space in our busy house on that day years ago, find a spot in your house reserved for a simple conversation or moment of respite. Perhaps your mom or aunt or sister needs a moment to close her eyes, read a page, or just be still. These carved-out segments of time will refresh and renew amid the wonderful hubbub that the holidays bring.
Move a comfortable chair into a bedroom and whisper to your loved one that a blanket and book await them upstairs, and to literally make themselves at home. They will look at you with eyes of love and gratitude and return refreshed as they reenter the festivities.
Encourage Storytime at the Table
Storytime at the dinner table is a wonderful way to learn a little bit more about each other. We all have rich inner lives, though at times we need a little push to share out loud our history and our thoughts.
We have a family signature of asking couples their love story. It’s always heartwarming to hear these true stories, as you can see their faces go back to the beginning.
Questions from kids are always interesting, so let them get in on the conversation. “Were you naughty when you were little?” This question always seems to make its way to our holiday table.
Let the oldest members at your table get the first invitation to share. Asking Grampa to tell what it was like when he got his first job will definitely be both informative for all, and nostalgic for him. Family foundations are built on these simple conversations, deepened by the laughter we bring to the table.