The holiday season is approaching, and in keeping with the theme of 2020, it will likely look different for us than it has in years past. Gathering in whatever way we can for the holidays can help restore a sense of normalcy to a turbulent year, even though some of us will be hosting smaller crowds than we’re used to, while others might only be able to see family virtually due to travel restrictions.
There’s a lot of pressure around the idea of hosting during the holidays. For years, I hosted with clenched fists and a sense of anxiety. I wanted my house to be perfect, my pictures and throw pillows to sit just the right way. I needed my table to look like it was out of a magazine, and my food to be delicious and beautiful. The amount of work involved in this endeavor left me exhausted before the hosting even began.
After having kids, I realized that paying this level of attention to my home before my guests arrived would be impossible. More than that, trying to keep a house perfect with two small children was bound to put me in a bad mood.
Applying a few tips and tricks to hosting has dramatically changed my attitude towards hosting, especially in this season of young children. If you, like me, find yourself stretched thin for time but still want to open your home, here are a few ideas to try during the holidays this year.
Focus on the Table
My favorite part about hosting is the table. I love the way it looks in every form throughout the day: bare in the early morning light apart from a vase of flowers, then set for the meal, and at the end of the day, laden with dirty plates and half-eaten casserole dishes. The table signifies a place of belonging and community, a place of entering into proximity with one another. I love the table for what it represents—a circle—where we all look at one another and all sit at the same height. Whether your table is ornately decorated with fine china and cloth napkins or paper plates and plastic tablecloths, its purpose—bringing people together—is what makes it beautiful.
The table is a place not simply for eating, but for lingering. Most of the important conversations in my childhood home happened around the dinner table long after the dishes were cleared away.
Hospitality Doesn’t Require a Spotless Home
I once read in a magazine that you should never mop your floors before a party, as they’ll just get dirty again—but you should wipe down the bathroom, as that’s the one place people are guaranteed to spend time alone. I always keep this idea in mind when preparing for company, especially as a mom of young kids. My guests don’t need to enter a completely spotless home. Far more important than floors that glisten is creating an environment where people feel safe and welcome. This idea has also helped when a guest spills their glass of wine, or a big dollop of cranberry sauce ends up on the floor. My home is a vessel for people to gather, not the other way around.
Have Some Good Questions Ready
Good conversation, where everyone has something to contribute, makes a meal memorable. Last year, I hosted my extended family of 15 for Thanksgiving. I put a conversation question at each placemat such as, “What is the most useful thing you own?” or “What is one lesson you have learned this year?” Even in a setting with people I have known for most of my life, we learned new things about one another.
Prep in Advance
I am not the type of cook who can talk casually with my guests as I dice and stir, so I try to prepare as much food in advance as possible. Cookbook author Ina Garten has a variety of make-ahead holiday casserole, side, and even dessert options, which I’ve relied on heavily when hosting a large crowd over a period of days. Preparing in advance allows me to be more relaxed on the day of, and to actually enjoy the guests I’ve invited over.
Clean Up Together
We used to host a group of friends in our home every Sunday evening for food, games, and good discussion. For years, I refused to let anyone help clean up, always saying we would do it after they left. Oftentimes, I found myself exhausted trying to clean up after a dozen people right before the week started. Finally, one friend insisted on at least loading the dishwasher, while a few others pitched in to wash the big pots and wipe down the table. I realized that by letting them help, I was welcoming them into my home and life in a way I hadn’t before. Allowing my friends to contribute to the clean-up gave them a sense of ownership in our night and time together.
Not every guest who comes to your home will be inclined to help clean up—but letting those friends or family members who want to help will increase the sense of belonging they feel in your home.
However your table looks this year, I hope it is full of rich food, good conversation, and a relaxed atmosphere—full of good memories you’ll want to return to again and again.
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com