The Simple Joy of Entertaining

          It is possible to survive and thrive while preparing for the holidays.     

            -Maida Korte

“For Christmas is tradition time—
Traditions that recall
The precious memories down the years,
The sameness of them all.” – Helen Lowrie Marshall

Decades ago I read the opening to a book that described ways to create memorable holidays for little ones.  This appealed to me since I had little ones and I love to entertain.  What a surprise to discover that the book’s forward was filled with all that could and would go wrong.  I laughed of course, commiserating in the truth of it all.  From the holiday soup with a slightly burnt aroma, to the sugary sweets causing too much rowdiness, to the great chasm between expectation and reality – I admit it hit almost too close to home.  An exploration in sanity made me discover and implement a plan that I have come to cherish because it works every time we invite people into our celebrations. 

Holiday celebrations are times to put down roots of tradition that provide a sense of belonging and a gathered awareness that we are part of something larger than ourselves.  One centerpiece to these gatherings is food, and oh how we love it.   “Food glorious food, hot sausage and mustard!” (Oliver)  In order to have success in this important holiday arena there are a few simple strategies to surviving and thriving during holiday dinner celebrations and keeping things simple is the headline. Sounds easy, right?   In theory yes, but how do you sort through all the gorgeous pictures of sumptuous feasts seen in every commercial and magazine during the holiday season and then make decisions about what to serve and when to serve it?  I implement three celebratory dinner rules that never fail me. 

 Rule One:   Create a menu.  I do want to throw out a caution here.  This is not the time to try out an entirely new menu of recipes that sound amazing, only to discover that they require dozens of ingredients and hard to interpret cooking instructions.  Stick to the tried and true courses from prior dinners that you know everyone loves. I do allow myself to try one new recipe each holiday party but let my main menu revolve around tested dishes I have mastered.  Over time this expands and new masterpieces find their way onto this sacred list.  Trust me – this will evoke memories of past holidays and thus deepen tradition.  My second recommendation is to be heeded if you want to actually enjoy your guests.  Only prepare three of the items on your menu the day of your holiday dinner.  Prepare everything you can ahead of time and save the important aromas for the ‘day of.’   Remember that this dinner is about bringing family and loved ones together to share a meal where you are creating a memory, an experience, a heritage.  It is this exquisite combination of food and family that creates a platform for lingering and enjoying one another.  By keeping the menu both simple and cooking only a few items the day of the celebration, you will have more energy to be a rested hostess that forms the tone for the day and the meal. 

Rule Two:  Set a beautiful table.  My husband has told me numerous times that one of his pleasures in life is watching me set the table in preparation for family coming over. I always use my best table ware and I encourage you to bring out all those special pieces you have tucked away.  Don’t wait for the perfect time that may never arrive.  Unwrap, untie, dust off – use it now for this moment!  If you have an adult’s table and a kid’s table, do not neglect something special at each place setting.  Also, honoring past traditions within your table setting is important.  I have three porcelain and painted pilgrims that are old and not particularly special to anyone but my family.  By putting them out on the table we are remembering dinners past and conversations that have deepened relationships. Oh yes, always includes candles as lighting them signals dinner is about to be served. 

Rule #3:  Take time to think about seating.  It is best if you assign seats and not let everyone sit wherever they want.  There is always seating confusion when there is not an assignment of sorts.  By placing cute little name tags and having guests discover where they are to sit you eliminate hesitation, make guests feel special and also showcase that you are a  hostess with grace and wisdom.  Pondering and planning your seating plan enhances rather than quells conversation.  We own a clear plastic box of little red cards that I put out on the table before anyone is seated.  These small square cards hold questions that are stimulating, interesting and fun!  We go around the table, passing the box and pulling out a card.  Hoots of laughter ensue as conversation goes from the hysterical to the serious.  We only have to go around once since this kindling of conversation works its own magic.  At very special celebratory dinners I have often placed a cranberry on each plate and this has produced inquisitive looks as guests are seated.  I then hold up my single red berry and say one thing I am especially thankful for.  No explanation is needed.  One by one my loved ones pick up their berries and their simple sharing fills our hearts as our dinner begins.

Your home is personal and inviting someone to step across your threshold is the first step toward more than a meal.  You are asking your guests to come inside, create memories and deepen relationships.  A little preparatory effort goes a long way and in the process you will not merely survive the holidays, you will be enriched and blessed in the process.

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