Help! I've forgotten how to plan a gathering

"Can I make my holiday gathering vax-only?" and other hosting questions, answered by an expert

Published November 18, 2021 6:05PM (EST)

Thanksgiving day dinner table with roasted whole chicken or little turkey , pumpkin pie on dark rustic background with plates, sauce, cutlery, burning candles, red autumn leaves, nuts and festive decoration (Getty Images/VICUSCHKA)
Thanksgiving day dinner table with roasted whole chicken or little turkey , pumpkin pie on dark rustic background with plates, sauce, cutlery, burning candles, red autumn leaves, nuts and festive decoration (Getty Images/VICUSCHKA)

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Should you ask your guests to bring something? How do you keep people out of the kitchen? How do you serve everything at the right temp? Feel like you've forgotten how to be a good host? (Same.) In our latest series, Be My Guest, a friendly expert takes on questions from our community and deftly puts fears to rest, suggesting all the ways in which we can all get back to hosting safely — and confidently. It is (almost) the holidays after all!

* * *

If you're anything like me, you've had a handful of parties on hold for anywhere from six to 18 months. (I've never been one to whimper at the prospect of aging, but I still maintain that I haven't turned 32 yet, since the corresponding celebration hasn't happened.) Some of us have spent hours — days! weeks! — of the pandemic daydreaming about little bowls of Ruffles potato chips set about the apartment, halls decked with mistletoe, Lambrusco in ice buckets, dance party playlists, and long tables lit with tall candles that cast a glow on the unmasked faces we love best.

As vaccinated numbers rise, many of us are cautiously throwing parties again. I'm still not ready to throw that 200-person birthday rager that I cancelled in March 2020 — the extension is keeping me young, after all — but I've got a tentative date for a toned-down return of my annual holiday party, and am back to hosting dinners for small groups of friends at the new dinner table I scored on Craigslist while in lockdown redecoration frenzy. This means necessarily dusting off my favorite serveware, digging out my placemats from the crevices of my linen closet, and — perhaps the most creaky resurrection of them all — remembering how to throw a party in the first place.

In a way, it's like riding a bike: you invite your friends over, put something in the oven, dress yourself the way a famished person eats (with excess and gusto), make a playlist, and eventually a party will happen. But it's still easy for many of us to feel rusty at this whole hosting business, especially as the capital-H Holidays approach. So today I'm taking some questions from our community (i.e. you, dear readers) on party prep, in hopes that we can all feel a little more confident and breezy when that first doorbell chimes.

I am going to let you in on a little secret here. People love being told what to do. Especially now, when we all feel that we've lost our social graces — maybe they're off somewhere hanging out with the five hundred hair ties we've also lost over the last ten years. Sure, not every person falls into this category, but I promise you that if there's something you'd like your guests to bring, they'd be happy to bring it. They're probably wondering what they can bring anyway; isn't it the act of a gracious host, then, to rid them of any worry and simply provide them with the correct answer?

Of course, your requests need to be reasonable. If you're looking for a 1996 bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, don't pass off the search onto your friends, unless one of them happens to be an upscale wine importer. Don't ask your friend who is still on unemployment to pick up a tin of caviar. Don't ask your teetotaler aunt to grab a handle of vodka from the store. Be specific when you can — "a bottle of [insert commonly found wine style here]" or "a case of plain seltzer" or "two bags of plain Ruffles potato chips" are totally acceptable requests. Just give your guests plenty of time to shop (no requests an hour before the party unless it's your bestie). And be just as honest if you don't need them to bring anything! You'll save your friends the time of picking up something unnecessary, and give them the ultimate luxury: the gift of hospitality, with no strings attached.

* * *

As a host, it is your job to decide when to defer to others, and when to be firm on your priorities. Yes, everyone must leave their shoes at the door; sure, the kids can run anywhere except the dining room; yes, we'll add a place setting for the girl Rebecca moved in with after going on a single date; no, you may not touch the Spotify queue.

When it comes to enforcing vaccinations, an act that protects not just you and your guests but also their families, their coworkers, and the people who work at their local grocery store, you're allowed to make the call, firmly and lovingly.

This turns the question, then, into a matter of how you put your foot down, and what you say once it's there. How easy this is will depend on the type of party that you're throwing. If you're hosting a birthday party or dinner or happy hour, anything that's just a gathering of friends, it's absolutely appropriate to add a line in your invitation, italicized so that everyone can see it, saying In order to keep us all safe, please only attend if you're vaccinated. It's simple, it communicates to your guests that you care about their health and the health of their community, and it's impossible to miss. Of course, it's up to you whether you'll actually be checking people's vaccine cards by the door — if you're really worried, feel free to ask that people email or text you a photo of theirs with their RSVP.

You have other options, too: you can ask that people be vaccinated, but operate on the honor system and not require proof; you can also simply ask people to get tested a few days before the gathering. These actions can make both you and your guests feel more comfortable — and after all, isn't that what a host does?

Now, maybe you're hosting Thanksgiving dinner for your extended family, and you're worried that a certain uncle or cousin has not yet made the decision to get the vaccine. In this case, your communication and logistical strategy may have to shift. Maybe you can underline the presence of unvaccinated children, whom everyone will want to protect; maybe you can remind your guests that you're particularly interested in keeping your oldest or most at-risked loved ones safe; maybe you can set up an outdoor dining area, or simply ask that they wear a mask inside. Being firm isn't always fun, but it's a decision you can feel proud of.

* * *

Do you put an end time on an invite? I'm never quite sure.

This practice is only appropriate in the following scenarios: 

1. You are hosting a children's birthday party.
2. You have rented a venue for a finite number of hours.
3. There's a second party to go to after yours.

Otherwise, we're all adults here, which means that we are capable of staying up a little later than our bedtimes in service of a good party, and we're tactful enough to subtly let people know when it's time to go home. (We'll get to that in an upcoming installment, so stay tuned!) Just whatever you do, under no circumstances, and not even as a joke, should you ever tell people that your party goes until "question mark". Intrigue is the whole point of a party; attempting to highlight that intrigue is like reminding each of your guests that you're wearing underwear.

By Marian Bull

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