How Not To Be a Hostess - Failures in Real Time


art by Josefina Schargorodsky via Pinterest

"Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor." - Truman Capote
Some time ago we did a poll on the blog and as is the nature of such things, you voted. Your votes were cast over the period of a week and the topic in question was "Things You Want To See More Of On This Blog." By the end of the voting period the topics that came out on top were
Entertaining & Hospitality and Funny Stories From Real Life. I confess I'm a little surprised that these two categories pulled into first and second place ahead of things like "fresh recipes" and "healthy desserts" (except that the question was phrased "what do you want more of" and we already have plenty of recipes here). I'm kind of happy y'all voted that way because of course I like talking about funny things that happen in real life and you also know how much like I love a party. So it's in the spirit of listening to you about both topics that I'm going to tell you a story that happened this past weekend: a story of totally failing as a hostess. Honestly, this is kind of an embarrassing and slightly vulnerable post to write. So from the girl who called burnt pie crust "caramelized," here's a bit of candidness.

Despite the soaring triumph which was my buche de noel (shoddy iPhone pictures can be seen here), everything was not all right. See, sometimes you decide that rather than an intimate, dinner-party type group, it's time for a giant party with dozens of people. And things don't work out the way you planned. Sometimes you get to seven PM on the specified Friday night with a group amounting to the size of a bobsled team.
Yes, out of the thirty people invited to this party, precisely four were able to make it. Heck, even my trustiest wingman, my sister Sarah, left me for a road trip to DC.
"Please, bring your kids," I begged the one guest who happens to be a mother and could swell our numbers by dragging along her husband and three children. As seven o'clock approached, my three heroic guests (plus a husband and assorted children) assembled. I pulled the brie out of the oven, perfectly melted. I stuck the brie back in the oven. Maybe we'd wait a few minutes more and see who showed up before deciding to eat. The children descended on the gingerbread men and somehow found the marshmallows intended for hot chocolate later in the evening. Facebook event regrets began to roll in, punctuated by a series of texts and phone calls notifying me that the handful of other possible guests couldn't make it to my house. One was sitting with a grieving friend, another stuck on a bridge, another shopping. Never have I been more grateful for a massive family who happened to be at home on this occasion. They filled out the ranks so that you didn't notice - almost didn't notice - the fact that exactly four people had showed up to an event labeled on the invitations as an "Actually Fun Christmas Party."
Rule Number One: don't try to be clever with the names of your events.

Did I jinx the night by giving it a pretentious name? By divorcing it from typical traditions like ugly sweaters and awkward gift exchanges which nobody seems to actually like and everyone seems to feel compelled to participate in? I guess I did flick something off-center in the universe because by the time I pulled the twice-melted brie out of the oven and rearranged the food on the table, it was clear to everyone involved that this was far from the actually fun Christmas party I had so blithely promised when I figured there would be at least fifteen guests who could help keep the mood high. I mean, I was enjoying my time with the valiant handful, but when there are only five of you, it's more a visit than a party (which is fine if that is the goal, awkward if that is the byproduct of people not showing up). As F. Scott Fitzgerald had it, "...I like large parties. They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy."

The guests who did come out to celebrate with me were troopers. My dad built a fire and offered hayrides in the cold, starry weather. The kids (hyped up on marshmallows, gingerbread men, and those oddly delicious sausage-and-cheese balls) went out while the adults partook of the woodland masterpiece which was this year's Yule log cake. It might not have been exactly high-energy, but the evening was far from a total failure, right? I was enjoying myself after a fashion and I hoped my guests were similarly generous in their judgement. When the mommy guest and her family had to leave, I grabbed the prize which was meant to be awarded to the person who had decorated the best-dressed gingerbread man.
"Well..." I glanced down at the small package which look crumpled and dispirited in this light, then handed it to my friend, Melody. "Here. You're the only adult who decorated a cookie so I guess you win!" I mean, to be fair she had decorated a very nice gingerbread man.

At that moment a friend texted to say that he was on his way over with his roommate and could he bring anything? I looked at the table which was still full of food (I don't care how hungry you are, even four of the most valiant guests cannot polish off snacks meant for fifteen) and told him to just come on over.
Rule Number Two: accurately gauge the temperature of the party.
I didn't think it was fair to delude this guy and make him think we had a giant flock of merry & bright party-goers toasting each other with sparkling cider and shouting out answers to the other team's catchphrase clues.
"We've got a movie on and we're playing games and hanging out - it's a small group because some people just left. But you should totally still come."
"Oh, we're coming," he texted back.
Things began to feel like a party again. I like this person. I like his friend. They're funny and smart and attractive and interesting (besides being adults) and anybody who fits this description is automatically an asset to an event that has become less "glittering holiday soiree" and more "prolonged UberPool ride." I felt unreasonable gratitude to them for entering our tepid waters with brave Christmas faces. We were having a pleasant time but it lacked the certain fa-la-la-la-la that a Christmas party ought to have if at all possible.
By the time these newcomers arrived, my remaining two guests (you know who you are and that you're the real MVP's) had helped rearrange us into a pleasant, classic-looking knot of friends and family playing Scrabble, laughing, having a good time. Holiday Inn flickered inanely in the background and we were warm, cozy, and comfortable. This sort of arrangement is probably what we should have adjusted to from the start, as it's shockingly hard for three people to properly fill a space that could have held thirty. One does feel a little insufficient, as if the ghosts of the other twenty-seven people are standing around critiquing your inability to make enough noise. It's odd and inconsiderate of those ghosts. We do the best we can!
At last the guys joined us; fresh blood, fresh wind, fresh fire. We all perked up. They were wider awake than we were, full of entertaining stories, big laughter, good triple-word-score ideas. The night was saved. This was a good time. This was an Actually Fun Christmas Party. And then tragedy struck.
Rule Number Three: never watch movies at party unless it's a movie-watching party.
Right in the middle of feeling particularly stupid as to my Scrabble tiles (you can't do much with a handful of j's and the occasional m.), an awkward fissure of laughter erupted behind me. Though I wasn't sure what the cause was, I could tell that it wasn't a comfortable laugh. And then I looked up, dialing my attention from impossible letter combinations to the television just in time to see the stupidest scene in the history of stupid scenes in the history of Holiday Inn. To begin with, I forgot Holiday Inn wasn't White Christmas. Then I forgot that Holiday Inn is kind of hideous apart from the two scenes which are actually related to Christmas. I certainly didn't remember a black-face skit. And yet there it was - insensitive, derogatory, antiquated, and offensive - and I was the one in charge. Their disbelieving chuckles wound down with the exit of the scene and I apologized with a hot, red face, utterly horrified.
My friend leaned over and deftly arranged a Scrabble tile on the floor nearby. "It's okay," he said. "We're not offended."
But I felt offended for them, not to mention ashamed of and sorry for the entire thread of human history that created something like a blackface skit. It would never be my intention to offend, mock, or deride anyone, especially not someone who had sat in my home as a guest. A person taking time out of their life to step into my life. The party was supposed to be a place of refreshment, not racial division. Damn you, Holiday Inn.
"It's fine," he said again. Then, changing the subject: "Do you have any e's?"
They were gracious, relaxed, and capable; I was hot-faced, embarrassed, and fumbling. Who was the offended guest here? We laughed it off and determinedly hurried the discomfort away, forcefully burying it under a heap of better memories. Later on I apologized again and then, later, when the small and wonderful little group of friends had gone their separate ways, I took a serious moment for reflection. After all these dinner parties and birthday parties and random-occasion parties, I was finally lucky enough to learn How Not To Be A Hostess. It had been a long time coming - I'm surprised I hadn't had a chance terribly much sooner to learn these lessons which I will surely never forget.

Thankfully I have gracious friends who are willing to let a hostess make mistakes. But hey - let me help you out: parties don't need names, friends should be forewarned, and movies are for theatres. Oh, especially that last one. I repeat: Movies. Are. For. Theatres.

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