How I Learned to Relax and Stop Stressing About Holiday Hosting
Last New Year's Eve, I set my house on fire twice, over-marinated the shrimp to the point of leatheriness, and kept my husband from passing out from shock after he nearly severed a tendon while slicing lemons. The one question on our guests' lips—the very same people we'd sent scurrying to the sub-zero yard as the kitchen choked up with smoke—as they left around 2:30 a.m.: So we're doing this again next year, right?
If I'd had any notion that things were going to go so very sideways, I would have feigned a stomach ailment and cowered under the covers until after the clock safely struck midnight and I was off the hook for entertaining. No quantity of fretting would have anticipated or prevented those particular events from occurring (although you'd better believe I take every imaginable fire precaution and set an alarm for the marinade now), but it might have stopped me from hosting the event in the first place. That would have been a shame, because at this very same party, friendships were forged, memories made, and some truly good drinks and food consumed—save for the shrimp.
When I woke up early the next afternoon, I had my resolution for the year ahead: Accept that things are going to go wrong, and don't waste time worrying about what might.
It's a good principle in general, but especially when I'm entertaining. I'm a prolific thrower of parties, from three-person dinner parties to borderline bacchanals where 120 people show up and leave full and no more or less sober than they'd like to be. I'm also lucky enough to have friends who throw pretty killer shindigs. If there is something I've gleaned from all this revelry, it's that next to having enough ice and lemons on hand, the host's level of freakout is what determines the success of a party.
Pressure! I know! But I'm not saying that a person must staple a rictus grin to their face and pretend that everything is fine when things have obviously gone off the rails. No one is fooled and it just makes things extra awkward for everyone. Here's the thing to keep at the tippy-top of your mind: Unless your guests are absolute monsters (in which case why are you allowing them into your home in the first place?), they want to have fun, and for you to be a part of it, too. They're on your side, and they're following your lead.
The very best gatherings feel both inclusive and conspiratorial; imbued with the feeling that everyone there is welcome and lucky, and everyone elsewhere couldn't possibly be having as much fun as you all are. If something goes awry—a pile of leaves in the backyard catching a spark from the charcoal chimney you've lit, or an unanticipated quantity of duck fat leaking onto the oven floor and setting the whole appliance on fire, for instance—guests will rally and help you fix it. Maybe even form a fireman-style brigade to pass buckets of water from the sink out to the burning backyard fence, or cheerfully Google "how to put out a duck fat fire" while holding a glass of Champagne in the now-damp and freezing yard. People like to be part of the solution, so why not let them? It gives them a fantastic story to tell, with them as the hero.
I think about that night a lot when I'm tempted to be hard on myself and start to stress and psych myself out of hosting. I'd planned, stocked up, prepped ahead, and leaned into all my past party prowess, and still things went wrong. Where they went terribly right was in the way I dealt with it.
I couldn't pretend the fence wasn't ablaze, and my freakout alone wouldn't douse the inferno, so I rallied the party around me. Humbling, of course, and I wouldn't recommend it as an icebreaker at every soiree, but the guests all tell the story to this day and for some nutty reason, they're willing to come back to my house again and again. I'm going to flatter myself and assume it's because they like the mood I set: cared for, but not fussed over. It's definitely not for the shrimp.