How to survive holiday parties
Social columnist Michael Barnes shares his tips for how to handle the busy festive season and be fabulous doing it
A tall doorman in full livery salutes the guests as they arrive. A fetching young woman passes out candy cigars and cigarettes. A jazz band plays an improvised nightclub with crowded cabaret tables and brightly colored drinks.
Few holiday parties this season will match the glamour of "Christmas at the Stork Club," thrown by Austin's Jack and Carla McDonald in 2010. That's perfectly OK. (The couple is following up this year with a Pink Panther-themed party. Anyone have a long, thin, pink scarf to spare?)
For the next month or so, families and close friends will socialize intimately over meals, games and gifts. Colleagues and companions will gather in the glow of pubs, eateries and social halls (the office party is almost extinct, thanks to liability concerns).
Still others will brave the dance clubs and hotels for organized celebrating, especially on New Year's Eve, which my former co-worker Michael Corcoran liked to call "amateur night," in part because those bacchants unaccustomed to public socializing tend to, well, overdo.
We offer a few simple tips for hosts and guests during this season of heightened socializing.
1. Go easy on the seasonal theme. Not everyone wants to dress up. Or carol. Or come as a character from "Frosty the Snowman." These are not reasons to avoid a thematic strategy altogether. "Great themes provide a unifying context for all elements of an event — from the invitation you send to the stamp you use to the food you serve to the music you play — that results in a party that makes sense, but is also full of surprise," says writer, businesswoman and activist Carla McDonald, who judiciously edited her Stork Club soirée last year. "But there is always a danger in interpreting themes too literally. Evocative interpretations are generally more interesting than literal ones."
2. Timing is everything. Never too early. Never too late. Only the reincarnation of Truman Capote could make a case that true tardiness is fashionable. For those throwing holiday parties for guests outside the immediate neighborhood, do not start the shindig during Austin rush hour. "Hate 6 p.m. Domain parties," says photographer Jonathan Garza. "It's like I have to leave at 4:45 p.m. to make sure I'm not late." Also, unless your guests are in their early 20s, end before the clubs close.
3. Don't tack on events. Trust your social columnist on this one: Progressive parties aren't really as fun as they sound. Stay where you are for the evening. Otherwise, all your time is spent saying "hello" and "goodbye." Stay out of the car if you've had even a little to drink. It's just not worth the trouble.
4. That said, sparkling wine makes a nice gift. We are not big on personalized host gifts, which are for people with the time to scrapbook or make custom decorations. (Martha Stewart we are not.) Instead, before the season commences, we purchase a couple cases of good, but far from expensive, gift wine. Our current favorite on the dry end is the New Mexico-grown Gruet Blanc de Blancs ($20 a bottle, less with case discounts). Another surprising winner is the similarly priced Costco Kirkland-label Champaigne (from Manuel Janisson in the Champaigne region of France).
5. Make everyone feel welcome. Hosts, position yourself or a stand-in near the door (livery not required). Greet everyone briefly but warmly. Provide an array of food and drink choices. "Include casually labeled options for vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and sugar-free guests," adds Austin writer Dean Lofton. "Since dietary restrictions are often health-related, it can be a buzz kill to discuss them at a party while trying to discern the ingredients of a dish." If you really want to help out those guests who happen to be parents: "Make it kid-friendly by having indoor and outdoor activities and hire a baby sitter to help the host out," says Shuronda Robinson, president of Austin's Adisa Communications.
6. Talk to everyone. This might seem overwhelming, but the point of a party is the people, not the food or drink or entertainment. Wander around the margins. Go outside, if that's an option. Move away from the natural magnetic core of the event, usually the kitchen or dining room. After touching base with everyone you know, introduce yourself to strangers. If you are a host, introduce guests to other guests with conversation starters. If you can afford it, hire help to free you up for socializing. "This party is for you, too," says Austin Fashion Association's Connie Bakonyi. "Splurge on the help so that you can enjoy yourself and ensure your friends meet each other and have a great time."
7. Make a toast. What sets the holidays apart is a sense of occasion. It's not a wedding, birthday or anniversary, but, as a social tribe, you've made it through another year. Honor that occasion with a few public comments, sans a long list of thanks. "Make sure you stop the action," says Austin psychologist Albert Cantara. "Something that brings everyone together for a just few moments. This makes it personal and acknowledges the real reason guests were invited and decided to attend."
In other words, savor the moment with the people you chose to share the holiday.
Make the most of your party time