Once upon a time, I had visions of Advent activities dancing through my head— visions of Jesse Trees, sweet little wreaths hung from dining room chandeliers, and rows of tiny shoes left out by the fireside for Saint Nicholas to fill. Those visions, however, went hand in hand with visions of a house overflowing with babies. Since the latter visions haven’t come to pass, neither have the former.
As most single Catholic woman will tell you, come Advent, it’s easy to feel left out in the cold. So many of the Church’s loveliest traditions for the domestic church are traditions best enjoyed in the company of children. Or at least another person. So, what’s a liturgically minded gal to do?
Borrow other people’s children, of course.
Last Saturday I did just that, when I hosted my annual Christmas Tree Decorating and Cocktail Party: 40 adults, 30 children and teens, 13 kinds of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, 7 kinds of dessert, 6 specialty cocktails, and more hours of decorating and cleaning than I care to count.
Trust me, you’ve never really decorated a tree until you’ve decorated a tree with 20 small children.
It’s not that I’m a total heathen during Advent. I do Morning Prayer, pray the Saint Andrew’s Novena, and fast from sweets from the first Sunday of Advent right up until Christmas Eve (hard on the will, easy on the waistline). But my annual Christmas Tree Decorating Cocktail Party is the main Advent event around here.
And yes, I know, I hear the purists among you grumbling about cocktail parties and tree decorating during Advent. But, this is what works for me. Since most of my friends in Steubenville are out of town during Christmas proper, I’ve found that throwing the party on the first Saturday of December means families can actually come…and families are kind of key to this particular party.
Moreover, I think in the midst of our desire to not get swept up into Sparkle Season, we can forget that the Church isn’t preparing for the death of the Savior during Advent; it’s preparing for the birth of a baby. This is how I prepare my home for that birth. Why shouldn’t I do it a few weeks in advance? After all, if I’m ever miraculously blessed with a baby boy, believe you me, I will not be outfitting his nursery the night before he arrives.
Regardless, my annual tree decorating party is not for the faint of heart: I call it Extreme Entertaining.
Like with Extreme Running or Extreme Biking, you have to be more than a little crazy to throw this kind of party. Like certifiable. Because you’ll need the kind of meds that come with a doctor’s note. They come in handy as you navigate the weeks of planning and days of work.
But, also like with an Extreme sport, because this kind of entertaining requires more of you, it also gives more to you…and to others as well.
I’ve written before on this blog about how entertaining doesn’t have to be complicated. And later this week, for Aleteia, I’ll be writing about some simple party planning tips for the holidays. Simple is good. Easy is good. Low-key is good. Food doesn’t have to be served on silver platters to make people happy, and most of the parties I throw do not require a degree in spatial engineering to pull off.
At the same time, however, there’s something to be said for abandoning the ordinary for the extraordinary from time to time.
The Church does this routinely, dividing up her calendar into Ordinary Time and “extraordinary time” (Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter). She gives us daily Mass and Sunday Mass, low Mass and High Mass, Memorials, Feast Days, Solemnities, and Holy Days of Obligation. There are days when she asks us to pray quietly inside dimly lit churches, and there are days when she has us light up God’s house with a thousand candles, practically shout the Gloria, and smoke out the asthmatics with incense.
On the domestic level, the same should hold true. There’s a time for pizza, paper plates and jeans. But, there’s also a time for china plates, pretty dresses, and food that can’t be thrown together in 5 or 10 minutes.
My Christmas Tree Decorating Party is the High Liturgical Feast of my domestic church. It’s a chance to spoil my friends—telling them with crab cakes, craft cocktails, and cashew clusters just how remarkable and wonderful I think they are.
It’s also a chance for my friends to share the joy of their children with me and bring a little of the magic that only children can bring, into my home.
(And yes, I do have an ornament of a nun in a full Dominican habit. A former roommate made it for me before she entered as a postulant. Only in Steubenville.)
Most of all, though, my party is a chance to celebrate the Child who was born at Midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold, so very long ago—the Child whose life deserves to be celebrated with the best I’ve got and the best I can do.
If I’m not going to make a fuss for him this time of year, when am I going to do it?
Again, we’re talking my best here. I’m a single woman who loves to cook and has spent 15 years hunting for silver plate in junk shops across the country. My best is inviting 75 people over, pulling that silver out of the cupboard, and putting it on the darned table. Yours may be using Grandma’s china that hasn’t seen the light of day for a decade, lighting a few candles besides those on the Advent wreath, or just springing for a bottle of wine.
The high holy days of the domestic church don’t have to be occasions for Extreme Entertaining. But they should be special. They should be different from the everyday. They should be, in some way, extraordinary. We’re celebrating the God of the Universe coming into the world as a tiny baby. There’s nothing ordinary about that. Using fancy plates to eat fancy food while wearing fancy dresses helps make the extraordinariness of that truth incarnate. It reminds children and grownups alike of how astonishing and dazzling the events of that first Christmas really were.
Again, that doesn’t mean you have to start sending out handwritten invitations to 100 of your nearest and dearest. If everyone I knew threw parties like mine, there would be little point in me doing it. Extreme entertaining isn’t for everyone. But, if you’re inclined to try something just a little bit bigger and bolder this year (or next), let me offer a few words of advice.
First, have a plan.
Make lists. Put together a calendar of what you need to do each day in the weeks leading up to the party. Draw diagrams of what goes in the oven at what time and sketch out what food goes in what dish. Seriously. Think of a football coach putting together a playbook. Then, imitate him.
Second, have help.
There is no way on God’s green earth I could pull off this party by myself. All those Dickensian Christmas parties that charm us when we watch BBC dramas were made possible by one thing: servants. If you can’t afford servants (which I can’t), you’ll need either an army of well-trained children or some seriously awesome friends. I have the latter. My boyfriend Chris, and friends Dave, Tom, and Sara cleaned, decorated, greeted guests, bartended, and helped me navigate the complexities of getting hundreds of hors d’oeuvres out of three different ovens and onto the table in the span of 15 minutes. They are awesome.
And only once did anyone make faces at me.
(Note super awesome apron on super awesome boyfriend. Bonus points for that one.)
Third, find grace in each moment along the way.
If you don’t want to end up a crabby, exhausted, broke hostess, wondering why you expended so much energy for something that is going to be over and done with in five hours, then you really need to savor the process…all of it: the planning, the cooking, the cleaning, again, even the stress. For those who dip their toes into the rapids of Extreme Entertaining, the key to happiness is seeing every step along the way as part of the fun. It’s not just one moment. It’s all the moments. Which is true of life as well.
Fourth, cultivate an attitude of detachment.
No matter how hard you try, you can’t control every aspect of the party. Something will burn. Something will break. And a dozen little girls will give you a heart attack by drinking cranberry juice and eating fudge while sitting on your brand new ivory bedspread. It’s okay. It happens to the best of us. And most people are none the wiser. All your guests will know is that they got to spend a few hours chatting with friends and drinking cocktails, while their children did God knows what. Laughter, conversation, and friendship are what they’ll remember. It’s all you should remember too.
And fifth, know your limits and stick to them.
By that, I mean, let go of the pressure to make every thing you do during Advent and Christmas “special” and “unforgettable.” Life is not a Pinterest Board and if you fall into the trap of thinking you have to recreate Martha Stewart’s magazine in everything you do from the first Sunday of Advent to the Feast of the Presentation, you will burnout faster than a child star on the Disney Channel.
So, pick one or two events or activities you want to make extraordinary and embrace simplicity for the rest. Trust me, the kids in your daughter’s preschool class will be just as happy with store bought sugar cookies as they will with designer cupcakes, and nobody will be crying if your family’s four page Christmas letter doesn’t show up this year. You can only do so much, and it’s better to concentrate your energy on the people closest to you.
So, go forth. Be brave. Use that china unafraid. Christmas is almost here. If you can, now is the time to make a big, stinking, beautiful fuss.
Just make sure to have that wine handy first.
I wish I could feature beautiful shots of all the appetizers I made, carefully arranged on silver platters…but I had 70 people to feed and entertain. Priorities! So, links to some of the recipes I used will have to do.
- Bacon, Leek, and Cheddar Mini Quiches
- Cranberry Cheddar Sausage Bites
- Parmesan Crusted Crab Cakes with Garlic Aioli
- Bacon Wrapped Dates (cooked at 400 degrees, though)
- Spinach Artichoke Bites
- Tuna Tartare with Sesame
- Spinach Balls (minus the onions)
- Artichoke and Bean Spread
- Lemon Feta Dip
- Cranberry Chutney (over cream cheese)
- Peppermint Bark
- Peppermint Fudge