Wednesday, November 5, 2008

First you scribble, then you build... Party Planning Crash Course, Part 1

Few things are brought to a successful issue by impetuous desire, but most by calm and prudent forethought.
- Napoleon Bonaparte

Cocktail party: A gathering held to enable forty people to talk about themselves at the same time. The man who remains after the liquor is gone is the host.
- Fred Allen

I love everything about the holiday season, right down to Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer and the colorful doorstops. Er, I mean, fruitcakes. Every carol and red ribbon bring back the sparkling magic of our childhood Christmases. Sure, there is rampant, and this season, nervous, consumerism and a few other small, inconsequential unfortunates, but mostly the rejoicing of happy, renewed, twinkling hearts overtakes all that is less than perfect at the holidays.

This season, I will be helping my lovely Mom with a tree trimming party and Christmas Eve dinner. You see, we're on the mend here after several catastrophic family losses. It's time to welcome people back again for something more than a tour of a burned out shell of a house or to pay their condolences regarding our Dad.

The process of planning a suitable location, menu, bar, and serviceware requires thought and patience. While it easy to tell you we will have some people, maybe thirty or so, of a Saturday afternoon, this is unreliable and dangerous information from which to work until all the logistical and strategic ducks are placed in a row, inspected, and taught to quack in gently harmony. It is there, at the logistical-quack stage, that the fevered scribbling begins for this Hostess and many other good, thorough ones. I assure you.

Firstly, fair warning: If you throw parties together at the last minute, call a caterer, because you are in the worst kind of Hostess trouble if you try to tackle this alone a week before. I am not the sort to engage a caterer unless the menu is too high maintenance or the guests too many for me to handle alone. It frustrates me to have them in the house being paid a fortune for things I can do with a bit of plotting and scheming. So let's not call them. I bet we can get this done no problem.

I have some ideas. In this instance, we thought it would be nice to have a four part consideration for the food and drinks:

1. A buffet table of various nibble displays.
2. Some standing or passed hors d'oeuvres.
3. A dessert table or bar.
4. The bar, which will stock a bit of liquor but largely well drinks and the punch
or drink of the day.

In the case of these Hostesses', all of those guesses go into the initial scatter-brained chicken scratch that is my (Hostess) Book: The notebook, the dossier, the guide, however you like to think of it, but it is imperative you have one as well. The Book will prevent you from forgetting set ups, serving platters, food items, hand towels for the bath, and any other small thing you need to scribble down and revisit in order to complete the party and the plan. You can find dozens of party planning checklists online to tuck into your Book if you like, but I find my own lists are more complete, thoughtful, and reassuringly prolific.

I read magazines hocking entertainment advice, and I follow the blogs of other entertaining types. It is concerning how often one is encouraged to fly by the seat of one's pants in order to make the reader feel that entertaining is mindlessly easy. Getting it right is not easy, in fact, I cannot think of one thing done truly well which is easy. Let me manage your expectations now: Get focused and organized. This is not about you, it's about your guests and if you choose to have guests, you choose to work. This is true of every grand dame down to the pizza party at Chuck E Cheese. People do this work because they love it and because it brings them joy to please their guests. It does not seem like toiling work to me, I love it. But I am not kidding myself. It is something to take pride in and do well, not something for cutting corners and blowing off tasks and realities.

Possibly you have hosting a party this season, too. So. Let's get to work. It is my pleasure help you plan your party alongside mine.

Firstly, a party is undertaken from the ground up. Before you can choose the fun items like food, decor, signature drinks, and a guest list you have get your hands dirty with the details. In your Book you need to answer these questions for yourself:

1. Where is the party?
2. What does this location demand?
3. How many guests can be accommodated?
a. Make your notes.
b. Make your preliminary calls and visits.

In this instance, the gathering is at home and probably for far more people than can have a sit down dinner. It is a buffet, then. Since it is a tree trimming in the late afternoon and not occurring at meal hour but it will cross dinner time, the food must be heavy but manageable to serve and in of a size for a guest to handle while standing or mingling. Best to have a cocktail buffet and passed hors d' ourve.

In order to accomplish this, my Book will have answers to the following questions:

4. How will the furniture be arranged to accommodate standing room and three buffet or drink areas?

5. What furniture needs to be stored?

6. Does anything need to be ordered for the rooms from the party rental people?

My Mom's home has a lot of open space for gathering. We will put the buffet on the dining room table, the dessert buffet to the right and the bar further ahead and to the right to keep from having a back up in any one area. Some of the larger pieces will need to move to another room, we will deal with this 4 days before as that is too soon to cook and just long enough to live with the inconvenience.

7. Does the space need any prep work aside from moving furniture?

The house needs to be cleaned top to bottom, no stone unturned. I do this myself as I go and try never to let cleaning tasks get away from me.

If you cannot find time, call a professional. Don't mess around with this. If you work long hours all week an have a huge party on the weekend and think you are cooking too, you will make things too hard on yourself by attempting to clean well too. Make arrangements with a service now, the good ones book weeks in advance.

The Christmas tree needs to be put up in the great room, and baskets of ornaments arranged. All this will be done on the same day.

8. Does the space/house need stocking aside from the groceries?

Now is the time: Check all the cabinets and bathrooms. These are items which will need to be dealt with and you have to find the time:

The Bathrooms:
Linens bought and monogrammed or found, laundered, pressed, and placed.
Two rolls of paper
One good new soap
One new box of tissues
One small stack of paper hand towels (some guests are afraid to use pressed linens)
Small, fragrant flower arrangement

The Coat Closet:
Plenty of good coat hangers

The Guest Rooms:
Bath soap
Shampoo and conditioner
Packet of Tylenol
Bottled water
Bed linens changed
Towel set neatly folded and placed

In the case of my Mom's home, she is ever-ready in this regard and the coats will far exceed the coat closet: We will use the bed the Master as well.

9. Do you anticipate special needs for any of guests which you need to plan for?

Handicap access or assistance?
Are children invited and do you need to designate a playroom and hire a sitter?
Specific seating requirements?

In our case, we have a lot of families with young children and a place we can safely designate a playroom downstairs which will not interrupt the flow of the party. We will hire a sitter to make it easier for parents to attend and because we cannot wait to see how all the children have grown!

Consequently, on the same day the party rooms are rearranged, the same will occur in the downstairs library: Create an open, child-safe place, move plenty of toys there, and be sure we are set up to show a Disney movie

Now you have the "where" and part of the "how". Making great progress, I say! Once all of this is addressed, you can move on to the more creative and exciting part of a party: Party Planning Crash Course Part 2: Who? What? When?

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