Long ago, pre-children, I used to have fantasies of being one of those people who gives good party. These were largely wild fantasies in the truest sense of “this is kind of titillating, but I’m not sure I ever actually want to experience this” variety, because parties mean people and people mean conversation and conversation means mindbending eventual exhaustion for even the most social of introverts.
Then I had not one, but two experiences of throwing parties – or rather, inviting people to and preparing for parties – and having no one show up. Actually, in one case, a couple of people did show up, several hours apart, one well after the stated end time for the event. Oh yay. So I have some social anxiety about hosting events, even after a proven track record of actually throwing some pretty kick ass soirees, where I will sit there for the first five minutes until someone shows up in a mild panic. But really, how many people do you know who can say, in all truthfulness that they literally threw a party and nobody came? Probably not that many.
So, how did I go from utterly failing to throw a holiday party for my coworkers to already starting to brainstorm our 4th annual Halloween open house that was attended by around 50 people last year and having people gush about how fun our preschool birthday parties are?
Mostly, by throwing caution to the wind and doing what sounds like fun to us (that being my family). What a concept. This means not being a slave to a theme, but still having fun with it, having party activities that sound like fun to us, and serving real food to a degree.
My daughter’s last birthday involved a bounce house in our yard, thanks to a county rental program, a tent to house the food table, lots of balloons, a store bought cake and bourbon sweet tea. The latter was, of course, for the adults, because a party involving 15 3-5 year olds is going to involve 15-30 parents as well.
Which brings me to tip number 1: Have a signature drink. Or two.
Sure, we had decent beer and a bottle of store-bought sangria at Mo’s party as well, but even for folks who didn’t partake, just the presence of a pitcher of something they would never make for themselves kicked things up a notch. People find anything that you made yourself to be impressive. The tea? Not hard at all – brew some tea (I use Republic of Tea’s ginger peach, but the type is really not that important), add lemon juice, fresh mint, sugar and bourbon. Stir/muddle/whatever fancy bar term for combining ingredients without a shaker. Taste. Tweak. Taste some more. Pour yourself a cup. Voila.
For our Halloween party, we have, again, decent beer, pumpkin ale in various varieties, wine, and a cider punch of my own invention involving apple cider, honey bourbon (not an intentional theme, but it is one of those things that people often don’t drink on their own, so again, it feels special, I think) and ginger liquor. I’ve used Snap and Domain de Canton and I prefer the latter because it is more intensely ginger and less spiced, but both are delish. To distinguish things and give the kids something fun, I fill a giant beaker with cider, ginger ale or lemon-lime soda and red food coloring. Then I fervently hope that no one spills “blood” on the light gray carpet in the basement.
All of this stuff I do every year ties in nicely to tip number 2: Keep track of what you do and have a mix of old standbys and new things to try.
I have a divided spiral notebook in which I jot down party planning notes and menus, etc. One section is for the Halloween event, another is for Thanksgiving meal planning, a third is for Christmas cookies and other associated baking, and the fourth is for various other events- mostly the kids’ birthday parties. This includes ideas for themes, a subject about which it pays to be flexible. Up until about 3 weeks before my daughter’s party I thought we were having an owl theme. Tell that to the Olaf foil balloon still lurking somewhere in our basement. (Which reminds me, I never did really make notes for Mo’s 4th. I should get on that.)
But back to the book and the menu – the main utility here is the ability to look back at what we’ve served and what works. Our Halloween party always features pumpkin chili, mac and cheese for people disinclined to chili, or for chili mac, cornbread or cheddar biscuits…and then other stuff. I usually do pumpkin chocolate chip cookies and there’s a candy corn bark recipe that is pretty popular. Apples and caramel, a pumpkin cream cheese dip, other things I can’t remember offhand which is why I have a notebook, and at least one or two new things all round out the party fare. Last year we ran out of chili early, probably because there was about a third again more people than we’d had in the past, something else that is important to note.
And speaking of people, here’s tip number 3: Consider your guest list.
Kids’ parties are relatively easy on this score, especially when they are still in “invite the whole class” mode. Sure there may be some neighbor kids or family friends that you throw into the bunch, and once they hit 5 or 6 you stop having to plan to entertain adults as well as children for the most part (although, do have some beer or other adult friendly hospitality handy in case you do get some parents hanging about). If you do have a tight knit class with a handful of other kids, consider whether you really need the other kids there. I’m not suggesting excluding your kid’s best friend who happens to be in a different class/school/whathaveyou. But if the reason you’re inviting a child to your kid’s birthday party is because his mom is a good friend of yours who happens to have a kid who is around the same age as yours, please reconsider. After around age 3, kids have preferences and can feel left out and it can be hard to be that kid who the birthday child doesn’t even know that well who doesn’t really know anyone. My feeling is that my kids know who they want to celebrate with and after age 1 or 2, the party really should be for them. In preschool, we do whole class and anyone else *they* want to invite (for my daughter, that translated into two additional girls who she still plays with who happen to be in a different class this year). I’m not sure we ever did whole class invites for my son after age 4 – one of the very few privileges of a summer birthday, I suppose.
For Halloween, the entire point of starting this event was as an excuse to see people we never really see and actually get to know the parents of our son’s friends. We actually started trying to socialize around trick or treating 5 Halloween’s ago when Mo was around 6 months old and I wanted to actually interact with people, so we invited the families of my son’s two best friends over for…pumpkin chili. The next year we did the full blown open house with more families from my son’s school, a handful from my daughter’s, a couple of families from the neighborhood, some old friends who we never see anymore. By that point, people were so used to kids only parties that we had to actually tell a few parents that they were expected to attend as well. Now we have people they are so glad we invited them again – we have become an event, and every year we add a few people. This year my son starts a new school, so that will add a whole new dimension, I’m sure, including who from his old school do we invite and why – because we like the parents (a totally acceptable reason) or because he still hangs out with the kids (another acceptable reason). That is, assuming that we can fit everyone in our house.
One of the reasons why our event is popular, I suspect, is my number 4: It’s all in the timing.
We chose Halloween as an occasion to have a party for a couple of reasons. First, it’s one of our collective favorite holidays, but mostly, not many people actually throw parties on the Saturday before Halloween. Whereas, the two failed attempts at festivities mentioned above both took place in the weeks before Christmas, Halloween is mostly unspoken for. Plus, it doesn’t have any religious connotations for the vast majority of folks in the US, unlike December which can become fraught with meaning for all sorts of complicated reasons, including why does an atheist have a tree. The only thing people question about the giant bamboo spider in our yard is “how did you do that?”
Likewise, be willing to be flexible on birthdays or other celebrations. We’ve wholesale moved our son’s parties to different weekends before to ensure that people could make it and we coordinate with one of my daughter’s friends who was born the day before her so we don’t conflict. There is no requirement that a party be within a few days, or even weeks, of a child’s birthday.
While we’re talking about timing – one and a half to 3 hours is more than enough for any birthday party (3 being on the far end of they have a specific activity that will take up 2 of them). Our open house is usually more like 4, but we also start on the early side to accommodate the young child contingent. And remember, if any of those hours falls over mealtimes, pizza or something equivalent will be expected.
And speaking of endings, let’s end with this number 5: Be judicious with the goody bags.
I know. Any magazine party spread or Pinterest party board will have a shot (or 3) of lovingly curated gift bags that are perfectly coordinated with the party theme and involve some sort of paper craft on the part of the hosts to package everything up in suitably photo-worthy fashion. Know, though, that there’s a bit of a backlash against the bag of random stuff from the party store and a ton of candy. My point here is not that one way is right or wrong – when they’re little, most kids love a plastic bag full of candy and plastic stuff and stickers. But where I’ve actually seen kids have more fun is when they get stuff as they go – we’ve done a dinosaur party where the kids hunted for “dinosaur eggs” (small balloons with a plastic dino inside), made foam noodle light sabers for a Star Wars party and set the kids loose in the front yard, been to pirate parties where they searched for gold doubloons or princess parties where they decorated crowns to take home. The benefit of these ideas is that they double as activities – i.e. things that keep the children entertained and not ripping the stuffing out of your couch. I’m also increasingly fond of things that kids will actually use – we gave away brightly colored water bottles and sidewalk chalk (fastened together with Frozen character bottle cap necklaces, as you do). The kids loved them and I see several of the water bottles cycling through my daughter’s classroom, so clearly they’ve proved useful.
For the open house, we dispensed with giving goodies early on. The first year or two we had a big bowl of creepy crawlies that the kids could choose from, then promptly forgot all about them. Instead I set up stations with sticker-based crafts that the small ones can occupy themselves with and which they can take home if they choose. Otherwise, meh. No one needs more of this stuff (and I’m not going to think about handing it out anyway).
So there you have it – 5 easy steps to entertaining success. When you try them, I’ll expect an invite.
 Here I will digress to note that introversion /= shyness or being anti-social. I’m actually a very social person. Sometimes. When I’m in the mood. Totally on my own terms. And I hate small talk. But I love the *idea* of hanging out with people and always feel that little stab of envy when people who don’t get mentally and physically exhausted by just the idea of chatting with strangers for a couple of hours talk about all of the cool things they have done. With other people. Oh FSM help me.
 I am going to assume for the remainder of this piece that my dear readers drink, or are at least comfortable with serving drinks to those whom they are entertaining. If neither of these apply to you, then aside from the fact that you won’t appreciate my ad-hoc recipes, please know, totally no judgment. Just sub in whatever you are comfortable with – fancy lemonade, sweet tea without the bourbon, hot spiced cider. Anything that you can serve in a big glass pitcher or a punch bowl is still going to class up the joint, regardless of whether it requires ID to purchase the components.
(Featured image and all other images courtesy of me.)