in: Character, Etiquette

• Last updated: June 6, 2021

How to Throw an Awesome Holiday Party–Part IV: A Primer on Being the Ultimate Host

Vintage party host holding the tray of drinks for guests illustration.

“Hospitality seems to be composed of two parts sincerity and one part preparedness.” Esquire Handbook for Hosts, 1953

“The main requirements for a good host are self-confidence, self-respect, and a clear idea of his responsibilities to his guests.” –Esquire Etiquette, 1954

If you’re an Art of Manliness man, you’ve probably already got the self-respect and sincerity aspects of hospitality in spades. And if you’ve been following this series on how to throw an awesome holiday party, the preparedness part has also been taken care of.

So that leaves an understanding of your responsibilities to your guests. And that’s what we’ll be diving into today in the final installment of this series, offering a primer on what to do during each phase of your party in order to be the ultimate host.

Before the Party

Getting Things Ready

  • You can do things like vacuuming and tidying up a day or two before the party. But you might want to clean the bathroom the day of, especially if it’s the only bathroom in your apartment and you’ll be using it earlier in the day. Make sure there’s TP on the rolls. And if people will be using the bathroom you normally use, and you have stuff in your cabinets you don’t want folks to see, hide it. Someone will definitely take a peek.
  • If you’re going to be using the same glasses, plates, and silverware for the party that you normally do, and some of it is sitting dirty in the dishwasher, run the load even if it isn’t full. You want as many clean glasses and dinnerware available for the party as possible.
  • Take care of any food prep you can do ahead of time.
  • Decide where you’re going to put people’s coats. You may want to clear out a closet for this purpose. Or you can plan to lay them on a bed. If you have two available bedrooms, it’s nice to have one “coatroom” for the ladies and one for the men. That way you don’t end up with a giant pile of coats that resembles Marjory the Trash Heap from Fragglerock.

Setting the Mood

Many hostesses like to go all out with creating festive decorations and centerpieces and whatnot. But as a man you’ll likely want to keep things simple when it comes to setting the scene. A party’s mood may seem like an intangible,  hard to pin down thing, but it’s simply composed of the elements which stimulate our senses. So you want to create sights, sounds, and smells that meld well and evoke feelings of coziness, relaxation, holiday cheer, and perhaps a little nostalgia.  Here are some suggestions for doing that:

Sight. Lighting is a critical factor in setting an event’s mood. And nothing gets you coziness on tap faster than firelight, in big doses or small. So light 3-4 candles around the house, start a roaring fire in the fireplace (if you have one), and turn on the Christmas tree. For an extra touch of lighted charm, drape garland interlaced with white lights around the fireplace mantel or over a doorway or two.

Hanging up a little mistletoe never hurts either.

Smell. Pick scented candles for your mood lighting. Just regular scented candles—firing up 3 of those air freshener candles will be overpowering. Pick a holiday-esque scent like pumpkin pie or evergreen and make it the same scent for all the candles—you don’t want them to compete and jar your guests’ olfactory senses. If the party will be taking place in one room, or a small apartment, use just 1 scented candle, and make the other 2 unscented. I know you have a real Christmas tree, so that will add a little natural fragrance, as will the smell of your delicious holiday cooking.

Sound. No holiday party is complete without some Christmas music playing in the background. Personally I prefer—surprise, surprise—classic holiday tunes from the oldtime crooners. Kate and I listened to the “White Christmas—Bing Crosby” station on Pandora while working on this post in order to get in the mood.

Of course the problem with using Pandora as your party’s DJ is that unless you’re a premium member, the songs will be interspersed with ads and the music will stop periodically when they ask if you’re still listening. Another option is to create a playlist on Spotify—if you have the Spotify app you can plug your phone into some speakers and be good to go. And of course you can just create the playlist on your mp3 player by buying and downloading songs. If you’re short on cash, ask friends and family if they have some Christmas CD’s—they probably do–and burn the songs off them. Or you can play the CD’s on an actual, honest-to-goodness CD player if you still have one. Remember CD players?

I just discovered the easiest option of all while decorating the Christmas tree last week. If you have expanded cable, there are a bunch of channels that only play music, and there’s a channel for holiday tunes this time of year. The mix was really quite good–nary a Mariah Carey or Bieber song to offend the ears–and would be perfect for a party. The channel also cycles through seasonal pictures and trivia, which will add to your “sight” requirement and give your bored guests something to stare at.

A final note on prepping for your party: If you’re going to be doing your preparations close to party time, unless the things you need to do will get you very sweaty, shower and dress first, and then finish up. If guests come early, you want to look ready, instead of greeting them in a towel.

As the Guests Arrive

Greet each guest warmly and individually. Open the door for them, and say something welcoming: “So good to see you!” Administer hugs or handshakes. Take their coats (ladies first), and put them in your designated closet or “coatroom.”

Keep in mind that it’s perfectly fine to break away from a conversation with another guest in order to answer the door. They’ll understand.

If it’s a big party, it’s okay to put a sign on the door inviting guests to come in, along with signs on the wall pointing them to the coatroom and bathroom.

Introduce the new guests to those who have already arrived. Lead the recent arrival over to those they already know or a group you think they’d like. When doing the latter, introduce the new arrival to the other guests, while at the same time providing them with a subject to get the conversation going. “Ted, I’d like you to meet Mike. Mike, Ted is also training for the Boston Marathon.” Now Ted and Mike will start talking about how their training is going. They’ll be good pals in no time.

Finally, ask the new guest if he’d like something to drink. Go and retrieve the beverage.

During the Party

Vintage party host serving drinks to ladies.

Keep the food and drinks refilled. If you see a guest carrying around an empty drink, ask if she’d like another.

Protect your guests from each other, and from circumstances. As Esquire Etiquette explains: “The perfect host takes it upon himself to protect his guests from boredom, from loneliness, and from left-out-ness. By a kind of musical chairs, he shuffles the assembled guests into new conversation groups whenever it seems necessary.”

This sentence in the book had an asterisk, which read: “It is necessary when you spy guests studying your indifferent pictures, reading your dusty Encyclopedia, fixing your split-second-perfect clock, or placing coast-to-coast phone calls.” Hey, remember Encyclopedias? This can easily be updated to: “It is necessary when you spy your guests checking their iPhones every two minutes or playing Angry Birds.” Of course some guests would stay glued to their phones even amidst the excitement of say, the Brazilian Carnival; these people cannot be helped no matter how much shuffling you do.

Now how do you do this kind of shuffling without it seeming obvious? Well one good technique is to draw one or two people away from the group by asking for their assistance with something, “Hey Sarah, I’ve got another bowl of eggnog in the fridge, could you go bring it out?” When they leave, introduce some new people into the group.

Keep the conversation amiable and engaging. If a group is bored or irritated by a ranting boor of a guest, and you don’t feel like you can pull off the shuffling technique, then take it upon yourself to interject some interesting conversational topics—or to steer the talk away from controversial or embarrassing subjects, “remember-when’s” that only apply to a few in the group, or the technical tidbits of a subject that only two guests can follow.

Vintage party host tuning radio in living room.

Help out a shy guest or someone who doesn’t know anyone else by making them your assistant. Nobody wants to be the person awkwardly standing by themselves, unsure of whom to talk to.  So enlist your shy friend to be your helper. Giving them something specific to pass around or do will ease their anxiety, help them not feel so out of place, and give them a reason to mix with others.

Spend a little time with each guest. As Esquire Etiquette notes: “Many a harried host, without meaning to, say nothing between hello and goodbye to many of his guests. Try to have at least a brief conversation with everyone who comes.”

Vintage party guests looking at holiday cards on mantle.

Maintain a jovial attitude. As a host you want to stake out the middle ground between trying too hard and not trying at all, being especially aware of avoiding the former. The host who tries too hard interrupts conversations that are going swimmingly, offers to refill drinks before guests have finished the one in their hands, keeps apologizing if things don’t go perfectly, urges people to take part in things in which they’re not interested, and incessantly asks if everyone is having a good time. The harried host is a ball of nervous energy, and this anxiety spreads through the party and kills the mood.

A good host enjoys his own party; he has good time, just not too good of a time. He’s alert to what is going on, but appears relaxed. If things don’t go exactly as planned, he apologizes, has a laugh about it, and goes on with the night. A good host seeks not the throw the perfect party, but to subtly maximize the good moments while minimizing the bad.

If you successfully strike this balance, people will leave your party thinking not “What a good host Jim was!” But simply, “What a good time I had!”

At the End of the Party

Say good night to each guest and see them to the door. Thank them for coming and tell them how great it was to see them. But do not introduce a new conversation topic as you say your goodbyes—you’ll end up standing in the doorway in what will become a 15 minute farewell tour.

If one of your guests has had a few too many drinks, call him a cab, make sure he goes home with a sober guest, or invite him to sleep over.

Nudge the lingering guest out the door. Most guests will naturally know when it’s time to head out. But there may be one or two who overstay their welcome. How do you subtly get them out the door?

The Esquire Handbook for Hosts offers these tongue-mostly-in-cheek suggestions:

Turn to your wife or straight-man and say, “C’mon, c’mon, let’s be getting on home so these people can get some sleep.” Then look honestly embarrassed when said wife reminds you, “Why, we are at home, silly!”

Fix the radio: “You don’t mind?  I’ve been meaning to do this for weeks.” Or better still, fix the clock and keep asking what time it is. Even if the ruse fails, the evening will not have been wasted—provided, of course, that clock or radio needs fixing.

Arrange with your dog to demand to be taken out, so you can explain, smiling weakly, “We always walk the dog just before bedtime; guess he thinks I’ve forgotten him.” With appropriate “There-there-Duke—we’ll go out soon’s” in the dog’s direction, of course.

Congratulations! You just threw a successful party! We’ll end with this final rule of being a gentlemanly host from Esquire Etiquette: “When the party’s over, he does not repeat anything which happened to the discredit of any of his guests.”

We hope you’ve enjoyed this series on how to throw an awesome holiday party! Remember that most of the tips apply to hosting an event any old time. Have fun gentlemen and Merry Christmas!

How to Throw an Awesome Holiday Party Series:
Choosing a Party Theme
Guest Lists, Invitations, and Planning
A Simple and Jolly Dinner Menu
A Primer on Being the Ultimate Host

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