Host With the Most

The pressure is on for everything to be perfect. Take this advice when it comes to your holiday entertaining and everyone will have a great time -- even you.

The big house was always immaculate and beautifully decorated. The made-from-scratch meals were always delicious. The guests were always warmly welcomed and waited upon hand and foot. And the smiling hostess was always absolutely, positively miserable.

During the days before a social function in her home, she would snap at family members and mutter to herself about how much work the whole affair was making for her, angrily slamming doors and banging pots and pans as she prepared for it. And when the last guest left her home, she would close her eyes and sigh with relief, happy to be free of the burdens of cooking for, cleaning up after and entertaining people, even if it was her idea to invite them. A close relative once asked the woman why she even bothered with parties, dinners and houseguests if she found them so onerous.

“What do you mean?” the woman answered, her eyes wide with surprise. “I love to entertain!”

Many people find themselves in the same situation this time of year — delighting in the prospect of inviting friends and family over for the holidays and loathing the idea by the time they arrive. According to psychologists, the dread stems from unrealistic expectations harbored by themselves and their guests. In order to enjoy the hosting experience, you must modify those expectations and make changes in how you go about inviting, preparing for and entertaining guests in your home.

Set Your Boundaries

Hosts should start by examining the definition of their roles, suggests Sheryl Kingsberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at University Hospitals’ MacDonald Women’s Hospital.

“There is the expectation that, as the host, you are responsible for everything and everybody,” she says. “We need to redefine what ‘host’ means. ‘Host’ means that you will certainly attempt to provide the necessities, that you will try to accommodate people’s needs, but not at the expense of losing yourself in the process. The goal is to set reasonable boundaries.”

The first limits that should be determined are start and end times for parties, as well as arrival and departure dates for houseguests. (To minimize chances of lingering partygoers, Michael McKee, Ph.D., vice chairman of the department of psychiatry and psychology at The Cleveland Clinic, suggests stating an end time of at least an hour earlier than you truly want everyone out of the house.) Have the dates and times in mind before you start contacting guests.

“People who are coming to visit you are going to impose on your time,” Kingsberg says. “You’re not a great host if you’re being pulled too thin. That’s the rationalization for being able to say no and set limits — knowing that you’re not just doing it for yourself, but you’re doing it to maximize your ability to be the best host you can be.”

McKee says a houseguest’s request to stay longer can be gracefully denied with a tactful, “I’d love to see you. I’m looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I’m not available that whole time,” perhaps adding the reason why. When dealing with those who are used to arriving on your doorstep without notice and staying as long as they please, regardless of whether you’re around, a more extensive dialogue may be needed. Sharon Irwin, Ph.D., a psychologist at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, suggests following McKee’s lead and starting the conversation by emphasizing the positive, perhaps by saying, “You know I love you. You know I want to stay connected. This is one of the few times we get together. However, this time I need to do it in a different way because ...” Then state your needs and offer some options.

For those with limited space or several out-of-town guests, that may mean asking friends and family members to stay at a hotel. Kingsberg says some hosts fill their spare rooms by seniority (grandparents and parents), need (the financially strapped or less mobile), or sheer practicality (young children who are more willing and able to share beds and bathrooms). When extending an invitation to guests who will be bunking elsewhere, Kingsberg recommends explaining the situation (“Unfortunately, we only have enough room to accommodate two people”) and offering the name and telephone number of a nearby hotel with a reasonable rate that you’ve checked out and deemed suitable.

Mentioning the room rates should indicate to the guests that they would be paying their own way. Kingsberg, Irwin and McKee all agree that while hosts may choose to pick up a hotel bill, they are not responsible for it.

“Unless you invite somebody and say, ‘Please come to my house, and I’ll take care of everything,’ that’s not the expectation,” Kingsburg says. “Somebody’s feelings may get hurt. But you need to balance what is reasonable for your survival with what is socially appropriate.”

Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

When it comes to actually planning and preparing for holiday celebrations and houseguests, Irwin urges hosts to examine how they’ve gone about doing so, determine what they enjoy and what they don’t, and figure out a different way of accomplishing the latter. Hate to clean the entire house from top to bottom? Farm out the job to a cleaning service or at least cut it down to size by assigning tasks to other household members. Hate to cook? Make the annual family feast a potluck affair or have the whole thing catered. Hate to put up the holiday decorations? There are interior designers who decorate homes specifically for the holidays. Enlist the help of other family members in tweaking a long-standing tradition — the formal sit-down Thanksgiving dinner for 20, for example — so the result will be more acceptable to the entire clan.

“The key is not repeating the same patterns over and over,” Irwin says.

Once you’ve decided what you want to tackle, make adequate time to do so. “Not everybody is going to be so organized that they can have a schedule,” Kingsberg says. “But at least have a list.” Keep in mind that everything doesn’t have to be perfect. Kingsberg points out that your harshest critics — your mother, your mother-in-law — will most likely find something to harp about, regardless of how much you clean the house and fuss over the food.

“Don’t take it personally, as evidence of a failure on your part,” she says of the criticism. “It’s more about the predictability and quirkiness of your relatively compulsive or overly critical guest. Expect it and let it roll off your back.”

Learn from the Past

Some of the more vexing brands of houseguest include the high-maintenance sort who treats his or her host like a combination cook, maid and chauffeur; the instigator who can start World War III with a single comment; and the factions of a family feud. Most hosts know who these troublemakers are, at least when it comes to family and close friends.

Kingsberg and Irwin suggest carefully scripting a couple of comments to utter if and when the age-old scenarios unfold. When the high-maintenance guest strolls into the kitchen at 11 a.m. and demands breakfast, for example, Irwin advises a humorous response, something like, “I know you know how to fix a bowl of cereal. C’mon and show us your stuff!” Incendiary comments and the tense situations that result can often be diffused with a soft but firm, “Now is not the time to discuss this.” McKee advises talking to warring parties beforehand and asking them to keep their hostilities in check while they’re in your home.

But Kingsberg warns that things can still go awry, no matter how much preventive groundwork is laid.

“The situation may be beyond your control,” she says. “And family and friends will know that. You can only do your best.”

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