The past year has been difficult in many ways, not the least of which was missing the people and the gatherings that enrich our lives and make us the social animals we are. Things are beginning to return to a semblance of what we used to call normal, and at the same time, some things may be different for a long, long time. A big difference that we will probably all see in our own lives—for ourselves, our loved ones, everyone in our social circle—is that smaller get-togethers are likely to be the standard for some time to come. There are a dozen reasons why an intimate guest list may be your preference for the foreseeable future: you may consider it a safety issue, you may feel overwhelmed in crowds after being on lockdown for a long time, or you may have experienced job changes that require you to downsize your entertaining. No matter your reasons, you will not be alone in them, but you’re also not alone in feeling like it’s time to get back to the party. Economists and social arbiters believe our country is about to have a period of spending, celebration and general conviviality to rival the Roaring 20s. So, how will you make small gathering feel big and warm without throwing in a sweater dress code? How can you make little the get togethers we will all be throwing to get back into the practice of entertaining feel like lovely lavish parties? Well, we’ve got some terrific ideas to share, and we think that if you take our advice, your small parties can feel big and warm!
You’re not going to like this, but I promise it’s a tried-and-true method for making parties convivial. Promote mixing by not providing quite enough seating, and by making sure you have at least a couple of separate groups of seating. You have probably all been to, for example, a baby shower where every chair in the house is in a big circle around the living room, each lady chooses a seat and never leaves it. Your goal is to make sure that people have to look for a seat, take the opportunity to sit with people other than the spouse or bestie they arrived with, and are compelled by good manners to stand up and move at some point. You don’t want to crowd your guests, but rather simply make it difficult for them to park it for the whole evening. After the party gets going, if you want to “remember” the ballroom chairs in the basement to be a more gracious host and keep everyone comfortable, that’s great! But start your guests out having to move.
Warm, slightly dimmed lighting is your best bet for any party, but especially when you want a party to feel gracious, celebratory and expansive. Candlelight is the gold standard, so use as many as you safely can, and opt for fairy lights, the lowest click on three-way bulbs, and fixtures on dimmers wherever possible. It’s great lighting for a shimmery dress or new jewelry, so feel free to show off a little bit.
The next part of lighting is a trick picked up from legendary hostesses of the mid-century: draw the curtains. Even in homes with stunning skyline or ocean views, the curtains would be drawn so that the center of the universe became, for that evening at least, the party. There is an intimacy and a privacy to a party in a closed room that makes it feel much bigger than it may be by the numbers.
Music is must for any and every party. You know what your friends like, but unless you plan on dancing, consider crafting a playlist that will not inspire anyone to yell, “This is my jam!” Lounge music, singers and standards, crooners, AM Gold, yacht rock and classical all represent excellent opportunities to play well-liked, familiar music that won’t overtake the conversation or pull people into a karaoke-bar-style singalong. Unless you want to throw a karaoke party, that is, in which case you can disregard this whole section of the article!
After you have selected music, make sure you can play it effortlessly. Someone fiddling over the malfunctioning hi-fi, proverbially speaking, isn’t any fun. Further, whether you have a fancy state-of-the-art setup or a couple of Bluetooth speakers connected to your phone, make sure that you can control the volume unobtrusively so that the levels remain loud enough to create ambience but not loud enough to hinder socializing.
What you serve is up to you. Your friends may be cookies-and-chips partygoers, or they may be more used to hot hors d'oeuvres presented on trays by cater-waiters. Since cater-waiters are not likely to be at a small gathering you would like to feel big and warm to your guests, let’s talk instead about the placement of refreshments and how that can make a party feel larger and more festive.
Food and drinks need to be separated by an absolute minimum of ten feet, more if you have the square footage. The more different places you set out food and drinks for your guests, the more they have to circulate in order to get their snack needs met. When you want to create for your guests a feeling of “running into” interesting people they haven’t chatted with yet, forcing movement with food and beverages is pretty smart. A personal tip from me to you, put tiny, especially delicious tidbits in a single spot away from the food—macadamia nuts, little chocolate-covered toffees or wasabi peas—so that if someone wants that snack, they have to walk over to it and exchange pleasantries with those seated in the area. It’s also not a bad idea to keep a laundry detergent stick on hand just in case an accidental collision leaves a guest or two with wine splashed on their blouse.
Be extremely careful about planning entertainment for a small gathering, especially if you want it to feel big and warm. If you are limiting your guest list to 12, don’t on your life set out board games or a pack of cards, because you will lose groups of four to each of those activities! Sadly, too many guests forget themselves and play immoderately, meaning that only those in the game get to visit with them at all. If you mean to throw a card party or a game night, by all means do so, but don’t conflate those with a party, because it’s less fun for every guest who is not playing.
If you truly believe that your party needs a little something extra, consider an all-evening game. As each guest enters, have them draw a slip of paper from a bowl that gives them an assignment for the evening. For example, a guest might have to find out who studied abroad in Switzerland, who was born in Arizona, who went to Sweet Briar College, who had a childhood paper route. . . the possibilities are endless. At a pre-determined time, ask for answers! It could be lots of fun, and forces mixing. Even among good friends, this type of game can hold surprises and laughs!
The small gatherings we are all looking forward to throwing, and perhaps even quietly planning little by little as we wait for the perfect moment and the good news we need, can feel as big and warm as you wish with a little thoughtful planning and attention to detail. We know how much you want to enjoy cocktails, a new party dress, and conviviality with your friends, because we are longing for the same thing. Keep your guest list intimate, but your let your party feel expansive, luxurious and like an evening of discovery with our tips for making small gatherings feel big and warm.