Anyone can plan an outdoor event in the spring, summer or autumn, but it takes an especially thoughtful and gracious host to plan an outdoor event during the cold winter months. Because so many people are moving their small gatherings outdoors for safety’s sake this year, we’re here to give you a crash course in how to host an entertaining and comfortable outdoor gathering, no matter the cold! Using our tips, you will seem like the most experienced, relaxed and gracious host ever, and people will remember the thoughtful details of your cold-weather event for years to come.
This is the first and probably most obvious step in hosting an outdoor cold-weather event: Make a place for your guests to warm up. A beautiful roaring fire is the best place to start. If you don’t already have a fire pit, you can build one out of pavers from the garden center or even fashion one from a junk-yard truck wheel! Ingenuity is everything if you’re working on the fly. Be sure to have lots and lots of wood, as a large fire will consume it quickly and you want to keep your fire large as a draw for your guests. It’s true that small fires can be hotter, but you want to create a fun, comfy atmosphere, too, and large fire is cheery and pretty. Remember that you can have more than one fire if you wish!
Open fire isn’t your only option, though. Patio heaters are readily available for rent or purchase, and they now come in many different styles. You are sure to have seen standing patio heaters at many restaurants and bars, but now there are patio heaters designed for form as well as function. You might choose an obelisk or a cylinder with decorative electric “flames” inside. There are also patio heaters that hang like lamps, or arch over seating areas rather like a sun shade. You have more options than ever before thanks to so many manufacturers recognizing this new market, so you can choose according to your taste as well as your needs.
Since we are concentrating on protecting our personal space even when we socialize, group your outdoor furniture accordingly. Couples or families may choose to stick close together, while those from separate households need greater physical distance. Arrange your outdoor furniture to accommodate these needs, and add extra seating groups to allow for greater spacing. Consider creating several small seating areas far removed from others—under trees and in private corners are good for this—for those who wish to eat, take a face mask break, or who become overwhelmed with too much society.
It’s likely that you’ll need more seating than usual for this new kind of physically-distanced entertaining. Camp chairs are fine, hay bales from your local farm store or co-op are charming, and if you have a deck or patio, your dining chairs will work in a pinch. Get creative! Your guests will not think about your chairs not matching; they will admire your thoughtfulness and innovation.
Part of cozy seating is the “cozy.” We suggest draping the aforementioned camp chairs and hay bales in old quilts and picnic blankets. If you need more than you have, be resourceful. Shop buy/sell/trade sites, repurpose what you can from your home, and borrow from your friends and neighbors. Then, use your newer and most attractive fleece throws and outdoor blankets on your permanent outdoor furniture, and make extras available for snuggling. This is a good area to really splash out and make a big impression! A faux-fur throw turns sitting outside in clear, biting cold into a Doctor Zhivago fantasy!
If you want to host a fun, comfy outdoor event in cold weather, you will definitely still use some of the party-planning techniques you rely on all year ‘round, including decorating to make your gathering attractive and memorable. With dark settling in earlier and earlier, we recommend lots of “fairy lights” and candles. You might choose café lights for main areas, dainty string lights for ambiance, and candles everywhere for their beautiful warm and lively glow. You might use evergreen wreaths with plain bows any time of winter, not just the holidays, and make arrangements of boxwood, holly and pine boughs for tables. If taking your good vases out into the cold doesn’t appeal to you, use tin cans or galvanized buckets; they are pretty and very appropriate.
Right now, we encourage friends to concentrate on the socializing rather than the food and drinks at any small gathering. Eating is best done at home, or with only people from your own household. That said, guests will definitely want to be offered at least a beverage and snacks. Your best options are factory-sealed drinks such as canned soda, bottled water or single-serving wine bottles and individually packaged snacks of nuts, cheese, crackers and cookies. A pop-up box of napkins can round out this snack table. This is a less-is-more proposition. If you feel you must offer hot drinks, we suggest closed carafes and lidded insulated cups for serving.
Entertaining outdoors in cold weather requires certain considerations that most gatherings do not, and entertaining at all under the current circumstances presents unique challenges. Make a “sanitation station” with disinfecting wipes, wet wipes, hand sanitizer and spare masks. Consider including a bottle of peppermint essential oil for those who like to put a tiny drop inside their masks. Set out a bowl of hand-warmer packets, and have a few extra pairs of gloves, knit hats and fleece scarves on hand “just in case.” Make sure that your bathroom is immaculately clean to put your guests’ minds at ease, and switch out your hand towel for pop-up paper hand towels—it’s less environmentally friendly, but it’s thoughtful for a single evening.
Many cultures socialize outdoors all winter long, and with a bit of care and attention, we can too. We are all going through a challenging time, when maintaining our relationships and social connections is imperative to our mental health and overall well-being. Keep your gatherings physically distanced, masked-up and outdoors for the optimum safety, but by making some thoughtful accommodations, you can have a fun, comfy outdoor event in cold weather.