holiday tablescape with candles

Hosting family at the holidays need not be stressful. With a little preparation and some intentionality, it can be the perfect opportunity to develop meaningful memories together. Here are five tips for a holiday hosting plan that’s less ‘save me now’ ​and more ‘can’t wait ’til next year.’

You just got word. Everyone’s coming to your house for the holidays. Exciting? Maybe. “Over the river and through the woods” sounds good on Spotify, but the reality is that even though you love the holidays and your family, combining both under the same roof—your roof—seems much more of a challenge than a joy.

I like the idea of family gatherings; I also like the idea of snow. It sounds pretty and romantic, but it can be messy—maybe uncomfortable—and snow, like family, can complicate matters. God calls us to love people, but people aren’t perfect, including ourselves. The holidays can bring our imperfections to the surface quicker than you can call the Martha Stewart Hotline. (Is there a Martha Stewart Hotline?) 

While humming along with Michael Buble, your thoughts of sugar plums are interrupted by recalling the last time your family descended in droves. Uncle Otto from Ottawa brought his dog, Snap, who lived up to his name and bit your grand-niece Olive from Ontario. Even my favorite family members can test my patience at this time of year when everything is supposed to be merry and bright, but doesn’t always live up to a Hallmark movie. 

Combining the seemingly endless preparations for the holidays along with hosting relatives you haven’t seen for over a year, you imagine yourself standing like a deer—frozen like the 24 lb. turkey you forgot to defrost the last time you hosted—staring into the headlights of all those extra cars piling down your drive. You suddenly begin planning your backdoor escape which includes ordering three lasagnas and a pumpkin cheesecake from the local grocery store while you check into Motel 6 and wait out the melee. Not that ordering lasagna and cheesecake is a bad idea. It can be a great idea, as long as people expect that this year we might be doing things a little differently. Managing expectations is half the battle. Taking advantage of these five tips I’m about to give you is the other half.

Opening your home to those closest and dearest to you is a labor of love. Here are five ideas, then, to help you host with less-stress and more joy as you welcome your family this holiday season.

 

MAKE A PLAN

Make a plan. Better yet, have your son or daughter set up a spreadsheet. A running list works just as well. I remember when our eldest daughter announced she was bringing 20 friends to stay one holiday weekend. Her spreadsheet included individual arrivals and departures, who could bring blow-up beds, and how many home-cooked meals were expected. She updated it as plans changed, and I knew exactly when I needed to be on hand to make chocolate chip pancakes and pasta-for-a-crowd.

You may not need a “Hosting Planner” but you do need a planning system, even if you’re only using paper and a pencil with an eraser. I like to write an overall plan, and then create separate pages for the various days’ activities and meals. If I know that Cousin Madge is bringing her famous banana bread, I can list it for Tuesday afternoon coffee or Wednesday breakfast and just add a “Need a protein” note on the side. 

Categories on your list or spreadsheet may include: Arrivals/Departures, Food Preferences/Allergies, Sleeping Accommodations, Meal-Planning, and Volunteers Needed. 

However you approach your holiday hospitality, keep God at the center of your planning. When I surrender each day and every list to Him, I can be confident of His help. “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established” (Proverbs 16:3). God is the Author of peace and grace, and I want to welcome others into a peaceful and gracious home.

Whether or not you consider yourself a planner or someone more spontaneous, keeping track of details in a way that suits your style is the heavy-lifting of hosting, and will help you approach your hospitality with ease, even joy.

 

MAKE BOUNDARIES

Your boundaries may include that a certain dog named Snap best stay home this year or visit a doggie day care. At the risk of hurt feelings, present your concerns in advance, as well as your limitations, and ask for input. Making boundaries with family sounds difficult unless you look at it as being kind to yourself which leads to being kind to others. 

Ask for help. A simple request is rarely ignored like: “Who will run the Christmas Day touch football game? Who can make breakfast Thanksgiving morning? Who can create a craft for the little ones while waiting for dinner?” For an uncle or sister to do one or two ‘jobs’ may not be a big deal to them, but can make your workload a hundred times lighter. Consider sending out an email in advance asking for volunteers for things like: Pick up Aunt Susie from the train station on Monday at 8 p.m.; Set up croquet set Saturday afternoon; Take kids to the park to feed geese; Carve the turkey; Plate the pies; Lead a hymn. Your subject line could read: “Volunteers Needed” or “Chore Sheet for Adults.” Provide stickers or Lolli-pops for a job well-done when completed. The little ones will love seeing all hands on deck and you can sleep easier knowing that you haven’t forgotten important details—like defrosting that 24lb. turkey—because it was on the list and someone’s job was to check that it was. Most people will offer to help. Say “yes” to the offer and you’ll double the blessing. 

As much as I want to be all things to all people, I’m wise to know my limits and, when necessary, let others know. One Thanksgiving morning, after serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to extended family members for the three days before the big feast day, one dear brother inquired, “Sue, aren’t you coming on the family hike up Madonna Mountain while the turkey is in the oven?” I replied cheerfully, “No, thanks. I need to sit down. I don’t need to hike. Have fun.” (I may have said something under my breath like, And take your time while you’re at it.)

I’ve been known to leave the house an hour before the Christmas Eve service just to walk up and down the quiet aisles of a department store all by myself on the pretense that I needed just one more gift for the tree. I arrived home with a few extra packages and a relaxed smile on my face, ready to worship the Christ-child, and geared up to host the 30 guests for our annual soup and bread potluck. 

I can handle noise and commotion but there are limits. Figure out yours and plan accordingly. Take power naps. Jesus did—in a boat; in a storm (see Matthew 8:24). He even took time to be alone. 

“But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer” (Luke 5:16, NLT). 

Jesus knew He needed time alone with his Father, and I know I do as well, especially while hosting a houseful of relatives.  

A practical way to create gracious boundaries is to limit the number of traditions. List all the things that you and Uncle Earl and your 10 year old expect from your time together. Take a poll and choose the top three. 

Most misunderstandings can be avoided when expectations are made clear that though things may not be exactly as they were in 2008, they can still be thoroughly amazing. 

 

MAKE PREPARATIONS

My favorite tip for doing hospitality is: If you can do something in advance, do it. I’ve made breakfast bakes, casseroles, cookies, and cakes and stored them in the freezer days in advance. (Make sure you list what’s in your freezer so you don’t forget and make it again!) 

Life is easier if my “To-Do” list is shortened by half on the same day Uncle Tom, Dick, and Harry arrive at the door needing coffee and a muffin. (“No worries, I’ve got some right here. Sit down and tell me how you’ve been doing.”) And you can sit down, too, because the muffins are already made. Then do what hosting is mostly all about: helping people feel loved, welcomed, and accepted. 

Part of preparation is thinking ahead: Do I need more freezer space? (My neighbor offered hers.) Should I order pies? (And how late is Costco open?) I can avoid mishaps by answering these questions and assigning tasks, clearly and graciously. As brilliant as my husband is, I forget he can’t read my mind, and that even though I thought he understood that he needed to pick up eight extra chairs from the Newby’s before dinner, I may not have expressed the urgency of the matter nor the timeliness.

If Aunt Bessie is coming and you haven’t seen her for ages, give her a call or send her an email. Find out if she needs special sleeping arrangements. Would she prefer to book a motel? If so, send along a list of moderately priced ones with phone numbers. Make it clear if you will cover the cost or not—best said with a pleasant offer, “We can make hotel arrangements if you prefer and your budget allows. But if not, we are happy to reserve our guest room for you.” 

“Be prepared” is a great Scout motto, but we can’t anticipate everything, so I do what I can in advance, and roll with the reality as each day unfolds. To smile at the future and offer grace—to myself and others—in the present is what I aspire to and my family appreciates. Near-disasters can turn into the stuff of family legends although you may feel like it’s nearer the end of the world. My friend, Laurie, forgot to defrost her turkey one year and she still laughs about how her husband cranked the oven up to 500 degrees and almost burned down the kitchen. Do what you can to be ready, and add “Keep Sense of Humor” to your daily list.

 

MAKE IT FUN

Speaking of humor, make your family gathering fun. Life is too serious in general and God created families to enjoy one another. One way to create happy memories is to design a theme like “The Cameron’s Camp-Out” when all kids under 12 will be sleeping on the floor of the loft. “Grandma’s Treasures” was our theme one year. Mom put auction items out for kids to bid on with pennies. She provided the pennies. 

My cousins and I looked forward to the annual giant game of tag called “Three-Back” that had us running around our grandparent’s neighborhood for hours on end. Now when I have an oversized crowd, everyone forms teams to do our annual “Pilgrim Scavenger Hunt” after Thanksgiving dinner and before dessert, picking up ‘Plymouth rocks’ and singing Thanksgiving carols at the door of our surprised neighbors. 

What’s fun for one isn’t always fun for others, so be sure to include quiet games. Keep a table set up with a holiday jigsaw puzzle and a basket of simple crafts for the littles. Kids of any age can help make place cards or favors like individual Rice Krispie treats formed into birds’ nests to hold holiday M&Ms or chocolate kisses. 

If weather permits, get outdoors for badminton or a walk to the park. Find out what’s playing at the Drive-In or add a favorite holiday movie to the after-dinner plans. Start a new tradition and let the kids stay up later after they help with the dishes. Play Boggle, Blokus, or Codenames while digging into dessert a second time. 

Simple activities make the best memories, and other than laughing so hard that your sides ached, no one ever complained that they had too much fun.

 

MAKE IT MEANINGFUL

Holidays are meant to be special and doing a few things with intention can make all your hosting efforts more worthwhile.

The key to meaningful gatherings is to talk about things that matter. Ask the matriarch or patriarch of the family (or whoever is oldest in attendance) to share a childhood holiday memory. Kids get a good history lesson as well as appreciation for their elders, and the elders feel honored and valued. 

One robust conversation with someone who rarely visits can be the highlight of your holiday—and theirs. During our sibling reunions, a different couple answers a set of questions at each meal. By the end of the visit, we’ve laughed and cried, and come away knowing how better to love and pray for one another.

I often use conversation starters to initiate sharing in large groups. Beginning with an easy question breaks the ice like: “What was your favorite gift you received as a child?” Follow with something a little deeper like: “What’s the best gift you ever gave?” Answers are often embellished by stories. 

We connect generations with our storytelling, and relationships are deepened. 

Last year our middle daughter printed out two questions for each guest from my list of conversation starters. Some folks we had just met (we had included a server from a local restaurant) and they gamely picked questions from a basket passed around the circle. My quiet husband had us all in stitches when he answered the question: “How do you parent like you were parented?” He responded, understated and sincere as usual, “My folks supported us at sporting events, and I went to a lot of soccer games.” Our three girls went on to regale everyone with stories of their dad running up and down the fields, embarrassing us all with his enthusiasm. We are now retelling the stories of the storytelling which adds layers upon layers of love and connection.

Asking questions and listening to the answers may not be what you think of when preparing to host a family gathering, but it can be our biggest act of love and service. More important than any tablescape or menu offerings is the gift of time and meaningful conversation. 

***

Whether or not snow is in the forecast, I can enjoy and serve my family best when I remember that God is by my side throughout the planning, the welcoming, the cleaning up, and the putting away. He will provide what I need to share my home and table with joy and gratitude.

 “And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others” (2 Corinthians 9:8, NLT).

 

Which of Sue’s amazing tips did you find the most helpful as you seek to host a less stressful, more joy-filled family gathering during the holidays? We’d love to hear from you!

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6 comments
  1. Love it all! Thanks for the timely advice and reminders. I especially appreciate the part about asking questions and listening. We bought a couple of books for my mother and father that included conversation starters about their lives. The grandkids took turns selecting a question and then recording their response. Now that Mom and Dad are gone, we have a wonderful keepsake of their lives in their own words, and all they had to do was talk!

  2. Such great wisdom! I love your ideas of quiet activities to prepare our hearts for the season. I often forget about my need for downtime and then wonder why I’m so cranky at all the holiday activities. Such a beautiful reminder – thank you!

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