Food is always my focus when it comes to planning a get-together, and the holidays amplify that emphasis.
I devote my energy to the menu — procuring the proper ingredients, assembling the right assortment of flavors, textures and colors, ensuring that the dishes reflect tradition but also offer interesting twists on the classics. This a worthy priority, particularly for a food writer, but aesthetics and merriment have, at a minimum, key supporting roles in any gathering.
An attractively set table makes the event feel special, and a well-crafted seating arrangement, along with festive conversation, ensures the comfort and enjoyment of all.
This goes beyond separating relatives with divergent political views or loyalties to rival sports teams — it necessitates an alchemistic blend weaving extroverts with introverts, high-maintenance and low-maintenance guests, and, most of all, cultivating a fun and memorable celebration.
First, the ambiance.
When someone offers to bring something, I often request a centerpiece. It is something that I generally forget until about 30 minutes before the guests arrive, and then I scramble to throw something together that does not resemble a preschool art project. I have had modest success with the following:
- A bowl of colorful fruits and/or vegetables.
- Floating candles: Fill a shallow, wide vase or bowl with water. Carefully place several tea light candles in the water; light them when you serve the meal.
- Fancier floating candles:
Line the vase with cut lemons, limes or oranges, cover with water and top with the tea lights.
- A series of candlesticks of varying heights in a cluster in the center of the table.
- Whole apples and/or miniature pumpkins spaced evenly in a straight (or zigzag) line down the center of the table.
Last year, I had the good fortune to host my friend Leslie for Rosh Hashanah. She has a creative flair and an excellent visual sense — she does window dressing for at least one renowned Philadelphia institution. When she offered to bring something, I leaped at my chance for a special centerpiece, and she generously agreed.
I requested small and understated — our group numbered nine, and I knew the table was going to be crowded with dishes. I wanted to make sure the centerpiece could remain on the table during the meal, and not have to sacrifice its prime real estate for the main dish.
Leslie’s creation was splendid — it was a perfect collection of flowers sitting in a simple vase filled with apples. Clever, pretty and seasonal. I hope to mimic the idea this year.
Next, the merriment.
I piloted this idea at a dinner party last week, and it was a great success. We hosted a mix of guests, some who knew each other well, others who were complete strangers to all but my husband and me.
To ensure a lively dinner table conversation, I devised a series of thought-provoking questions designed to spark discussion and debate. (And, yes, the questions naturally steered clear of both politics and professional sports.)
The results exceeded my expectations. Not only did everyone embrace the “game” with enthusiasm, the guests demanded that everyone at the table respond to each question and were eager to learn about our various opinions and experiences.
Good news/bad news: Everyone was totally engaged and involved in the conversation/we did not rise from the table until after midnight. The questions, along with some of the more interesting answers, included:
If you could require everyone in the world to read one book, what would it be?
- The North Wind and the Sun from Aesop’s Fables
- The Giving Tree
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Lord of the Flies
Where is the most exotic place you have visited? (Exotic was defined by the majority of the group as most strange or different, not necessarily tropical and remote.)
- Soviet Union
- Kensington in Philadelphia
- Inis Mór off the west coast of Ireland
Name two or three of your favorite movies.
- The Godfather
- The Deer Hunter
- A Room with a View
- Get Shorty
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
- Step Brothers
If you were given $25,000 and two weeks off with no consequence to your job or family, where would you go?
- Scandinavia in the summer
If you had to eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
- Pasta with fava beans
- Macaroni and cheese
What performer, living or dead, would you most like to see on stage?
- The Beatles
- Robin Williams
- The Rolling Stones
To customize this concept for a Rosh Hashanah celebration, the following questions could be added:
- What is your favorite memory from the year 5777?
- What do you look forward to in 5778?
- What is your favorite High Holidays memory from childhood?
- What holiday tradition do you look forward to most?
And here’s a fun twist blending the atmosphere with the merriment: Consider using colorful paper — construction, tissue or even wrapping paper for the questions.
If you possess the time, talent and inclination, create origami figures or paper flowers with each piece and strew them about the table. If not, fold or crumple them artfully, place them in a tall, stemmed goblet and, voila, a centerpiece and a conversation piece.