I lifted the idea straight from a Grace Livingston Hill novel: I had read dozens of them in my teens, and I was enchanted with the way those beautiful jazz-age heroines of hers always seemed to be stumbling into winter house parties on grand estates. The literary uses of the form varied, of course: if the heroine was an ingénue, the house party would serve as an excellent illustration of the vanities of the frivolous life and an opportunity to illumine the darkness of worldly pursuits with the sweet influence of her character. If, on the other hand, she was of the glittering beau monde, smoking cigarettes and shamelessly flaunting wide-legged pants (I remember one lovely creature whose inner quality was expressed—rather tastefully, in my opinion—by her arresting gold bangle in the shape of a serpent, wicked-looking emeralds for eyes), then the gathering would be the one place in all the world where she might encounter for the first time the warmth and welcome of a real home—an experience that would unfailingly change her life for the better and generally land her on the front row of the local church at the earliest possible opportunity.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not poking fun at dear Grace, though I’d never deny that her stories were formulaic. I doubt she would deny it herself, written as they were to keep the wolf from the door after she was widowed with young children. But if her books were predictable, they were also reliable, and in more than one sense: they were permeated, often with more zeal than art, by the faith that was central to her worldview. And they never failed to paint a tender portrait of what home can mean, in all its most sacramental significance. I think I’m probably just realizing, all these years later, how much her ideals of homemaking helped shape my own, throwing in spices and herbs of fundamental thought to the strong brew of values already steeping away at the back of my young mind. I can still see the golden loaves emerging from fictional ovens and feel the warm triumph over a perfectly molded aspic or a mousse whipped up miraculously out of a bare larder. Grace’s girls knew how to pack a picnic and how to cook a roast that would have a man proposing before the meal was over. And they knew that it all mattered: that the practical love of hospitality had its origin in the warm and supremely real invitation of Love itself.
So when the idea popped into my head a few years ago to throw an honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned house party—the kind of house party that Grace herself would have been proud of—I knew it fell right in line with my heart’s truest desires. Philip and I love to entertain; hospitality is central to the vision we share for our home and marriage. But there’s just something about the notion of overnight guests that kindles my womanly vocation into a merry blaze. To be able to provide not only an evening’s diversion, but a welcome rest for the night and a series of meals epitomizes my dreams for this drafty old farmhouse of ours. For houses have vocations, too, you know. And ours is never happier than when stuffed to the rafters with people we love. And never more so than at Christmas.
The news of dear friends coming into town for our annual Christmas party set my mind humming on the matter. And when I learned not long after that another friend who is all but a little sister to me would be home from Sarajevo on brief holiday furlough, it was a settled affair. Invitations were joyfully extended and accepted, and just to complete the party I invited a couple of local friends who promptly said yes even though the night fell on their wedding anniversary. From that point on, my thoughts—and, consequently, my “to do” list—were divided between preparing for the actual party and preparing for the house party afterwards. The former was a black tie affair, for, with all its bright revelry, Christmas inspires my domestic soul to the utmost formality. No festivity of the whole year together is so deserving, in my opinion, of the very best we have to offer.
Consequently, the December days leading up to an event have often seen me shuttling around town with a carload of my mother’s china and my grandmother’s sterling, consulting a list as long as my arm at the farmer’s market, and devoting whole afternoons to ironing family linens and tablecloths. I make it a tradition to polish the silver in November, well before the sweet madness overtakes, but invariably, some obvious item is overlooked (most often the venison dome on the kitchen hutch upon which I lay eyes every day of my life and which is an absolute bear to polish) and later wedged somewhere between peeling oranges into careful shells for the sweet potatoes and refreshing a thousand candlesticks with fresh tapers and tying red ribbons on just about every stationary object in the house.
I do love it so—all of it, even the wild thrill of, “How under heaven am I going to get all of this done?” But it comes together at the last minute, superfluous things gone by the wayside and essentials prioritized or delegated to an exceedingly agreeable husband. (I may feed a lot of people over Christmas, but Philip feeds me in the days leading up to it.) And suddenly, before I can half realize it’s happening, the time has come to light candles and touch a match to ready fires, and I wait, breathless as the rooms themselves, for that first merry clang of the doorbell and the first cheerful greetings of friends. I adore that moment, and my house adores it too: I can feel the bright expectation gathering around me as I stand surveying the table in that last hush before the happy bedlam ensues. I feel like a director upon whose play the curtain is about to go up. It might just be my favorite moment of all—after weeks of preparation and work and worry and excitement, we are ready, my house and I, and Love’s sweet office is eager to be fulfilled.
But as much as I enjoy getting ready for my Christmas party, I think I had even more fun that year preparing my guest rooms. Mantles were laced with pine garlands and fires were laid. I wired sprays of holly and greenery to bedposts and bedside lamps and made up the beds with cool cotton sheets and freshly ironed pillowcases. On a last whim, I put trays on the beds with posy vases of holly and cedar, silver dishes of chocolates, and a few cherished December issues of Victoria magazine. And all throughout the party, amidst all the laughter and merrymaking and constant replenishing of trays and chafing dishes, I kept thinking about those quiet rooms upstairs and the dear souls that would rest there that night.
The other guests cleared out after midnight and I was confronted with the yearly mountain of dishes and ravaged spread of party fare in the dining room. But with indefatigable energy these friends of mine fell on the ruin, and in less time than I dreamed possible, the leftovers had been attended to, the silver dried to my standard, and the plates and coffee cups stacked neatly on the sideboard, ready to be put away. (It’s another tradition that, even with Philip’s help, I regularly see dawn on the morning after our party just as I’m tottering to bed in a sheer stupor of exhaustion.) We played loud Christmas music and sipped mulled wine as we worked, husbands drying as wives washed, until there was not a spoon out of place or a crumb unaccounted for. Then we all flopped in our finery in the den by the fire, where we laughed and yawned well into the early morning hours. That’s one thing that Philip says he loves about a house party: you actually have time to get past the cocktail banter with people and really talk to them.
Philip woke at eight the next morning and started the percolator. Around nine we decided that we wanted to treat everyone to coffee in their rooms, so I assembled the trays with pretty mugs and sprigs of holly and cream and sugar and, each carrying one, we ascended the stairs, grinning at one another like children. We delivered their coffee with bright greetings, and Philip started the fires in their rooms so that they could relax in bed for a while before breakfast. I told them we would eat in an hour: already the sacrosanct aromas of my mother’s Christmas Morning Breakfast Casserole, reserved for only the most special of occasions, was filling the air with invitation.
Everyone trailed down eventually and we had a fresh pot of coffee and a jolly breakfast in the den by the fire, complete with sweet rolls and clementines and Christmas records on the turntable. There was enough champagne leftover from the party for mimosas (Grace wouldn’t have liked that at all—I think she was a teetotaler), and we just lounged in our pajamas and talked and laughed for a couple of hours. In a season characterized by hurry, it was an oasis of indolence. After the dishes had been cleared and a leisurely ramble had been taken to the barn to greet the animals, I decreed a round of naps all around: an edict with which all present were only too eager to comply.
I got up just in time to spread out the makings for lunch—pimento cheese sandwiches and more clementines and a pot of tea—and we ate once more in the den with plates on our knees as the tree was just too inviting. But a great mobilization was eminent: as a last treat, we were all heading together to the cathedral downtown for the dearly loved tradition of Nine Lessons and Carols, and I set an egg timer in the kitchen so we wouldn’t be late. Nevertheless, when the bell went off, we dispersed like a covey of quail: running up and down the stairs, doors slamming, the dog escaping and being rounded up again, dashes back into the house for a last check or a forgotten scarf—all things considered, it was a miracle that we made it to the cathedral at all, much less before the service started. But barely before: the only seats available were on the back row. There was just room for us, and as we sank into our pew, the soloist in the balcony chanted the first lovely strains of “Once in Royal David’s City.” Such a moment of grace, surrounded by such dear friends with such a happy memory behind us. And I think that might just be my favorite thing about a house party: the shared experience you can laugh over and remember together as “glad and golden hours” for years to come.
But there was one last gift with which the weekend was to be sealed in our hearts, and it came at the end of the service. I confess I had been a little disappointed to be on the very last row, as the acoustics just aren’t that great in the cathedral. Every regret disappeared, however, when the Great Recessional began and I realized, with tears in my eyes, that the sopranos were assembling all around our back pew for the final descant of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It’s always been one of my very favorites—long has it made my heart pound with joy. But I will never, ever forget that moment of singing it—or trying to sing it with a choked voice and tears that were pouring down my cheeks to the sublime accompaniment of that angelic chorus just behind me. We were borne up, as it were, carried on wings of worship, and Philip and I both confessed to one another later that we gave up trying to sing and just stood in a worshipful silence, cherishing it and trying to imprint it on our memory forever. It was a moment of such majesty that it made our Christmas. A pure gift of love from the Father of Lights. And when the service was over, we all mopped our eyes and congregated in the atrium for final rhapsodies and last Christmas wishes.
I ran away from them all for a moment, out into the frosty twilight, to hear the bells chiming out the message of Christmas to the city, to look at the pale faded sky and the bare branches against it and the twinkling lights of the neighborhood across the street and the lampposts all decked with Christmas wreaths. It was one of my own sacred moments, as the glad clamor of bells pealed overhead and the beauty of the evening opened before me, winsome as a scene from a Grace Livingston Hill book.
I think dear old Grace would have been pleased with our house party. We had loved our loved ones with the utmost energy of our hearts. And we had all ended up at church together—she would have liked that.
Originally published on the Art House America blog, December 2013.