Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a two-part story on that most important topic, the party. You can read Part 1 here.
Even more important than the theme of the party is the central moment of the party: Someone clinks a glass and makes an announcement that unifies the guests as a group. Ninety-nine percent of parties do not include this crucial feature, which is why most are unsatisfying. A group event of some sort underscores the reason for the party and gives people something to remember about it besides a few isolated conversations.
Toasts are invaluable for this purpose. When making a toast, don’t worry about being eloquent. Something as simple as “To St. Joseph the Worker!” is enough. If silence follows, there’s always someone in every group who will break that silence with a comment. The next thing you know, you have a community of people all listening to one person and laughing together.
Fifty isolated conversations are the death of a party. It’s tiring to spend all your time wondering whether you are keeping someone from someone else, or being irritated that someone is keeping you from someone else. An entire evening of this is miserable. Group conversations break the monotony of having to navigate the social maze.
Readings are fabulous for creating a group. Poetry may seem pretentious, but it really does work. Silly verse is great, and a one-act play is unforgettable. Don’t worry about rehearsing it ahead of time. Just pass it out on the spot and have at it. Singing is also great (pass out the music). With the Web, a good collection of books, and a few minutes of preparation, you can manufacture group moments that last for hours.
Lose the Chips and Dips
Whatever happened to dinner parties? They are becoming ever more rare. Today, food at parties mostly consists of snacky things you can pick up with your fingers, the better to stay on the move with. But the whole premise of moving around a party is wrong. It’s important that people be able to sit, so they can listen and share a group moment.
Try having a dinner party and see what happens. You don’t have to have a huge dining table. Even if everyone is sitting on folding chairs eating chili, it is far better than yet another round of chips, dips, and existential isolation.
And by the way, today’s emphasis on the quality of food at parties is wildly misplaced. You can hire the best catering service in town or knock yourself out cooking for days, but if you have no theme, no central moment, and no place for your guests to sit, the best snacks on the planet are not going to save your party.
Pick Your Poison
It happens all the time. You walk into your friends’ house for a party. They ask you what you want to drink and then run through a list of options: orange juice, diet and regular Coke and Sprite, Miller Lite, Bud Lite, sparkling water, V8, cran-apple juice, Fresca, coffee, ten more unappealing liquids, and, finally, water. You suddenly get this vague sense that maybe the V8 has been around awhile, or the Sprite may be flat, or the coffee not made, or the Fresca — do they even make that anymore? In the end, someone finally says, “Oh, I’ll just have a glass of water.” Someone else concurs. Folks, when that happens, the party is over before it begins.
The way to avoid this catastrophe is to have one official drink of the evening. “Tonight,” you announce, “I am serving champagne cocktails!” Who wouldn’t cheer? Serve them with a cherry or an orange slice, and you have created a memorable drink. Alternatively, you could serve martinis, or mint juleps, or some slushy, fruity concoction from the freezer. Whatever it is, stick to it. If someone doesn’t drink, he’ll say so. You should always have some fancy water available for nondrinkers, and throw in a slice of lemon or lime for good measure.
And, guys, drinks are our department. This is something we should specialize in, just as gals generally specialize in food. Make one good batch of Manhattans, and you will be famous forever, even if they are not that great. It’s just a matter of human psychology: People like a guy who can mix a solid drink. Your guests have come to your party to partake in pleasures peculiar to your home. Give them a drink that they can identify with you.
As for wine, it is best to have half a dozen bottles of all the same kind, unless the purpose of your party is wine-tasting. Why? Let’s say you have 15 guests, and you open an excellent bottle. Four people herald the glories of this particular wine, and then suddenly you are out and have to open another bottle of a completely different variety. A grand opportunity for a unifying moment has been lost. The best approach is to buy a case of the best wine you can afford and make it a general rule that the entire case must be finished by the end of the evening. The communal aspect of drinking the same wine together is essential, and people will be astonished at your liberality.
What to Wear?
What people should wear to a party is a tricky subject. This much is an incontrovertible fact: The best parties feature people dressing up, or at least not wearing torn cutoffs and worn sneakers. But if you tell your guests to come casual, cutoffs and sneakers is what you will get. Such is the nature of the times. Just look at what people wear to Mass these days! You can hardly expect them to show up at your party dressed any better.
People act nicer and smarter, however, when they wear nice clothes. They sit straighter and generally feel as though something special is taking place. Grubby clothes and truly memorable times just don’t mix, unless you are at the lake or repairing a house or in some other situation that specifically calls for casual attire.
Dress codes can seem like an imposition to some these days. I handle it by telling guests, “Feel free to dress up” or, “I’ll be in a coat and tie.” It’s a way of leaving their options open while delivering a strong hint. Finally, don’t rule out telling your guests that the dress is black tie. If it’s New Year’s Eve, this can make the evening even more joyful.
Setting the Mood
Can we have a break from rock music, please? Classical music is perfectly festive. Try Schubert’s “Trout Quintet, Mozart’s string quintets, Bach’s orchestral works, or even light operas. Chamber music works better at parties than symphonies. Pre-World War II jazz has an endless capacity to charm. Old and new movie soundtracks are always fun. How about bluegrass? The idea is to play something that is not too intrusive but isn’t boringly familiar either.
Catholic liturgical music is great, but it should be reserved for Mass and Vespers, not parties. Always remember Pope St. Clement’s dictum from the first century: no pagan music at liturgy and no liturgical music at minstrel shows or other non-sacred occasions. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to and enjoy Machaut and Byrd at home, but parties aren’t the right times to push this repertoire.
My final musical note: If someone in the group can play the piano and there’s one in your home, it should be compulsory that he play.
It’s Party Time
More important than the specifics of a party is the spirit. The spirit of a good party is a variant of the spirit of good liturgy: a work of a community of people that follows a plan. “Every religion has its feasts,” the Catholic Encyclopedia says, “but none has such a rich and judiciously constructed system of festive seasons as the Catholic Church.”
It’s time we lived up to our religious tradition by putting some effort and thought into our parties. Given the generally dull tenor of the times, you will suddenly become a famous and much-heralded host or hostess by making a little effort at being countercultural. And you will also help demonstrate to others, in the tradition of Cana, that we Catholics are not always dour and penitent, but also, at the right time, fun and hospitable people who display our hope that someday we will join the heavenly banquet, the most wonderful party of all. It’s part of our heritage and our faith.
This essay first appeared in the July 2001 issue of Crisis Magazine.