Like many of you, this weekend I will be going to a party as someone I'm not. Halloween, after all, is the time of year we can don an alter ego, look foolish and be excused.
Party aficionado Cheryl Najafi, author of The New York Times best-seller “You're So Invited,” is all for it.
“Themes — including costume parties — are a great device to get people to loosen up at a party,” said Najafi, who encourages hosts and guests to break out of their entertainment ruts more often.
She's right. Although the thought of going to a costume party used to make my stomach fill with carbolic acid and my forehead sprout hives (what if I show up dressed as Daffy Duck and everyone else is in black tie?), the parties where hosts have me asked to take part in a theme were always better, and made me a better person.
That's partly because, as Najafi said, “Giving guests something to do beforehand (like plan a costume), gets the party started long before the evening begins.”
So true. I have been thinking about my costume and this party for weeks. But it's also because life gets better when we don't take ourselves — or our homes or our parties — too seriously.
Relax. Change it up. Break some rules. Those are Najafi's mantras.
I'm inclined to agree. Over the past several years I have gone to parties dressed as a zombie doctor (wearing tattered and stained surgical scrubs, fake blood, grave mud, and sporting garden tools as surgical instruments), as Marlo Thomas's “That Girl” (a lifelong fantasy of mine), and, to a heroes and villains party, as a bad, bad carb (white bread jeans, sugar white T-shirt with empty bread bags taped to me.)
I had a blast each time.
“So many hosts are afraid to have a theme party because they think they will be a fail,” Najafi said, “but they're the most fun because they are instant ice breakers.”
This Saturday I will dress up as Mary Ann from the old TV show “Gilligan's Island” (pigtails with little red bows, tied-up gingham shirt, blue jean capri pants). I'll join a table of several professionals dressed as the other castaways: Gilligan, the Skipper, the Professor, Mr. and Mrs. Howell, Ginger, and a few island natives.
Though some of these people I don't yet know, we will already have something in common: We will be shipwrecked together on a desert island. We'll look ridiculous, and will be laughing about it all.
Halloween kicks off a party season kickoff that runs through New Year's. Many of us, including me, will entertain more in these two months than we do during the other 10 months of the year combined, so party pointers from Najafi, who lives in Phoenix, are timely.
To make this season's festivities fun and unforgettable, Najafi offers these tips:
Do something unexpected. Najafi recently hosted a formal dinner party for her husband's business associates, a serious crowd she wanted to lighten up. A theme party wasn't quite right. So on her formal dining table, she served the equivalent of a gourmet kids meal: mac and cheese bites, pizza, and ice cream sundaes. “Once people caught on, they loved it. It loosened everyone up,” she said.
Play with names. Put whimsical name cards at guests' places. She once gave each guest a potato name: Tricia Tater Tot, Harry Hashbrown, Larry Lyonnais. If guests are filling out nametags, have them put their name and what breed of dog they would be. (Gunther, St. Bernard).
Raise the buffet bar. Buffets are a great way to keep dinner parties from feeling too stiff, because guests are free to get up, she said. Make the buffet itself more enticing by setting food at varied heights, and setting out playful theme-related cards beside each dish on the buffet also. For instance, on Halloween, serve “Cauldron Chili” and “Scarecrow Cornbread.”
Ditch the Tupperware. If guests are bringing dishes for the buffet, have a platter or dish ready to receive their contribution, so you're not putting a pie out in a box or the deviled eggs out in their Tupperware carrier. If the food arrives show ready (or the guest feels it is) leave it in the container it came in. Otherwise, transfer the food to a pretty plate, wash the guest's container and have it ready to go home with them with any leftovers. “You don't want your buffet to look like a church supper.”
Add some whimsy. If you're having family over this Thanksgiving, make copies of old family photos — find ones the family members are in — and tuck them in the napkin rings. “It makes everyone feel connected, and gives a jumping off point to relive memories.”
Shower early. Don't wait until the last minute to get yourself ready, Najafi said. “You can always toss a salad after the guests arrive. You can't blow dry your hair.”
Relax. “Too many people feel they have to refinish the front porch and cook for three days in order to entertain,” Najafi said. “But today's entertaining is anything but formal. You can burn the chicken, spill wine on your dress, the set the tablecloth on fire and it's all OK.”
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.