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House Dressing
By Tammy Minn - Inland Empire Magazine, December 1999

ChristmasRuth Ann Chafin offers the holiday party hostess tips on how to focus on what's important this season and avoid a meltdown from trying to do it all.

Everybody's been there. You know one person at the party and, unfortunately, it's the hostess. You haven't seen her in hours. Rumor has it she's got her head in the oven trying to resurrect the main dish. The last time you saw her, she was wielding a pate spreader and shrieking at the kitchen help. She's active in community groups, church and philanthropic fundraising, but tonight she's become the protagonist from a Stephen King novel.

The hostess in meltdown is suffering from the "Do It All Syndrome." According to Ruth Ann Chafin, owner of Interior Network in San Bernardino, this common ailment can bring a party to its knees before the first cocktail wienie graces a skewer. She says people, especially women, have become used to packing their agendas to the brim and not asking for help. They approach their role as hostess in much the same way. But there is a cure. As an interior designer, Chafin has helped clients prepare their homes for guests and has taught seminars about entertaining at home. She hosts her own monthly dinner parties to keep in touch with families and friends, so she speaks from experience. Chafin's recipe for success?

"Focus on the 'f' words in life-fun, food, frolic, family, friends and faith," she says.

Those "f's" are the reason most people like to have dinner parties at home, she adds. The details, the table linens, candles, even the food, are hospitality props. They're the extras that create warmth and invite guests in. Chafin, a hockey-playing grandmother in her 50s who runs her own business and donates her time to several community groups, has developed a plan for throwing successful dinner parties at home.

In fact, she has a notebook complete with forms for guest lists, seating arrangements, menus, an inventory of dishes and accessories, and theme topics. There's even a spot to record after-party thoughts. The idea is to be organized enough so that when the first guests arrive, the host can "come to the party too," she says. Chafin makes the following suggestions for throwing holiday parties at home:

Pick a date that's not crowded with other obligations. Chafin prefers Thursday evenings. Most company parties are on Saturdays, so a small get-together with friends set for a specific time is welcome during the busy holidays. She likes to phone people to invite them to her dinner parties, rather than sending a more formal invitation. It allows for personal contact, she says.

Invite a variety of people and think about where you will seat them at the dinner table. Sit the gregarious storytellers among the shrinking violets. When mixing groups of people who might not know each other, it's important that the host or hostess is free to make introductions and break the ice, Chafin says. Having a theme for the party can also help people get acquainted and start conversations. Holiday theme ideas include an ornament or stocking exchange, asking each guest to bring a photo of a favorite Christmas past and sharing what was special about it, or having each guest bring a new toy that will be wrapped at the party and donated to a charity.

The sunday before the party, get out the tableware and start arranging it. Everything doesn't have to match, but it should be consistent. For example, if you have a holiday pattern, such as Spode's Christmas Tree, but don't have enough place settings of it, alternate it with solid color plates. Chafin also likes to use 15-inch gold charger plates under the dinner plates because it makes it easy to serve the course and they look dressy.

Have music playing as guests arrive. "Don't forget any of the senses," Chafin says, including smell. She never uses fresh flowers on the dining table because their scent might interfere with the rich assortment of aromas from the food. Instead, if she wants florals at the table, she uses silks at the napkin rings. Fresh flowers can be placed on the hors d'oeuvre table.

Keep the menu simple and delegate pieces of it to reliable friends or family. If someone says, "Let me bring something," let them. Chafin says, "It's a gift to let others do something for you. Lots of people learn how to give, but I don't know if we're taught to receive."

Have the salad on the dinner table when guests arrive. A spinach salad is a good choice because it doesn't wilt. With the salad in place, the hosts and guests can enter the dining room together and bring their conversation with them. With a little planning, a holiday party at home can be as much fun for the hosts as it is for the guests.


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