I've participated in lots of gatherings of bastards and orphans, and here's what's worked for us.
Invite anyone in your circle who you like and has nowhere to go. Let me stress: PEOPLE YOU LIKE. Don't be my mother and invite the lady from church just because she has nowhere to go. No one will like her, she'll intrude for hours, and then you'll all understand why she has nowhere to go.
Create a calm and nurturing atmosphere — think Valium for the senses. For lighting, use string lights, paper lanterns, and a fire or candles. Provide pillows and blankets.
Keep your guests entertained, but don't seat your orphans and bastards in front of a movie. One year, a host had the horrible idea of showing The Mothman Prophecies. She may as well have put on Jacob's Ladder. This is not the time for psychological thrillers, but if you enjoy sports, put the game on. Or upbeat music.
For Thanksgiving table decor, gourds are great for centerpieces. I use linens and dishes, but butcher's paper and paper plates work, too. Include everyone: ensure there's adequate table seating, or make a buffet area with informal seating.
For Christmas, Hanukkah, or Festivus, skip gourds, have a tree, menorah, or tinsel-free pole. Avoid religious rites (guests can honor this privately if they want to).
If hosting, provide the appetizers and the main course; potluck the rest. If you do meat for the main dish, try Heritage Foods. If not, a Celebration Roast is a tasty and non-threatening vegan item for carnivores to eat.
Place appetizers where people gravitate — near the kitchen, television, or bar. One year, my San Fransisco hostess began with crab legs and Napa wines. It was impeccable. Other ideas:
- Baskets of nuts in the shell, bowls for empty shells
- Cheese, salami, bread, and fruit
- Veggies and hummus
Offer a signature drink (like cider rum) for appetizers and another (wine or micro-brew) for the meal. Serve water and alcohol-free drinks, too.
We all have our favorite side dishes; I read sophisticated stuffing recipes, but Stove Top screams "home." My husband loves cranberry sauce slid directly out of the can into a dish, still in the can shape. So let the guests choose what they will bring.
One year, I was asked to make a Christmas ham. I did it, but I was vegan, and it severely grossed me out — I could not wear fishnet stockings for a long time afterwards. Another year, I was assigned green bean casserole. My family never ate it, so I of course messed it up — try finding those french fried onions in a convenience store at 2pm on Thanksgiving. I was shunned, and I resented having to make something I didn't care about.
Likewise, if you are a guest bringing a side, don't get tricky or creative. Holidays are hard enough without you substituting the marshmallows for Fluff on the sweet potatoes or, God forbid, leaving the crunchy onions off the stupid green beans. There will be agitation, and you will get stuck watching a bad movie and not speaking to each other.
Desserts are a great potluck item for the wayward non-cook since they're readily available pre-made.
If you do gifts, avoid the White Elephant. There's something wrong about bastards and orphans getting just a gag gift, or items chosen with strategy being ripped from their hands. In their fragile emotional state of mind, guests can resent and turn on each other. A nicer idea is to do a designated gift exchange. A handmade theme or a $20 limit works. For Festivus, gifts are optional; you can instead curse or wrestle each other.
Cheap Gender-Neutral Gifts:
- Tickets to an event, or movie
- Book, DVD, or game
- Bottle of wine or alcohol, truffle or olive oil
- Pet toys
- Upcycled T-Shirt Pillow
- Painting, graphic novel, sock puppet, knit hat
- Food such as bread, flavored oil, or cookies
- Book of poems, song lyrics, or dirty limericks
- Photo book made of you and other person, or just other person (Try Shutterfly)
Keep structure to a minimum. This is not a time for charades or swing dance lessons. It's a time for expressing what you're thankful for or that you're not. Don't put pressure on your guests and don't try to cheer them up — they'll either enjoy themselves or break down crying. Eventually they'll curl up on your rug in a fetal position or wander off into the night in a stupor of food and drink. Either way, you've survived another gathering of bastards and orphans, and for that, you can all be thankful.