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family and friends gathered for the holidays

For many years, Kit Bardwell hosted about 20 of her friends and fellow students from the Kansas City Conservatory for an annual winter-solstice celebration. They would ascend the luminary-lined walkway to her home and follow a path that glowed in the midwinter dark, leading to rooms inside lit by candles and oil lamps.

“It was a salon where we could be in each other’s company,” Bardwell remembers. “We had this monstrous grand piano and a huge spread of food. We’d sing carols and play games I’d found in books about winter-solstice traditions. Friends who wrote would read their poetry and prose. It was a magical atmosphere.”

Gatherings like these — combining friends, food, fun, and just a little magic — have a way of living large in our memories. We all know, however, that few gatherings achieve such luminous status. The events we attend out of obligation or tradition often don’t overcome their early awkward stages before everyone exits.

But given all the time we’ve spent apart during the pandemic, many of us feel an enormous pressure to make this year’s gatherings really shine. So how can we do that?

The first step might be a willingness to do things differently.

“We are all changed,” says Mia Birdsong, author of How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community. “I think the opportunity is to let ourselves stay changed. This is a chance to move toward what might be a new understanding of — and reverence for — our relationships and the ways in which we gather.”

Know Your Purpose

During the pandemic, many of us — secretly or not — enjoyed having an unassailable reason to skip some routine gatherings. The longstanding tradition of going home for the holidays, for example, can feel for some like it’s less about reaffirming connections than renegotiating relationships, says David Davies, PhD, associate professor of anthropology at Hamline University. “You either fall back on old patterns or you’re trying to build new patterns, and that’s really stressful.”

Yet it’s not just family gatherings that create stress. How often have you arrived at an event only to feel lost at sea, wondering who to talk to, where to stand, what time it’s OK to leave? You might feel like you’re not sure why you’re there, or whether it was worth all the time and effort to get there. Was staying home really so bad?

None of us can control what happens at gatherings we attend and don’t plan. But if you’re hosting, you can make a difference — especially when you decide beforehand exactly why you chose to organize the event. As professional facilitator Priya Parker puts it, the secret sauce of any great gathering, at any time, during any season, is purpose.

“Most of us remain on autopilot when we bring people together, following stale formulas,” explains Parker. “When we don’t examine the deeper assumptions behind why we gather, we end up skipping too quickly to replicating old, staid formats. . . . And we forgo the possibility of creating something memorable, even transformative.”

In her book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Parker notes that a gathering’s purpose often requires more reflection than you’d expect. “Because it’s the holidays,” for example, it is not a purpose — it’s a category of gathering.

With their flowing, hand-penned calligraphy and instructions to dress in medieval costume, Bardwell’s solstice party invitations set the tone for a memorable event well before anyone arrived. And by providing an agenda, structure, and even rules for how to behave, she created the conditions for her gathering to flourish.

It’s this level of care and thought that Parker recommends when she’s advising business, political, and academic clients who are hoping to create transformative group experiences.

Parker has boiled down her Art of Gathering into five rules that apply to any type of gathering, seasonal or otherwise. They can help you bring greater intentionality, structure, and discipline to event planning. They can also help reinvigorate tired seasonal traditions or create meaningful new ones.

Rule 1: Give Your Gathering a Purpose

We often confuse the “category” of a gathering — holiday office party, family gift exchange — with a reason for coming together. Parker challenges us to dig deeper and identify a unique purpose for our get-together, one that sparks excitement and intrigue.

Davies, whose research focuses on East Asia, hosts an annual Chinese New Year celebration with his wife, Jun-Li Wang, in their St. Paul, Minn., home. Friends, students, and neighbors gather to help make, and then eat, hundreds of Chinese dumplings.

The purpose is clear: “Winters in Minnesota are long, and we often don’t see many people,” he explains. “Our Chinese New Year party is effectively our Christmas card, a time to check in with friends. It’s a winter invigoration.”

This is exactly the energy that Parker encourages. “Going with the flow and catering to everyone makes for a fine event, but narrowing your gathering to a specific and unique purpose creates an opportunity to thrill,” she suggests. When Davies made dumpling production the central activity at his gathering, connection and invigoration became almost inevitable.

Parker’s tips for planning gatherings with a specific purpose:

  • Be clear about who you want to attend: people who have known each other a long time or folks who are meeting for the first time?
  • Consider what your guests may need when they arrive. Do they need to rest and recover? Do they need to reconnect? Do they need to share stories?
  • Consider your own needs for the gathering. Why are you planning it? What do you want from it?
  • Think about your unique gift or perspective that you can share with the group. Do you make amazing bread? Tell great stories?
  • Consider how you can you tap into your guests’ unique gifts, skills, or knowledge to make the gathering more meaningful. What can this group do or share, or what does this group know that no other group does?

Rule 2: Make Purpose Your Bouncer

If you’re someone who likes to invite everyone to the party, including the mail carrier and the person you met at the bus stop yesterday, this rule will make you uncomfortable. But putting careful thought into who you invite — and why — can help to deepen the connection between your guests. Parker calls this “generous exclusion.” A highly selective guest list is a concrete way to maintain the unique purpose of your gathering.

“If you’re planning a reunion of friends who are all now married, whether to include spouses or not should come back to what the purpose of the gathering is,” she advises. If it’s to relive old times, leave the spouses off the list. If you want to share your new lives, invite them!

Bardwell learned this lesson firsthand. “I’ve always been overinclusive because it crushed me when I wasn’t invited,” she explains. But then she and her family moved to a new community. Her original solstice parties were designed for artists to have a chance to celebrate each other. After moving, she soon learned that her new social group focused on kids, their schools, and their activities.

She tried to continue her gatherings, but her purpose was watered down: Her new friends were not artists, and they were uncomfortable with singing carols and playing games. Not only that, but her inclusive nature welcomed people who killed the acoustic, candlelit vibe she was seeking. “My friend’s husband actually came in and turned on the TV to watch a football game!” she recalls.

The guest list should help fulfill the purpose of the gathering, Parker explains — and that purpose should reflect the needs of the group itself. That may be singing carols or watching football, but you can’t usually have both.

Parker’s tips for “generous exclusion”:

  • Ask yourself who will help fulfill your gathering’s purpose and enhance the experience of other attendees. Invite them.
  • Consider whose presence might threaten your gathering’s purpose and detract from everyone’s experience. If the purpose is to sing and read poetry by candlelight, don’t invite the guy who would rather watch football. Everyone will be happier if you don’t — including him.

Rule 3: Design Your Invitation to Persuade

In an age of group texts and emails, it can be easy to overlook the fact that the invitation itself was once considered an art. Bardwell’s hand-scripted invitations, for instance, announced more than just a beloved tradition; they shared the sensibility of the gathering so guests could better prepare themselves to enjoy it.

“Your gathering begins at the moment of discovery,” notes Parker. More than just a vehicle for logistics such as place, date, and time, the invitation is a chance to set the scene and let guests know what they can expect — and what will be expected of them. “Done well, [an invitation is] an opening argument to persuade, even entice.”

Parker’s tips for creating persuasive invitations:

  • Tell a story about why this gathering needs to happen and why your guests are a crucial part of the experience.
  • Don’t make logistics the central point of your invitation. (But don’t forget to include them.)
  • Set a tone that generates excitement — and weeds out those who may not fit your purpose.

Rule 4: Ditch Etiquette for Rules

You can also set the tone by establishing “pop-up” rules for your gathering. These one-time strictures help to create a unique feeling of place and time for your guests. (Hint: Include these rules in your invitation.) This can be as simple as asking people to leave their phones at home, or as elaborate as inviting them to help make the meal.

“Etiquette allows for people to gather because they have been raised with the same silent codes and norms,” explains Parker, but “pop-up rules allow people to gather because they are different — yet open to having the same experience.” They “temporarily change and harmonize your guests’ behavior for a specific bonded moment.”

Davies’s Chinese New Year invitations list two arrival times: If you want to make the dumplings, show up at 4; if you just want to eat, show up at 6. “Very few people show up just to eat,” he says.

Some examples of Parker’s pop-up rules:

  • • Consider what a networking event would look like if you couldn’t disclose what you do for a living.
  • • Try a “mom’s night” gathering where parents aren’t allowed to talk about their kids.
  • • See where dinner-party conversations go if you require that phones be kept out of sight.

Rule 5: Close With Intention

Knowing when to stop is a skill every artist needs — and that extends to the art of hosting.

The responsibility of hosting involves guiding guests through an experience, Parker notes, and this includes letting them know when it’s over. It’s not necessary to kick everyone out at a certain time, nor is a closing speech always a good idea. But if you can let your guests know, in some meaningful way, that a gathering is over, they’re more likely to leave feeling satisfied.

“Ending your time together well is a crucial way to shape the feelings, ideas, and memories you want your guests to take with them,” she explains. “Endings are a reminder of why you gathered in the first place.”

Once all of Bardwell’s guests had performed their songs and poems, she would always deliver the final act of the night — a traditional Mummer’s Play. To signal the end of the evening at their Chinese New Year party, Davies and Wang hand out posters from China and give all the children a traditional red envelope with a small gift of money.

And if people want to linger a little, that’s fine, too. “We don’t kick anyone out then,” Davies admits. “It’s pretty casual.”

Parker’s tips for closing with intention:

  • • Issue a last call: a song, an announcement, or some other signal to indicate your time together is coming to an end.
  • • Provide a small token, such as a chocolate or treat, for guests to take with them.
  • • Offer to take a group photo before everyone heads out.

Why We Gather

The instinct to gather together is “fundamental to who we are as social animals, a practice etched into our very being,” says David Davies, PhD, associate professor of anthropology at Hamline University. “We get together to reaffirm our connections with each other.”

Mia Birdsong, author of How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community, points out that humans tend to organize into groups — friends, family, neighbors, faith communities — not just pairs. “Two people are not the village. In a context where most of us aren’t living with extended family, gathering gives us an opportunity to be in the village,” she says.

That may be why so many gatherings center on rituals that acknowledge our interdependence. “Often it’s around cooking and eating,” Davies observes. “Traditionally, the idea of transforming wild nature into something we eat together has an aspect of communion. When we share a meal, we nourish each other.”

Yia Vang, a Minneapolis chef who immigrated to the United States with his Hmong family when he was a young child, recalls large gatherings around makeshift grills in the Thai refugee camp where he was born. Those gatherings were built upon relationships forged in hardship yet grounded in gratitude. “It was an acknowledgment that we might not have had everything in the world, but we had each other,” he says.

Today Vang creates gatherings at his restaurant centered on a communal table where friends share a meal. “I’ve hosted so many gatherings recently where it was the first time that friends had been able to hug each other in over a year,” he notes. “You could see the joy in their eyes. Innately, our souls need each other.”

Jill Patton, FMCHC

Jill Patton, FMCHC, is a Minneapolis-based health writer and functional-medicine certified health coach.

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