For many years, Kit Bardwell hosted 20 of her friends and fellow students from the Kansas City Conservatory for a winter solstice celebration. They would ascend the luminary-lined walkway to her home and follow a path that glowed in the midwinter dark, leading them indoors to rooms 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.
Still, given that many of us live far from loved ones and make a big effort to get together, we may feel an even greater pressure to make our gatherings shine. So how can we do that?
The first step may be a willingness to accept that things are different now. The pandemic no longer prevents us from getting together, but its effects on how we gather may linger a long time.
“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 acute phase of the pandemic, many of us — secretly or not — discovered that we enjoyed the absence of some routine gatherings. The longstanding tradition of going home for the holidays, for example, can often feel less like we’re reaffirming connections and more like we’re renegotiating relationships, says David Davies, PhD, associate professor of anthropology at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. “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 generate stress. How often have you arrived at an event only to feel lost at sea, wondering whom to talk to, where to stand, or what time it’s OK to leave? You might not be sure why you’re there or whether it was worth all the time and effort. Would staying home really have been so bad?
You can’t control what happens at gatherings you attend. 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,” Parker explains in her book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. “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.”
Parker notes that a gathering’s purpose requires some reflection. “Because it’s the holidays,” for example, is not a purpose — it’s a category of gathering.
There are many ways to signal your purpose. 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 that Parker recommends when she’s advising business, political, and academic clients who are hoping to create transformative group experiences. She’s boiled down her Art of Gathering into five rules that apply to any type of get-together — seasonal or otherwise. These rules can help you bring greater joy and focus to any gathering you plan. They can also help reinvigorate tired seasonal traditions or create meaningful new ones.
Rule 1: Give Your Gathering a Purpose
As mentioned, 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, one that sparks excitement and intrigue.
Davies, whose academic research focuses on East Asia, hosts an annual Chinese New Year celebration with his wife, Jun-Li Wang, in their St. Paul 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 just the kind of energy 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 whom you want to attend. Will you have 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? Lead with your best!
- 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, this rule will make you uncomfortable. But putting careful thought into whom you invite — and why — can help deepen the connection between your guests. Parker calls this “generous exclusion.” A selective guest list is a concrete way to maintain the 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’s original solstice parties were designed for artists to have a chance to celebrate each other. But then she and her family moved to a new community, and she soon learned that her new social group focused on kids, their schools, and their activities.
When she tried to continue her gatherings in the same creative spirit, she found her purpose no longer fit: Her new friends were not artists, and they were uncomfortable singing carols and playing games. Not only that, but her inclusive nature brought in people who killed the acoustic, candlelit vibe. “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 always have both.
Parker’s tips for “generous exclusion”:
- Ask yourself who will help fulfill your gathering’s purpose and improve the experience of other attendees. Invite them.
- Consider whose presence might confuse 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 — including him — will be happier if you don’t.
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 notes, for instance, announced more than just a beloved tradition; they shared the sensibility of the gathering so guests could better prepare themselves.
“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 to 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.
- Set a tone that generates excitement and reemphasizes your purpose.
- Don’t make logistics the central point. But don’t forget to include them.
Rule 4: Ditch Etiquette in Favor of Rules
Strict etiquette has a way of creating distance between guests, but creating some playful “pop-up” rules for your gathering can draw people closer. 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, while “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 help 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.
These are some examples of Parker’s pop-up rules:
- Host a networking event in which no one discloses what they do for a living.
- Try a “mom’s night” during which no one is allowed to talk about their kids.
- Require guests to leave their phones at home for a dinner party and observe the effect it has on conversation.
Rule 5: Close with Intention
Knowing when to stop is a skill every artist needs — and that extends to the art of hosting.
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 wrapping up, 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 mummers’ 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.” Still, people know that it’s OK to leave — and that is a gift.
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 for guests to take with them, such as a chocolate.
- Suggest a group photo before everyone heads out.
Why We Gather
Though they can sometimes feel like too much trouble to host or attend, holiday gatherings can support our health. These are some of the ways.
1) Casual gatherings offset loneliness.
The instinct to gather is “fundamental to who we are as social animals, a practice etched into our very being,” says David Davies, PhD. “We get together to reaffirm our connections with each other.”
These connections matter. Recent studies have shown that loneliness can be as detrimental to health as smoking. And when we’re lonely, our negative thoughts can become self-reinforcing. Meanwhile, time in the company of others can interrupt that cycle. (Learn more about how to offset loneliness here: ELmag.com/TARGETURLTK. Please link to https://experiencelife.lifetime.life/article/why-social-bonds-are-so-important-for-our-health/)
2) Community is good for our partner relationships.
Mia Birdsong points out that humans tend to organize into groups — friends, family, neighbors, faith communities — not just into 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. And enjoying ourselves in community can take some of the pressure off our partnerships to fulfill all our social needs.
3) We’re reminded that food is more than just fuel.
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.”
4) We take time to appreciate what we have.
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 Union Hmong Kitchen. They’re centered on a communal table where friends share a meal, a celebration of the enduring beauty of people connecting over food. “You can see the joy in their eyes,” he says. “Innately, our souls need each other.”