The Present Table

By Monica O’Connell, Curtis & Cake owner | Photo courtesy Sunny Frantz

“The holidays” seem to simultaneously extend and compress more each year. Often in December, I feel like a contestant on holiday edition of the “Amazing Race”—braving an endurance run peppered with shopping, social and family challenges all along the way. It can be hard to remember the inherent joy of this time of year and even harder to put into practice the presence, open-hearted connection and sense of gratitude the season was meant to engender. For many of us, these opportunities for connection and hospitality happen at the dining table. So when the holiday hustle threatens to sweep away joy, it’s best to redirect focus onto what matters most.

The roast may be overdone, the vacuuming underdone and the hostess may still be wearing yoga pants, but once the guests have met at the table, take a breath and smile.

Here are a few ideas for ensuring celebration remains ever present during festive gatherings this year…

If hosting dinner:

  • Try low greenery over face-level flowers. I gravitate toward seeded eucalyptus or branches trimmed from the tree in the back yard.
  • Have conversation prompts ready like “What are you grateful for?”; “Can you remember a favorite childhood holiday memory?” or “Share something surprising about yourself.” Ask everyone at least one.
  • Make favors for guests. A meaningful framed photo, a small jar of infused salt or homemade compound butter. I know, it’s #SoMartha, but it doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive for visitors to feel special.

If you’re the guest:

  • Bring a host gift: Wine is always welcome at my house—or flowers and plants. Just skip the cello-wrapped “day-glo” bouquets.
  • Pitch in! The offer to help is always appreciated and a minute or two of observation will likely reveal something that needs doing like finishing setting the table, washing dishes, finding a vase for those tulips—or keeping cousin Mary’s wine glass full.

If meeting-up briefly between holiday errands:

  • Pay it forward. Treat your friend, but if you can, also pay for the next person in line’s latte. I’ve been on the receiving end of such random generosity and it has never felt anything but lovely.

If sharing prep duties:

  • Ensure there’s cake. I couldn’t really put it better than American artist and designer Maira Kalman: “It is not a party without cake. It is not a holiday without cake. It is not an auspicious occasion without cake. Things are much nicer with cake. Bring on the cake. We really want to live.”

Whether you’re hosting a multi-course meal or popping into multiple parties in succession, be present. Nothing will go further to guaranteeing those around you feel welcome than your attention.

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