Hospitality For Large Groups

My Husband and I toyed around with the idea of having a tiny house. We loved the idea of living without a mortgage. We wanted to live on lots of land and be forced to spend as much time as possible outside. We wanted to live simply.

But God had other plans. He had a large house in mind for us. We found the house we’re in now on Craigslist. It’s a 3,160 sq foot farmhouse, with a separate, two-story garage, and a two-bedroom cottage on 12 acres of land. It’s a massive, old property, that we are now blessed to call home. It had been on the market for three years and the realtor posted the house on the online marketplace in a last-ditch effort to move it. I spend lots of time on Craigslist, it’s where the majority of our furniture is from. So I sort of stumbled upon the property. Adam laughed at me when I first showed it to him. It’s a miracle that we are here.

The most beautiful thing about our home, is its size. Even though it’s not what we thought we wanted. It’s exactly what we need, to host all the people we love. We have a long, awkward dining room that can seat over 20 people. A playroom that has glass doors so kids can be seen and not heard, but play to their heart’s content. A meandering, sloped yard that allows us to watch the kids at the far corners of the property.  A galley kitchen that allows for a long line of people to fill up their plates. And an oversized mudroom that holds all the mud and mayhem the kids track in.

We host a lot. And I haven’t always excelled at it. I spent a lot of my early marriage studying the ways of Martha Stewart and trying to emulate her hostessing techniques. When we were living on less than $20,000 a year, I insisted on buying cloth napkins and using antique china. I thought that hospitality meant fancy soap in the bathroom. I still believing in treating guests like royalty whenever possible, but I learned everything I know about true hospitality from two sources. My Armenian/Italian Aunt and our Mennonite friends from Ohio.

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Our kids love hosting too

My Aunt lives in Rhode Island. She’s probably the most intelligent woman I know personally. That can make her intimidating, but it also makes me consider her an expert at all the things she can do. She is an excellent cook. Her house is spotless and her vegetable garden always top-notch. She has high quality cookware and a bookcase full of cookbooks in her kitchen that are on heavy rotation. When you are invited to her house, you will be greeted with tasty hors d’oeuvres. She does serve her guests on china. But she isn’t too fussy about how guests of all ages interact with it. There is always more than enough food and she cooks with joy. She is also happy to allow guests to help clear the table and wash dishes. She includes guests in the preparation as well. Her method was a welcome evolution from my Martha ambitions. Her Thanksgiving table this year is my featured image. It’s simple, but lovely.

My next hostessing experts are our beloved Mennonite friends. They practice “scruffy hospitality”. Which to me, is the ultimate way to make people feel loved and welcome. Mi casa es su casa! Come as you are and share what you will. Their houses are always eclectic, not matchy poo. They decorate with treasures from all over the world, representing the gifts from their missionary friends and families as well as their own adventures. Nothing is part of a curated set and since nothing goes, all is welcome. Everyone fits in. The food they make is incredible. Simple recipes from around the globe, made by expert hands. The women all work together to bring about the meal and get everyone to the table. The tables are huge and everyone finds a seat. Nothing is fussy. We always pray first, but there is no concern about napkins on laps and matching goblets. The joy is in the conversation, and the fellowship. Everyone lingers at the table. Later, clean up involves everyone and everyone is eager to chip in. Guests stay for hours and if they end up staying the night, the more the merrier! Beds can be created out of just about anything. And if there is a horizontal space, it can become a place for a guest to sleep. No one expects four-poster beds or suites but everyone feels like a treasured guest. There always seems to be enough.

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One of my “hospitality expert” friends cooking rice in my kitchen.

Upon observing the art of hospitality from these geniuses of the art, I’ve spent the past several years practicing my own version of it. It’s a spiritual gift for sure, but it’s also a skill that has to be honed. It takes trial and error to know how much food to cook and where to have people park their cars. We often host our church group and have 40-60 people, some strangers, attend the gatherings. We also host family holidays and have hosted 12 people for a weekend. So I wouldn’t call us experts, but I do have some tips I’m happy to pass on.

Clean, but don’t go crazy

I used to try to achieve spotlessness before allowing people into my home. It took me awhile to realize that first of all it’s pointless, and secondly, not necessary. I was raised to believe that cleaning a house in preparation was a way to show respect to your guest. You want to present your house at it’s best to demonstrate that the guest is worth it. But, then I realized that if the floors were spotless and shining, the second the guests arrive it isn’t. Soon enough, there are guests filling all available floor space and you can’t see it anyway. I’ve learned which things are most important to clean. The counters should be wiped down. The bathrooms should be clean. The rug in the living room and playroom should be vacuumed because for some reason people love to sit on them. It doesn’t matter if there are toys somewhat strewn about in the playroom. Someone else’s kid is about to pull a bunch of toys out anyway. Is your house tidy and sanitary? Good enough. Light a candle, maybe add some flowers and call it a day.

Prep as much as you can ahead of time

You never know when someone will show up early. I made the mistake once of leaving my kitchen unswept 10 minutes before guests arrived. They arrived while I was mid-sweep and let’s just say, I wasn’t happy to see them yet and I definitely let that show to my regret.  I also like to have the bulk of my meal prep done before people show up as well. I get stressed out when people watch me cook. Which is a real shame because I love the idea of including my guests in the prep, I genuinely enjoy being on the other side of that. So this is something I’m working on. But for now, it helps reduce my stress to get that out-of-the-way. Adam helps me re-arrange furniture and dress tables or set-up the buffet before guests arrive. If people are staying the night, have a landing spot for their bags and coats.

Have a greeter pet

This isn’t a given, because some people are sadly afraid of, allergic to, or not fans of pets. But let me tell you, a friendly greeter dog makes me feel more at ease at someone else’s house faster than anything else. When the conversation dies down, there is always something to say about the cute dog. He’s always around for a pet when you’re bored and spending time with him is still considered being social even when you’re introverting. Always warn guests that you have a pet before they arrive and make sure everyone is cool with the pet being present for the visit. I like to send out a photo of our dogs so people know what to expect. 9 times out of 10, people are happy to meet our doggos and hope to catch a glimpse of our cat.

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Our best greeter pet, waiting for the guests to arrive

Stock the bathrooms

Make sure that every bathroom has at least three rolls of toilet paper accessible and easy to find. If possible, have extra supplies like baby wipes, sanitary pads and air freshener visible. Make sure your trash cans have bags in them. And always make sure you have a clean hand towel, and even a back up available for guests. The less “restocking” you have to do during your hosting, the better.

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Aunt Janet’s bathroom, stocked with essentials for guests

Be thoughtful

While you’re prepping, take a moment to consider the guests that you anticipate and their needs. Does anyone have any food allergies? Pet allergies? What can you do to accommodate those? Will the kids be playing inside or outside? What condition is the yard in? I have a stash of boots in all sizes that we lend to guests when our yard is muddy in the Spring and Fall. We also have extra gloves, hats and scarves for underprepared guests. Our pastor puts out a box of slippers for guests to borrow at his home. Buy extra pillows, keep extra towels and blankets on hand. Make sure there are toys available for kids of all ages to play with. It’s always fun to declutter, but if you host often enough, it makes sense to keep those things on hand. Even booster seats are a lifesaver for visiting guests with young ones. Anticipate how people will use your home and prepare for that.

Make double the food you think you should (at least until you get the hang of it)

I’ve gotten a lot better over the years about having enough food for my guests. I can “eyeball” it now. But I learned the hard way early on that people usually take larger portions than I anticipate, so I stopped going by serving size. Worse case scenario you have leftovers that you can send out with people or enjoy afterwards. But you never want to run out of food when you have a house full of people.

Include people when you can

I’m still working on this. But I’m trying to delegate tasks when I can. It really does make people feel more like family. People like to have a job. People like to make a meaningful contribution. Setting out napkins, drying dishes, collecting dirty plates, and even taking out the trash are jobs others can do. And if someone offers to bring something, let them.

Let it go

My favorite moment while hosting a large group is the moment when my house no longer feels like “mine”. At some point, the guests outnumber my family and I have no choice but to release my ownership of my space. Inevitably someone’s kid will do something stupid in my house and the parents either won’t notice or won’t respond. I once had a kid pee in my playroom. Another kid dumped apple juice in the lego bin. We used to have a sandbox until I had to sweep 10 cups of sand out of my living room after a small group meeting. And yes, other people’s kids have slid down my banister. You can’t always control your guests. But you can loosen your hold on your possessions and just believe that people are more important than things and your house will survive. My favorite guests are the ones who know where I keep my servingware and my glasses. I love guests that help themselves. I’ve developed the philosophy that we’re not true friends until I’ve done your dishes. So, I love it when someone helps me with mine. There is an intimacy in cleaning someone else’s stuff. And it takes vulnerability to show someone the inside of your cabinets. It’s small things like that that make hospitality magical.

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Our messy, chaotic Christmas breakfast in our loooong dining room

Ultimately, showing hospitality to others is a form of worship. You are sharing the gifts God gave you. Welcoming Him by welcoming others. Loving others by inviting them in. Our pastor has recently talked a lot about taking hospitality with you. You don’t have to have a large house or even a tiny house to show hospitality. It can be as simple as including others in a conversation, giving a warm hug, bringing a plate of cookies, or inviting someone along. True hospitality is a condition of the heart. It’s making room in your heart for someone else, wherever they are and making sure they know it.

 

 

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