Any moment now, a crowd of people will descend on Jayne Robertson's house in Palm Springs, California, but Robertson isn't frazzled. She moves aside furniture to arrange a circle of chairs and cushions by the fireplace, sets a table for food, puts out hot water and a selection of teas, lights candles, and awaits her guests.
Every year during this most frenetic of seasons, Robertson, a yoga teacher, and her husband, Ed, host a winter solstice party for their friends from the yoga studio. Robertson's recipe for stress-free entertaining is equal parts simplicity and community. "We do it as a vegetarian potluck," she says. "It's an extraordinarily busy time of year, so this is a nice way of gathering—we're relaxed when people arrive, and it takes some of the pressure off hosting."
For many people, the winter holidays signify family expectations, endless social obligations, and rampant consumerism—a combination that often eclipses the true message of the season. But hosting a post-yoga-class gathering can be a peaceful way to share in the holiday spirit—without buying into the frenzy. Consider it a gift of gratitude for those who support your practice throughout the year and a chance to connect in ways that don't always arise in class.
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Whether you want to host a few friends or a big, open-to-all affair, the best way to make sure your guests enjoy themselves is to enjoy yourself—a relaxed, unruffled host makes guests feel welcome and at ease. With this in mind, do a little preparation ahead of time and be sure to enlist help. Even if you're doing the cooking, invite your friends to bring their special hummus or chocolate-chip cookies. Yoga student and professional caterer Denice Haboush recommends appointing a helper—a friend or a neighborhood teen—who will answer the door, take coats, and tidy up during the festivities. And when you're thinking about the entertainment, don't hesitate to tap into your friends' unique talents: Does anyone take photos, do henna tattoos, play the guitar or piano?
Set the Scene
"People are affected by their environment," says Jill Leslie, a yoga teacher who hosts monthly Ayurvedic potlucks at her home in Berkeley, California. "If the space feels relaxing, people will relax. If it feels festive, people feel uplifted." Visualize the mood you want to set. You can create a serene atmosphere with candles, soft music, and incense; encourage guests to dress casually and go barefoot; and arrange floor cushions to sit on. For an upbeat vibe, string twinkle lights; make a mix of lively, jazzy tunes; and let invitees know to break out their sparkly cocktail attire. Before the party, assess the flow of your home and rearrange furniture if you need to, so that guests can easily navigate the space. People will gather around food, so rather than designating one food area, place tasty, healthful bites throughout your home.
To infuse more intention into your gathering, consider organizing it around a meaningful activity or ceremony. Suggest that guests bring a donation of nonperishable food to give to a local food bank, or gently used yoga equipment to contribute to yogahope.org, a nonprofit that establishes rehabilitative yoga programs for women who are homeless, are recovering from substance abuse, or are victims of domestic violence.
You might also plan a special practice for guests to participate in. Robertson opens her annual solstice party with a singing circle including kirtan and songs celebrating the transition from darkness to light. A fire ceremony follows, and then Robertson leads a short silent meditation. "There are so many social events based on heavy eating and heavy boozing that we want to bring a different sensibility to the season," she says. "A gathering like this reinforces the practice of finding stillness in the busiest times—especially the chaotic, over-scheduled holidays."
Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy
While overindulgence is often the hallmark of holiday celebrations, your guests will appreciate party food that is nourishing and healthful as well as appealing. For a small appetizer party, figure on having four to six appetizers—enough for two bites of each per guest. But if your gathering is directly after class or at dinnertime, add a substantial dish that can be prepared in advance, kept heated in a slow cooker, and ladled into mugs or bowls. Think nourishing, comforting fare: ginger-squash soup, tempeh-chipotle chili, mushroom-barley soup, or spiced green lentils with spinach and lemon. Or make a big pan of spinach lasagna or baked rigatoni with tomato sauce and roasted vegetables to serve as the main course.
At the end of the evening, when just a few friends linger, suggest a walk around the block; or simply unwind, do restorative asanas, and quietly enjoy each other's company. In the end, Robertson reminds us, "It's not about the food or tea. You're nourishing your body, but you're also feeding your soul and communing in a sangha of people who have the same kind of feeling. It's about the community and the sharing of that."
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans generate 25 percent more garbage during the holidays. Take a trip to the thrift store before the party for an eclectic mix of secondhand plates and tableware; serve drinks in jam jars; and invest in cloth napkins (if you're handy, you can make your own simply and inexpensively from fabric remnants). Or look for compostable plates and utensils made of corn or potato starch and use recycled paper napkins.
Build a Mocktail Bar
To set up a self-serve bar featuring festive, fizzy drinks, you'll need a few different juices (think seasonal flavors like pear, pomegranate, and tangerine), plus something bubbly—soda water, mineral water, or nonalcoholic champagne. Mix and match (pomegranate peartini, anyone?) and set out little bowls of pomegranate seeds, rosemary sprigs, mint leaves, and lemon and lime twists for garnish.
Set Out Instant Appetizers
These nibbles require little more than smart shopping:
- Vegetable crudités with a selection of purchased dips like ranch dressing, hummus, and olive or artichoke tapenade.
- Marinated olives
- Spiced nuts or pumpkin seeds
- Crisp vegetable chips
- Plump medjool dates, pitted and filled with a walnut half
- Pear and persimmon slices topped with crumbled clue cheese
- Cooked or canned white beans dressed with olive oil, garlic, balsamic vinegar, and chopped fresh herbs, then mashed lightly for a chunky dip
- Rounds of goat cheese rolled in finely chopped hazelnuts and served with crackers, tart apple slices, and a drizzle of artisanal honey
- Whole wheat pita rounds brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt, and baked until crisp, then broken into irregularly shaped crackers