This essay first appeared in the July 2001 issue of Crisis Magazine.
Postmodern man– and postmodern woman– doesn’t know how to give a good party. It’s up to us Catholics to reclaim this lost art and share it with the world.
Why? Because good parties are intrinsic to our Catholic faith. The liturgical year is punctuated with a wide array of feast days and celebrations, many of which are Christianized versions of holidays that once closely tracked the agricultural calendar of planting and harvesting. The two largest and best-known feasts are, of course, Christmas and Easter, but there are also the two Christmas and Easter spin-offs, Epiphany and Pentecost. In addition, there’s the feast of Mary, Mother of God (New Year’s Day); Ascension Thursday; Corpus Christi; the feast of the Immaculate Conception; All Saints Day (with Halloween and the Day of the Dead); and, the most famous party of all, Mardi Gras, which has strayed far from its Catholic origin as the last celebration before the Lenten fast but still embodies a certain Catholic sensibility. Above all, every Sunday for Catholics is a feast day on which we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. Only in Lent and the mini-Lent of Advent is it not party time, but even in these two seasons, there are exceptions for St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, St. Nicholas’s Day, and other feasts.
Of course, as the Church wisely realizes, feasts are more fun if preceded by fasts. The stricter the fast, the merrier the feast. Truly the Catholic tradition has mastered the art of well-timed, heavily scheduled, carefully orchestrated good times. The occasion of a sacrament — baptism, confirmation, or matrimony — is the best possible opportunity for a good party. In fact, many Catholics take it for granted that a wedding should be marked by a grand feast. The bigger and more elaborate the feast, the more it conforms to the biblical model in John 2:1-11 of the wedding feast at Cana. Mary, Jesus, and His disciples all attend. In the middle of the party, the wine runs out. Mary explains this difficult situation to her son; after all, the gospel implies, it Won’t be much of a party without wine. After an exchange with His mother, Jesus asks those in charge to fill six stone pots with water. “And they filled them to the brim,” John says. When the host tastes the water, he is startled to discover that Jesus has changed it to wine, and not just any wine but the best they will have all night. Hence, Jesus’ first miracle was not a solemn occasion, as one might expect, but a celebration.
You might expect that such a remarkable story as this, one that recounts Jesus’ first public display of divine power, would be standard fare in evangelical Protestant pulpits, where the words of the Bible take precedence over any liturgical design. Not so. If you have ever attended a Southern Baptist wedding, for example, you know why: There is no feast. The ceremony lasts perhaps 20 minutes at most, and then the entire crowd descends to the social hall under the church to eat pastel butter mints and cake and sip a tiny cup of fizzy, pink, nonalcoholic punch. Wine is Forbidden by tradition, so no one is looking for any. The whole affair is over in less than an hour. Baptists may be people of the Book, but they certainly are not people of the party. So much for living the words of Scripture. How did the wedding feast, so joyously celebrated at Cana, come to be the dreary occasion that it is in the Baptist tradition? Like members of other non-liturgical faiths, Southern Baptists tend to reject regularly scheduled intervals of joy, sadness, celebration, and suffering, less for explicit doctrinal reasons than because it all just seems too, well, Catholic.
Protestants have traditionally found the Catholicity of Christian holidays deeply problematic. During the colonial period, Massachusetts actually outlawed Christmas, and the controversy about whether to put up a lighted tree in church still erupts in evangelical congregations. If Protestant Americans had been left to their own devices, we would celebrate only Thanksgiving (which is actually a version of St. Martin’s Day, November 11) and the Fourth of July.
This aspect of the Catholic faith is as conspicuous to outsiders as it is taken for granted by us: One day we are eating pancakes and throwing parties for Fat Tuesday, and the next day, Ash Wednesday, we are walking around with ashes on our foreheads repenting for our sins. What is it about us Romanists and our ways?
The Bible, it turns out, is filled with fabulous parties. Think of the parable of the prodigal son. When he returns to his father’s home with a contrite heart after living the high life, he is not given broth and sent to bed. No, his father says,
“bring hither the fatted calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son,” as if to show that home is where the high life actually is
St. Clement of Alexandria wrote: “The repentant son came to the pitying father, never hoping for these things — the best robe, and the ring, and the shoes — or to taste the fatted calf, or to share in gladness, or enjoy music and dances; he would have been contented with obtaining what in his own estimation he deemed himself worthy.”
Instead, he got it all. That’s a party.
Given this spirit of liberality in one of Jesus’ own parables, a good Catholic should be prepared to throw a great party whenever the opportunity arises. Now, it’S true that merrymaking cannot be the sum total of the way we live. The ever-stern St. Francis de Sales, in his Introduction to the Devout Life, warns against excessive frivolity. But he does affirm that balls and festivities are not evil in themselves and can even be used for good. “It is lawful to amuse yourself, to dance, dress, feast, and see seemly plays,” he affirms. The proviso is that the good times must not hinder, but help, devotion. Indeed they can and do.
What is striking about modern life is how dull our attempts at frivolity often turn out to be, not only because they are not interrupted by fasting and prayer, as they should be, but also because we have lost the art of how to throw a good party.
We’ve all had the experience of walking into a party where we know only a few people, and all the rest are talking among themselves. We find someone we know and hope he doesn’t mind if we talk exclusively to him for, oh, the entire length of the party.
We know we are supposed to mingle with the others, but no matter how many tips on that we’ve heard or read, mingling never seems to work. Some people resent intrusions into their conversations, and in any case, there usually doesn’t seem to be much to talk about. The most we can hope for is a good opportunity to make an inconspicuous exit.
Thousands of parties like this come and go without leaving any impression on the guests. The host is left with a huge mess and not much else to show for it. It’s no wonder that many people are disinclined to hold parties, or that they do it only when they have to, or that they invite only the in-crowd when they can get away with it, or that they never attempt much in the way of food and drink beyond chips and beer.
Find a Reason to Party
It doesn’t have to be this way. All parties should have an ostensible reason for being. This is what makes them communal occasions and provides a reason why all these people should be together in one spot at the same time. With a theme, people have a mental hook, so that they can later think: “I loved that St. Cecilia party!” Fortunately, our liturgical calendar provides plenty of ideas for themes. Saints’ days are the perfect excuses for celebrations, and it helps that these days rarely step on the more conventional party excuses of everyone else.
For example, this article originally appeared close to the feast of the beheading of St. John the Baptist on August 29. I can recall one great party in honor of this saint for which the hostess made goat’s head soup. We slurped it down and toasted this great man of God. Irresistible! Even non-Catholic guests (and there were plenty of them at the John the Baptist party) enjoy partaking in these festive aspects of Catholic life.
Here’s why theme parties are out of fashion: We live in a culture obsessed with the fear of violating someone else’s conscience. We don’t impose our values on others, and we never assert the superiority of our own or point out problems with others’ points of view. If we happen to have values, that’s fine, but we dare not suggest that others should adopt them. That would be bad form.
A theme party is typically seen as an imposition on the conscience. For example, say you invite guests to your house to celebrate the feast of St. Blaise on February 3. What if they don’t like this saint, or they think saints are generally weird? What if they aren’t in the mood? Why should your priorities trump theirs? Isn’t it manipulative to tell people how they should feel? These are the kinds of deconstructionist fears that tacitly haunt us and keep us from setting a theme for an evening.
The Catholic liturgy, however, assigns themes to practically every day. We are supposed to mourn on Good Friday and then two days later shout, “Alleluia!” Is this manipulative? Not at all. Theologian Michael Foley of Boston College points out that the purpose of gathering together is to experience something together. He writes in his online liturgy manual: “From the exilic pining of Septuagesima to the austerity of Lent, from the grief of Passiontide to the jubilance of the Pasch, the Church, by staggering its feasts and observances in a particular order, enables the faithful to experience a number of holy feelings as one. Indeed, the emotional range of the traditional Roman rite is perhaps the most variegated in all of Christendom.”
Liturgical themes for parties are great, especially if they involve a sacrament. But the theme doesn’t have to be solemn and liturgical. It can be a mere excuse: to celebrate the opening of a great bottle of wine, to commemorate the hanging of a new painting, to mark the first day of summer, to eat an unusual food, to blow off steam after final exams. It takes very little creativity to come up with a good idea for a party. Even foolish themes are fun, like the “white elephant” parties of the 1950s, to which guests brought worthless gifts.
The Big Moment
Even more important than the theme of the party is the central moment of the party: Someone clinks a glass and makes an announcement that unifies the guests as a group. Ninety-nine percent of parties do not include this crucial feature, which is why most are unsatisfying. A group event of some sort underscores the reason for the party and gives people something to remember about it besides a few isolated conversations.
Toasts are invaluable for this purpose. When making a toast, don’t worry about being eloquent. Something as simple as “To St. Joseph the Worker!” is enough. If silence follows, there’s always someone in every group who will break that silence with a comment. The next thing you know, you have a community of people all listening to one person and laughing together.
Fifty isolated conversations are the death of a party. It’s tiring to spend all your time wondering whether you are keeping someone from someone else, or being irritated that someone is keeping you from someone else. An entire evening of this is miserable. Group conversations break the monotony of having to navigate the social maze.
Readings are fabulous for creating a group. Poetry may seem pretentious, but it really does work. Silly verse is great, and a one-act play is unforgettable. Don’t worry about rehearsing it ahead of time. Just pass it out on the spot and have at it. Singing is also great (pass out the music). With the Web, a good collection of books, and a few minutes of preparation, you can manufacture group moments that last for hours.
Lose the Chips and Dips
Whatever happened to dinner parties? They are becoming ever more rare. Today, food at parties mostly consists of snacky things you can pick up with your fingers, the better to stay on the move with. But the whole premise of moving around a party is wrong. It’s important that people be able to sit, so they can listen and share a group moment.
Try having a dinner party and see what happens. You don’t have to have a huge dining table. Even if everyone is sitting on folding chairs eating chili, it is far better than yet another round of chips, dips, and existential isolation.
And by the way, today’s emphasis on the quality of food at parties is wildly misplaced. You can hire the best catering service in town or knock yourself out cooking for days, but if you have no theme, no central moment, and no place for your guests to sit, the best snacks on the planet are not going to save your party
Pick Your Poison
It happens all the time. You walk into your friends’ house for a party. They ask you what you want to drink and then run through a list of options: orange juice, diet and regular Coke and Sprite, Miller Lite, Bud Lite, sparkling water, V8, cran-apple juice, Fresca, coffee, ten more unappealing liquids, and, finally, water. You suddenly get this vague sense that maybe the V8 has been around awhile, or the Sprite may be flat, or the coffee not made, or the Fresca — do they even make that anymore? In the end, someone finally says, “Oh, I’ll just have a glass of water.” Someone else concurs. Folks, when that happens, the party is over before it begins.
The way to avoid this catastrophe is to have one official drink of the evening. “Tonight,” you announce, “I am serving champagne cocktails!” Who wouldn’t cheer? Serve them with a cherry or an orange slice, and you have created a memorable drink. Alternatively, you could serve martinis, or mint juleps, or some slushy, fruity concoction from the freezer. Whatever it is, stick to it. If someone doesn’t drink, he’ll say so. You should always have some fancy water available for nondrinkers, and throw in a slice of lemon or lime for good measure.
And, guys, drinks are our department. This is something we should specialize in, just as gals generally specialize in food. Make one good batch of Manhattans, and you will be famous forever, even if they are not that great. It’s just a matter of human psychology: People like a guy who can mix a solid drink. Your guests have come to your party to partake in pleasures peculiar to your home. Give them a drink that they can identify with you.
As for wine, it is best to have half a dozen bottles of all the same kind, unless the purpose of your party is wine-tasting. Why? Let’s say you have 15 guests, and you open an excellent bottle. Four people herald the glories of this particular wine, and then suddenly you are out and have to open another bottle of a completely different variety. A grand opportunity for a unifying moment has been lost. The best approach is to buy a case of the best wine you can afford and make it a general rule that the entire case must be finished by the end of the evening. The communal aspect of drinking the same wine together is essential, and people will be astonished at your liberality.
What to Wear?
What people should wear to a party is a tricky subject. This much is an incontrovertible fact: The best parties feature people dressing up, or at least not wearing torn cutoffs and worn sneakers. But if you tell your guests to come casual, cutoffs and sneakers is what you will get. Such is the nature of the times. Just look at what people wear to Mass these days! You can hardly expect them to show up at your party dressed any better.
People act nicer and smarter, however, when they wear nice clothes. They sit straighter and generally feel as though something special is taking place. Grubby clothes and truly memorable times just don’t mix, unless you are at the lake or repairing a house or in some other situation that specifically calls for casual attire.
Dress codes can seem like an imposition to some these days. I handle it by telling guests, “Feel free to dress up” or, “I’ll be in a coat and tie.” It’s a way of leaving their options open while delivering a strong hint. Finally, don’t rule out telling your guests that the dress is black tie. If it’s New Year’s Eve, this can make the evening even more joyful.
Setting the Mood
Can we have a break from rock music, please? Classical music is perfectly festive. Try Schubert’s “Trout Quintet, Mozart’s string quintets, Bach’s orchestral works, or even light operas. Chamber music works better at parties than symphonies. Pre-World War II jazz has an endless capacity to charm. Old and new movie soundtracks are always fun. How about bluegrass? The idea is to play something that is not too intrusive but isn’t boringly familiar either.
Catholic liturgical music is great, but it should be reserved for Mass and Vespers, not parties. Always remember Pope St. Clement’s dictum from the first century: no pagan music at liturgy and no liturgical music at minstrel shows or other non-sacred occasions. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to and enjoy Machaut and Byrd at home, but parties aren’t the right times to push this repertoire.
My final musical note: If someone in the group can play the piano and there’s one in your home, it should be compulsory that he play.
It’s Party Time
More important than the specifics of a party is the spirit. The spirit of a good party is a variant of the spirit of good liturgy: a work of a community of people that follows a plan. “Every religion has its feasts,” the Catholic Encyclopedia says, “but none has such a rich and judiciously constructed system of festive seasons as the Catholic Church.”
It’s time we lived up to our religious tradition by putting some effort and thought into our parties. Given the generally dull tenor of the times, you will suddenly become a famous and much-heralded host or hostess by making a little effort at being countercultural. And you will also help demonstrate to others, in the tradition of Cana, that we Catholics are not always dour and penitent, but also, at the right time, fun and hospitable people who display our hope that someday we will join the heavenly banquet, the most wonderful party of all. It’s part of our heritage and our faith.