In other words, how to be the "hostess with the mostess."
friends sitting around table dinner party
Credit: Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

In any season, proper entertaining etiquette revolves around giving your guests the best possible experience, often by minimizing the chances for them to feel awkward, unsure, or uncomfortable during your event. While some etiquette rules stay the same no matter the temperature, others shift based on the weather: "While winter parties in more temperate climates may be nearly identical to summer parties," says Jodi RR Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Massachusetts, "those who find themselves in the chillier environs should adjust their planning accordingly." Follow these six guidelines to create a celebration where your guests can enjoy every moment. 

Expect some guests to be late—and don't make a big deal about it.

In areas where snow and ice are common during the winter months, you should anticipate travel delays, says Smith. "The menu should allow for waylaid guests: Appetizers are a must should there be staggered arrival times, as are meals that can be left in the oven a few minutes longer without the danger of burning," she says. "Remember, should a guest arrive late and the meal has begun, the guest is served the current course. No going back to courses they may have missed, as this will throw off the symmetry of dining."

Serve safely.

While party planners recommend a cocktail menu of both icy favorites and warm classics, you should also serve with safety in mind—making sure your guests leave with their senses ready to navigate dark, icy roads. "With the early sunsets and challenges of weather impacted travel, hosts should plan their alcoholic offerings accordingly," says Smith. "Harder drinks earlier in the evening, wine with dinner, coffee with dessert. And as always, if a guests had a bit too much to drink, it is best to be sure they have another way home."

Match the utensils to the menu.

Offer a seasonal menu based on the foods available at your local farmers' markets—Smith recommends roasted root vegetables, rustic soups, rich entrées, thick slices of homemade bread, and oven-baked desserts—and set the table appropriately. "Your tablescape always starts with your menu; you need only set dishes and utensils that are required for the meal," says Smith. "Not serving soup? Then there is no need for a soupspoon. For parties of four or more, I opt not to set the dessert utensils or coffee cups so that we can change seats for dessert. This means a complete clearing of the table, including fresh napkins. It is a bit more work for the host, but helps to keep the conversations lively."

Detail the dress code in advance.

When snowy weather overlaps with your party plans, asking your guests to remove wet, salty, and slushy shoes is appropriate—as long as this request isn't a surprise. "For those in areas truly impacted by winter weather, it is extremely important to be explicitly clear about the dress code for the evening," says Smith. "Include instructions such as, 'Boots will stay by the front door. You are welcome to bring alternative footwear, including slippers, or fun socks will be provided.'" This is also important if you plan to have some—or all—of your event take place outside, or in a well-ventilated area with open windows or doors: Make sure your guests know they may want to wear their coats, hats, and mittens during the party.

Put everyone's health first.

As a host, you should be ready for guests who come down with a winter illness to send their regrets at the last minute—and as a guest, you should always change your RSVP if you're under the weather. "Even before COVID-19, if someone had a communicable disease or infection, they would of course decline the invitation," says Smith. "You should not attend a dinner party if you have—or someone in your household has—a stomach bug, a case of head lice, or COVID-19." And while asking your guests about their medical history hasn't generally been part of a party invitation, current etiquette allows you to dig a little deeper, says Smith. "Yes, you may ask about guests' vaccination status and ask for proof," she says. "Yes, you may ask guests to have a rapid test prior to arrival. Bonus points if you provide the rapid test for them!"

Formalize a seating plan.

Warm-weather barbecues and poolside fêtes often lend themselves to a seat-yourself format, but hosting a formal winter dinner party for more than four guests calls for assigned seating. "In creating your guest list, even before issuing any invitations, you are already beginning the process for seating," says Smith. "There are the old guidelines, such as separating married couples, as well as new guidelines, such as placing two extroverts on the same side, but opposite ends of the table." Choose the best seats for the hosts first—remember, they don't have to sit at the head and foot of the table—and then map out the best spot for each guest. "Consider who is attending, their personalities, hobbies and activities, and talkativeness," says Smith. "Then place in a seat next to or across from at least one other guest you know they will love. After all, a dinner party is really all about the lively conversation!"


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