I’ve been feeling warm and fuzzy ever since I participated in an annual holiday ritual.
Last week, I attended an ornament exchange party with about 20 other women. My friend Cindy has been hosting it for more than 10 years and I've never missed it. Four years ago, I started bringing my camera with me to try and capture the magic of the evening to share with you. See here, here and here.
A cookie exchange party is a good idea too but it requires more commitment from guests. It's fine if you love to bake, have a fail-proof recipe up your sleeve and ample time to bake more than a few dozen cookies. But there's no denying the potential for stress in preparing to attend a cookie exchange party.
An ornament exchange party demands much less. Bringing a wrapped ornament is very doable and unlikely to get you frazzled. For starters, an ornament is affordable; it's easy to find a nice one for $10.
Plus an ornament is a potent symbol of the holiday and shopping for one helps you tap into the spirit of the season. Browsing a selection of ornaments and finding one you fancy (and think someone else might fancy) is a pleasant experience. It's fun to spot the trends. Felt ornaments continue to be popular, at least here in Ottawa.
There's no one way to host an ornament exchange party. However, after watching Cindy do it year after year I've gleaned a few things on how to make it a good one.
Set the date. A good rule of thumb is two to three weeks before the event, especially if you expect replies.
Create a guest list. I read somewhere that the number of guests should be large enough so everyone stands or small enough everyone has a place to sit. Cindy invites at least 20 women.
There are no guidelines for the time of day. In the early years, Cindy hosted the exchange on a Friday afternoon while our kids were in school. The party ended just before the bell rang and we'd hurry out the door to collect them in the school yard. Now it’s in the evening, which has its own set of charms.
Send out invitations. Cindy created her invite with a photo of the wreath on her door using Pic Monkey, and sent it through email.
Remind everyone to bring a wrapped ornament. You can state a budget but my experience is people intuitively know a reasonable price point.
Decorate your home before the party. There's something magical about being in a home decorated for the holidays. Giving guests an extra sensory boost with holiday decorations creates a wonderful atmosphere for socializing.
Have arriving guests place their wrapped ornament under the tree but don't do the ornament exchange immediately after everyone arrives. Allow time for guests to have a drink and enjoy the food and conversation. This is the only time of year some of us see each other so it’s nice to have time to say hello and get caught up. Initially we gather in the kitchen around the beautiful walnut-topped island.
Good food and drink are a must. They elevate a party, especially when thoughtfully presented. For the last few years Cindy has served a signature drink made with champagne, cranberry juice, orange juice and lemonade, with lemon, cranberries and rosemary garnish.
Be sure to write a number for each guest on individual small slips of paper and put them in a hat or vessel. We know it's time to for the ornament exchange part of the evening when the hat appears and gets passed around. It's the equivalent of flickering lights at a theatre to signify intermission is ending. Everyone slips their hand in and pulls a slip of paper with a number on it, which tells you when it’s your turn to select an ornament from under the tree. Then we gather in the dining room around the dessert table and Christmas tree.
Call each number and take turns choosing a gift from under the tree. Watching as each ornament is unwrapped and revealed for all to see (there's lots of oohing and ahhing) is a highlight and a nice way to end the evening.
Everyone goes home with an ornament (and maybe a napkin full of desserts!) and the anticipation of doing it all again next year.
I always leave with an enhanced sense of belonging, too. Gathering at Cindy's for an annual ornament exchange always helps me find my holiday spirit but it also reminds me I belong to a community of mothers, even if we only see each other once a year.