Creating meaning in groups: How to host an intentional holiday gathering
When we think of holiday gatherings, the thoughts of turkey, trees, and tinsel may come to mind. But what about connection and conversation? Those are what up an intentional gathering. Add a Vertellis Question Card Game to your intentional holiday gathering this year and make memories that last for years to come.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been to - or maybe even hosted - holiday gatherings that felt a little...repetitive. Say it’s a New Year’s Eve party. Some of the guests you know, others you don’t. What’s the standard formula here? Silly hats, champagne, surface-level, slightly awkward conversation...sound familiar?
Let’s be real, most traditional gatherings follow a predictable format...
Thanksgiving? Turkey and tense conversation. Christmas? A tree and a pile of gifts. Now, there’s nothing wrong with tradition (I’m all about Thanksgiving turkey!), but often we’re so hyper-focused on the things that make up a conventional gathering that we’re not taking advantage of what gatherings actually provide for us—a chance to connect with people on a deeper level.
With winter holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s upon us, I want to forgo the perfect pumpkin pie recipe and instead offer you a recipe for hosting an intentional holiday gathering.
What is an intentional gathering?
An intentional gathering is one that brings a specific group of people together in a meaningful and memorable way. These are the types of gatherings that stick in your mind for years to come, as opposed to ones where you leave and ask yourself, “Did it even matter that I was there?”
I had never thought about the importance of intentional gatherings until I listened to a podcast featuring Priya Parker. Priya works in conflict resolution, but her latest book “The Art of Gathering” is a toolkit on how to bring people together in a more conscious way.
Keep reading to explore the recipe for an intentional holiday gathering inspired by Priya’s work. I hope these tips help make your next holiday gathering, whether it’s a small get-together or large party, ripe with deeper meaning and connection.
Recipe for an Intentional Holiday Gathering
- Embrace Purpose
- Pick a Theme
- Choose your Guests
- Create Rules
- Cultivate Conversation
- Prime your People
- Be an Engaged Host
As mentioned previously, when we plan a gathering, we tend to start with aesthetics. What food will be served? Where can I find the right flowers? For an intentional gathering, we’re going to start with something else: PURPOSE.
For many conventional holiday gatherings, like Thanksgiving dinner, the purpose may seem obvious. “The purpose is to come together as a family” or “The purpose is to give thanks for the blessings of the past year.” Both things may be true, but they aren’t quite specific enough. Let me explain.
You could give thanks for this year’s blessings by yourself. Why are you choosing to gather with this group of people? Similarly, you could come together as a family on any day of the year. Why are you choosing to get together on this particular day? Catch my drift?
When it comes to the purpose for your gathering, specificity is key. This is especially true of holiday gatherings, as many of these get-togethers tend to be habitual and follow a sub-conscious formula. So, how do you come up with a specific purpose? According to Priya, ask yourself this question:
“Do I have a need in my life that by bringing people together in a specific way they might address?”
Maybe you’re going through a bad break-up and need support on this first holiday without your partner. Perhaps family members are divided by politics and need an opportunity to find their common ground. Whatever the purpose, think of something that would serve the greatest need in your life, family, or community at this time.
Pick a theme
Usually when we plan a gathering, we start with the theme. The trouble is, if we don’t have purpose locked in first, the theme of the party ends up being - for lack of a better word - generic. With an intentional holiday gathering, you have the opportunity to reconceive traditions and design your gathering around the specific need you identified above.
Continuing to use Thanksgiving as an example - what are some themes that come to mind when you think of this holiday? For me, I instantly think of gratitude, harvest, abundance, family, unity, community, peace, and giving.
Now ask yourself, how can you tie your purpose and your theme together? For instance, if your family has been divided by politics, maybe the theme of your Thanksgiving gathering is ‘unity’. If you’re going through that break-up, perhaps your theme can be ‘community.’ Now, how can you design the aesthetics of your gathering to fit your theme? What are ways you can break from tradition and make this gathering truly memorable?
Maybe instead of having food piled on a buffet table, each dish gets a themed name. Perhaps each guest gets an itinerary when they walk in the door with themed activities for the night. Get creative - there’s no right or wrong here!
Choose your guests
Oh yes, the people! Before you start inviting everyone in your contact list, ask yourself this question:
“Why I am inviting this specific group of people?”
Remember, your holiday gathering is fulfilling a need either in your life or within your family or community, so who you invite is important. How do each of these people contribute to the purpose at hand?
Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean your holiday gathering can only include your three closest friends (unless that ties in with your purpose). In fact, an intentional holiday gathering is a great opportunity to cross-pollinate friend groups or family members. They’ll be able to connect through a common purpose versus throwing everyone at a table and hoping the conversation goes well.
Now, I know with holiday gatherings this can get tricky, as many of us feel ‘obligated’ to invite certain family members. Although I will offer that you have the power to invite whoever you choose, if you cannot imagine leaving anyone out, the next four tips will help with that...
As a host, you have the opportunity to shape the experience of the group. This can be done by establishing rules for the gathering. If your first instinct is “That sounds harsh and controlling,” I get it. That was my initial response...until I heard Priya’s reasoning behind why this is important.
Whenever people come together, there are power dynamics. If you’re organizing an intentional gathering where the goal is to connect in a meaningful way, people need to be equalized. Everyone should feel like they’re contributing to the conversation, not just one or two especially opinionated individuals or people who already know each other really well.
Rules also establish norms for the group that may not exist outside the gathering. For instance, maybe you want to ensure that guests aren’t being distracted by their phones during dinner. To do this, create a playful “rule of the night.” Perhaps phones go in a “phone jail” when a person enters your home or whoever pulls out their phone during the gathering has to do the dishes.
Create rules that will help serve the greater purpose of the gathering and stick to them!
Part of shaping the experience of the group means honing in on what you’d like the conversation to look like. Intentional gatherings are usually designed to connect people on a deeper level and bond over shared experiences, so ditch the small talk and find ways to create meaningful conversation between guests.
One Vertellis community member gave us a great suggestion for this. At dinner parties, she puts a Vertellis Coaster at each place setting. Before dinner begins, she has everyone go around the table and answer the question on their individual coaster. She said this automatically makes guests feel more connected to one another and willing to engage in open, honest conversation.
For an intentional holiday gathering, we recommend replacing the coaster with a card from the Vertellis Holiday Edition! Each Holiday Edition card has a playful, thought-provoking question that allows guests to reflect on the past year or share dreams for the upcoming year.
If you don’t have the Holiday Edition, you can have all guests answer a question relating to your purpose for the gathering. For instance, if your gathering is meant to welcome a new person into the family (whether it’s a spouse, partner, or baby!) have everyone go around and say what their favorite thing about being part of this family is.
Prime your People
Every gathering is a social contract. Consequently, you need to give guests the opportunity to say ‘yes’ to entering into this contract. How do you do this? With a conscious invitation.
Don’t just call people and let them know the date and time of your holiday get-together. Create an invitation! Give the party a cheeky, witty, or funny name. Let people know what they’re in for. Lay the ground rules in advance.
The more you reveal, the more likely you are to receive a genuine “YES” from guests (and the less no-shows or last-minute flakes you’ll have to deal with).
Be an engaged host
I always thought being a “chill host” was the thing to do. Just sit back and everything will magically go as planned, right? Nope. If you’ve taken the time, care and effort to get people together with a specific purpose, stay with them through this journey! Warmly enforce your rules, make sure everyone is included, and stick to your agenda for the duration of the gathering.
Why is this important? Well, frankly, if you don’t do it, someone else at the get-together will (and they may not do it in a way you approve of). By taking ownership of your gathering, you’re connecting, equalizing and protecting your guests—all of which are necessary for your gathering to fulfill its purpose.
Share your thoughts!
We want to hear from you! What’s the most memorable holiday gathering you’ve ever been to? Which tip for hosting an intentional holiday gathering is your favorite? Drop a comment below and let us know :).
Don't forget: to spark meaningful, intentional conversations during the holidays, check out the Vertellis Holiday Edition: a Q&A card game designed to deepen relationships and forge new connections!
Tessa is a US-based Vertellis team member with a penchant for writing. When she’s not typing away on her laptop, you’ll usually find her studying Shakespeare or spending time in nature. Three things she cannot live without: good food, good coffee, and good conversation.