Entertaining Lessons from the Griswold’s Family Christmas

Entertaining Lessons from the Griswold’s Family Christmas
March 3, 2015 Trace Kingham


One of my earliest and fondest memories was of my mom hosting Christmas dinner for the entire family. She was a planful and detail-oriented woman, so well in advance of the day menus were planned, guests were invited and days were spent preparing for the event. But that evening, just as guests began to arrive, the electricity went out! Our multi-course meal was sitting in our all-electric oven with more than an hour to go before it was safe to eat. With great calm and without hesitation, my mom cheerfully filled the house with dozens of candles, served beverages and encouraged everyone to play cards and board games, holding out hope that the lights would come on soon.

But they didn’t.

Luckily, Mom knew instinctively that the meal wasn’t about the roast; it was about bringing the family together, connecting with each other in spirit of the season and creating lasting memories. That was her purpose, and lights or no lights … she was sticking to it.

With no other options available in rural Ohio, my mother took out a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and her favorite grape preserves. Then she made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut into shapes of Christmas trees and Cherubs from her vast cookie cutter collection. We were delighted.

In the end, through commitment and great flexibility, Mom achieved her purpose, even when everything seemed out of her control. Familial bonds were made that evening, children giggled in the candlelight, adults happily ate their PB&Js served with sides of cranberry salad and grandma’s infamous Jell-O mold. Lasting memories.

That evening – without knowing it – I was being schooled in the fundamental lessons of event management … the importance of having a purpose, developing a plan, keeping it simple and remaining flexible and agile enough to adjust when presented with circumstances beyond your control. My mom unknowingly instilled in me these guiding principles that became the foundation of my 20 +-year career as a strategic event designer.

I reflect on that fateful Christmas night often, and marvel at my mother’s innate talent in event planning and execution. But I also find inspiration for my work in unlikely places.

Recently I sat down to introduce my two sons to another family tradition: the classic 1989 movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. As the movie and its disastrous and unstoppable plot unfolded, I realized there were wonderful lessons in entertaining to be gleaned from studying the dysfunctional Griswold family.
As you plan for your holiday events this year, look to the Griswolds for inspiration about exactly “what not to do” as you follow the SEVEN party planning fundamentals:

First and foremost you must determine your entertaining purpose and set goals. Think about what you want your guests to experience and remember from the evening. Uncover opportunities for which you can ensure you reach this purpose with simple strategies to guide your guests through the experience during the event.

For my mother, the goal of the family Christmas dinner was making connections and creating lasting memories.

In National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation the main character Clark Griswold is a man on a mission to create the perfect event. He desperately wants to create lasting Christmas memories for his family, just like those he experienced as a child. It is a valid and admirable purpose, but by ignoring the fundamental principles of event planning – not to mention safe electrical wiring practices – everything goes horribly wrong.

You have your purpose … now, apply reality. By understanding your own limitations and taking on only what you can realistically manage you’ll help ensure that you – and your guests – are free to truly enjoy the experience you are creating.

Clark Griswold knew he wanted his family to have the perfect Christmas: that was his purpose, and it was clear. But the goals that he set were out of reach. Clark also knew he was no master electrician but was unwilling to face the reality of his own limitations. No skills, and an unwillingness to seek help = certain disaster.
Recently, as I was helping a new client develop a plan for her upcoming holiday celebration she asked, “Have you ever taken on too much trying to create the ‘perfect’ party?” My resounding answer: “YES, you bet I have!” What do I remember most about those dinner parties? Never leaving the kitchen, worrying about details I no longer had control over and afterward wishing I had spent more time with my guests. Don’t get caught up in all the clatter from television programs, magazines and social media posts presenting ideas of the perfect cocktail, the most delicious recipe, the cutest cupcakes, that perfect pie. Perfectionism is an endless spiral and is overrated.

Don’t’ get me wrong; it’s good to have aspirations when it comes to entertaining. Creating fantastic menus, decorating with current styles and trends, and developing wonderful environments for your family and friends to enjoy will be a joy for you as the host. All of these are strategies to include in your plan intended to help you achieve your purpose. When you know your intended purpose and understand your limitations then you can develop a plan and identify strategies that are just right for you. Do you have a planning partner? Are you working with an Event Planner? Bring them into the planning process to help you think it through, accomplish more than you can do alone and take those tedious tasks you don’t enjoy and have them help.

Early in the movie Clark and his wife Ellen were talking in bed after a less-than successful (but for us entirely hilarious) day procuring the “perfect Christmas tree.” Ellen desperately tries to talk Clark out of hosting Christmas in their home, suggesting they go on vacation, do something different, …anything but host Christmas. Ellen states, “You set standards that no family activity can live up to.” Ellen clearly knew Clark’s limitations and with her help, Clark could have developed a better plan, with smarter strategies, for creating that “Perfect Christmas.”

Just as I learned from my mom over that Christmas many years ago, flexibility is key. Think about the time in which you planned a fantastic dinner party and guests which hadn’t RSVP’d land on your front stoop excited about the yummy treats you’ve prepared, and as you greet them with a smile thinking to yourself, “what am I going to do?,” you see there are a two others standing behind peering into your front door with curiosity. But like a great host, you welcome them with smiles and hugs, offer everyone a drink and proceed with preparing three additional places at the table.

During the Griswold’s Christmas dinner, Clark cuts into a beautifully browned turkey only to witness the overcooked bird implode. Looks of disappointment and dismay around the table, and the clearly ruined bird, did not dissuade Clark from his “perfect Christmas. “ He served the desiccated poultry to his guests, even as they struggled to gnaw on dried meat and drank copious glasses of water to get it down. It’s a funny situation for the viewers, but in reality Clark was so stuck on his plan that he lost the ability to be flexible and was unable to find an alternative. I wonder if they had had PB&J if the rest of the movie might have turned out differently.

There is another important moment to remain flexible: when your role changes from planner to host, family, friend, and loved-one. It’s time to trust in all your preparations and begin being present in the moments that follow. You need to be part of the action to make sure your guests have a great time. If you’re stuck in the kitchen you can’t make adjustments as necessary. Move forward with your plan, but make sure you’re flexible enough to change course if necessary, whiles still ensuring you stick to your strategies and always keeping your purpose at the forefront.

Unlike Clark Griswold, unable to quickly adjust his plans, last weekend I produced a Halloween Party for a client. All the plans were in place, games were ready; treats were prepared; just a few additional details to complete in the morning. We woke to one of the coldest days this fall in Florida and the winds were sustained at 35+ mph. With most of our activities planned outdoors, we quickly realized we’d have to be flexible. Instead of being stuck in “the plan”, we quickly tweaked the plan, brought some of the activities indoors, and eliminated a few others. The eliminated activities and tweaks to the original plan had no negative impact on the guests’ experience whatsoever … after all they didn’t have any idea that anything was missing. We remained focused on the purpose.

Clark set out to achieve his goal of creating the most memorable Griswold Christmas celebration ever. While in the end he certainly created some strong memories for his family, he may have achieved his purpose with less wanton destruction by simplifying his entire plan. He chose a clearly oversized tree, went above and beyond hanging thousands of lights – unsafely I must add – and put pressure on all those around to meet his goal, no matter the cost human or otherwise. Great entertainment value, but in reality finding ways to keep it simple will allow you to enjoy the process and in return, enjoy building human connections with your guests.

One way I keep it simple when entertaining is by identifying shortcuts to food preparation, decorations and party supplies. For example at Thanksgiving, I rather than spend all night in the kitchen, I might go to my favorite bakery or grocery store, purchase a pie or cake and then add my own homemade touch, like cinnamon infused whipped topping with crushed Clark Bars (in honor of my event planning inspiration, Clark Griswold)! Or I might purchase pre-made pumpkin bisque soup from my favorite restaurant, reheating just before serving, and sprinkling with fresh ground nutmeg and a sprig of fresh basil. Find easy ways to impress by eliminating most of the work.

Another shortcut is to prepare items in advance. When working with clients to develop their entertaining plan, we always identify a list of items that can be done in advance of the party. This planning strategy helps ease the stress of entertaining.

In food preparation, this can easily be achieved by understanding which foods can be made then frozen, and what needs to be refrigerated if prepared ahead of time. Most clients don’t realize that freezing items earlier in the week and then thawing just before is a great way to get some more complicated menu items checked of the “to do” list. For decorating, create as much in the week(s) leading up to your party and find a place in your home to stage your decorations, shelves in the garage, basement or extra bedroom. Simply review what you want to accomplish, understand your limitations and find shortcuts to reach your entertaining purpose.

The final step…Have Fun! (Yes, planning can be fun when it enable you to enjoy your own party.) Once you decide to it’s time to entertain in your home; state your purpose, understand your limitations, develop a plan, keep it simple and find shortcuts to make your holiday season of entertaining filled with human connections and lasting memories. Don’t be trapped like the Griswolds by adhering to unattainable standards of perfection.
As Ellen Griswold famously said, “I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.” Make it your goal not to repeat the lessons of the Griswold family Christmas Vacation by applying the seven fundamental principles of party planning.

And before you plan your holiday parties, there’s one more thing to do. Make a big bowl of popcorn, gather the family around and watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I promise you’ll discover some interesting lessons, and create your own memories to last a lifetime!

With more than 20 years designing Event Experiences, developing strategies to Build Human Connections for the corporate and private sectors. As a professional event designer, Trace develops Strategic Event Strategies and designs innovative experiences that build human connection and create lasting memories. Check out Trace’s blog for strategies and ideas at www.tracekingham.com. Follow Trace on twitter at @tracekingham