Our family has had success bringing people together around specific events. There are times when it makes sense to bring either friends or new acquaintances together to either celebrate or even create a community. Here are just two simple opportunities that have worked for us.
Even if you are not a fan of dressing up, Halloween is a great time to get people together. When our children were little, they loved to wear their Halloween costumes. Every year we would hope for good weather, so that they could feel like they had adequate in-costume time. We discovered an easy way to give them more time dressed as an elf, less time knocking on doors, and a chance to trade away those circus peanuts for their favorite candy. This also gave parents a chance to reconnect. Our twenty-plus year tradition involved two pots of chili, a pot of rice, general greens in a quick salad, and a general invitation to the neighbors to stop by after the trick-or-treat hours were done. People were asked to just provide their favorite beverage (kid or adult) and a side dish to share. This proved to be such a successful model that as our children aged out, the new neighbors with little ones have picked up the tradition. As a note, we still connect each year at Halloween with as many of the folks as can drop by. For some it is the only time we see them each year, and it helps us stay connected. It is the bridge to an earlier time in our lives and it also offers an opportunity to still enjoy the fun and spirit of the day despite the kids being long gone.
Back to School
Schools present a number of opportunities to connect across different axes.
Back-to-School is a great time for a gathering. There are two natural intersections: the old friends who are in other classes and the new classmates and their families. In the first, it’s a great way to keep the connection to families and friends who are in new classes and possibly new schools. Gathering with new class members can lead to friendships, associations between parents, and opportunities to arrange carpools, playdates, and AYSO coaches. For teachers, Back-to-School potlucks are also a way to say hi to returning colleagues and meet new ones.
When our daughter was taking part in a school exchange with students from Japan, the program traditionally hosted a potluck with pizza at the end of the Japanese students’ time in the US. We suggested we change the timing to a “Welcome” potluck, a model successfully used by my sister with her children and their school. This was a terrific modification as it gave families hosting exchange students a time and place to make plans together (like bowling, sight-seeing, and skating) and helped our Japanese guests feel less isolated.
Some good rules for potlucks with folks you only know slightly:
- Food should look like what it is – so that means, ditch the casseroles. People need to be able to tell what they are eating by just looking at it.
- Be careful of nuts and peanuts – although they add a nice crunch and flavor to salads and other dishes, so many people have life threatening allergies that it makes sense to avoid them.
- Be culturally responsive – if you are hosting people from other countries, be aware of food aversions and taboos. I always avoid pork in potluck situations – so many religions avoid it, so it’s easier.
- A sauce bar takes the guesswork out of what’s the right flavor / heat / spice. Food doesn’t have to be bland at a potluck, but providing three salsas or hot sauces, three different types of BBQ Sauces or even three different dipping sauces allows for personalization and personal taste.
The important thing to remember is that this isn’t a dinner party for Hamptons’ crowd so don’t stress. A tablecloth, paper or plastic plates, cups, napkins, and some plasticware are the foundation. Put a fun centerpiece on the table –a Jack-O-Lantern, a Japanese Lantern, a pile of baseballs– and have someone bring 20 pounds of ice for the drinks cooler, and you are set. We like to have some chips and dip and a few starter beverages for when people arrive, but after that everyone is on their own.
No one will care if it isn’t perfect. All they will remember is the warmth and hospitality you exuded and the opportunity you provided for new friendships.