Let me say this upfront: I am a bad hostess. But I'm learning.
So often when we've had guests over in the past (whether for dinner, a party, or to spend the night), I find myself getting stressed out over very selfish things: they're making a wreck of my house! They're eating all my food! They're taking forever in the bathroom and I really really want a shower now!
Slowly, I am starting to learn what true hospitality means. It's much more than just allowing people into your home. It means learning to generously share your home and your possessions. There's a skill to it. You need to show your guests how welcome they are, and how happy you are to have them.
Here are the two biggest tips that I've discovered:
1. RELAX, and let your guests treat your house like their home.
Before guests arrive, I spend the day making sure the house is cleaned and tidied, all the laundry is done, and the pantry is stocked. In other words, I bring my house to an artificially high standard of cleanliness, and then unrealistically desire it to stay that way the entire time friends are visiting. I've found myself literally following guests around with a broom and dustpan, cleaning up crumbs as they make them; or washing every dish the second it's done being used. [Some of you reading this may have first hand experience with this, and I want to offer an apology. How extremely rude and unwelcoming I was!]
If I'm trying to impress people with how clean it is....well, that's silly. They're either friends or family, so it doesn't really matter to them - they won't be judging me by my abilities as a housekeeper. Guests feel more welcome in a messy home with a generous hostess than in an immaculate one ruled over by someone behaving neurotically.
Anytime people are relaxed and enjoying themselves, some mess is expected. It's ok.
2. "Bring out the good china"
I mean this both literally and figuratively.
We've only had an actual set of matching china for a short time (purchased cheaply on Craigslist, mostly so I had something to fill the new china cabinet), but when we got it I resolved that I would actually use it. Nice serving pieces don't do anyone any good if all they do is sit in the cabinet looking pretty and gathering dust.
It's easy to fall into the trap of saving these things for a "special occasion" or for "really important guests." But who's more important to us than our close family or our most intimate friends? I know we don't need to impress these people. But that really isn't the purpose of our nice things - aren't they meant to be used to show people that you respect and care for them? The people who are our most frequent guests are probably the people who mean the most to us - shouldn't any meal you invite them to be treated as a "special occasion"? So break out the good plates, the nice cloth napkins and tableclothes! Guests will appreciate the effort you make for them.
I just thought of this, but when I offer friends coffee or tea, I really ought to serve them in one of my many fancy teacups, instead of just the chipped everyday mugs from the cabinet.
About four years ago, I bought a bottle of mulled wine at a winery. It was summertime, so I decided to save it for a nice winter night when I could warm it up and share it with friends...but not too many friends, because a bottle of wine is really only enough for three or four people...and it would have to be just the right grouping of close friends...and it would have to be snowy and cold out when we drank it...and so on and so on. I came up with such unobtainable plans for this stupid bottle of wine, that it ended up sitting on the wine rack on top of the fridge for years. The label peeled off, and the thing was covered with dust that was glued in place by cooking-oil-laden kitchen air. Tom kept pressuring me to just drink the dang thing and get it out of the house. Finally, some friends invited us to dinner, and asked us to bring a "wintery drink." It wasn't exactly the scenario I had dreamed up, but I brought the wine with me. And guess what? It didn't taste very good anymore. Despite that, the four of us still had a good time just observing the ritual of sharing a bottle of warm mulled wine on a chilly day. I definitely learned a lesson from this, and have since tried to put it in practice.
Don't save things, waiting for the perfect occasion. If you have a good friend over, pull out the cookies saved in your freezer, the bottle of nice whiskey...whatever it is you're tempted to save or hoard, because this is the occasion you've been saving them for! I guarantee you will have more fun sharing it with friends than consuming it all alone in front of the television.
So there's my bit of wisdom, only learned very recently. I'm still not a very good hostess, but I'm trying. Does anyone else have stories or tips about showing hospitality?