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Holidays in Connecticut can be chilly, but small, festive outdoor gatherings are likely still an option.

From friendsgivings to family get-togethers and work holiday parties, the season of entertaining is upon us. Of course, it’s going to look a little different this year. Gone (for now) are the days of big, boozy bashes with friends elbow to elbow in your living room, sampling a community cheese board and forgetting where they left their drink.

That said, holiday entertaining is not canceled. Instead, you just have to get creative when it comes to the guest list, layout and menu. Our state’s unequivocal experts and hosts with the most tell us how.

Take it outside

“When thinking about holiday gatherings this year, I immediately went outside, mentally, and lit my firepit,” offers Wilton-based Joanna Buchanan, designer of her popular eponymous home accessories line. Of course, she isn’t talking about a few folding chairs and beer in plastic cups.

“I love the idea of creating an Aspen vibe by bringing velvet pillows outside and draping shearling rugs over the chairs,” she says. “Set a rustic table with greenery from the garden, pine cones, and evergreens. You can even throw in some pumpkins.”

The best part is, executing this theme doesn’t have to be expensive, Buchanan adds. You don’t need a pricey built-in fire feature; an affordable freestanding model from the home improvement store will do. The tastemaker says you can even find scented wood logs from places like Lowe’s to give your fire a lovely aroma.

Since we know November and December in Connecticut can be pretty chilly, Buchanan says a daytime gathering with some warm sun is best. “You could do a Sunday breakfast with sausages on the barbecue, toasted bagels, and hot chocolate,” she suggests. Or, support a local restaurant and ask them to create a buffet breakfast. “Just take it out of the tinfoil container it comes in and put it on a nice plate,” Buchanan laughs, adding that instead of hiring servers, let guests help themselves. “Keep the circle a little tighter and make people feel as comfortable as possible,” she says.

Keep an open plan

If you prefer to have an indoor gathering, or are wary of frigid temperatures, Buchanan says a hybrid indoor/outdoor gathering is the answer. The key, however, is to keep an open layout with lots of air flow. “You want to feel like you’re breathing fresh air,” she says. “Repurpose a room with windows or French doors to the outside as your dining room so guests feel a little more secure.”

From there, design a flow that lets guests feel like they can get up and move. “Create an English caroling aesthetic with a firepit outside and mulled wine, but you’re covered if it gets really cold,” she adds. Instead of a formal sit-down gathering, where guests feel trapped in their chairs, give them the freedom to move around if they feel they’re getting too close to others.

Finally, Buchanan stresses that informal seating doesn’t have to mean paper plates and plastic cups. “You still have to use your lovely things — still bring out the good china and silver,” she says. “And, of course, don’t forget things like wine charms and cocktail picks for guests to mark their glasses — you don’t want to be sharing in the COVID age.”

Connecticut state guidelines

Before creating your guest list, consult the latest travel advisories on ct.gov. As of late September, 35 states were on Connecticut’s travel advisory list. Guests coming from those states are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Additionally, gatherings are limited to 25 people indoors and 150 people outdoors (as of October).

Go virtual

Virtual celebrations are the new rage, with their ability to bring together friends and family from afar, safely. If those near and dear don’t live close by, Buchanan views Zoom parties as a good option, but they should still be special.

“Set the get-together and create a gift for your theme,” Buchanan says. Ahead of the party, send a matching set of cocktail picks for everyone to use on the day of, or a beverage kit from a local restaurant or maker like Cocktail Courier.

The new etiquette 

The “new normal” calls for shorter guest lists, varying standards for masks and social distancing, and an array of virtual and hybrid affairs. Torrington-based etiquette educator Karen Thomas shares how hosts and guests alike should navigate these unprecedented social situations.

Pare down your list before sending invitations. “You might think, ‘Some people will RSVP no,’ but don’t take that chance with COVID. Keep it low ahead of time by eliminating people who aren’t as close to you,” Thomas says.

View virtual gatherings the same as in-person ones, only inviting people you have a close relationship with. “Inviting anybody to anything can be misconstrued as a faux pax in a gift-giving expedition,” she adds. “Of course, distant family can be an exception. Just don’t invite your entire corporation because you can.”

If you need to cancel or cut down the guests for an event due to state restrictions, make it personal with a phone call. “Have a cordial conversation. A general email doesn’t show a personal side to it, and I really frown upon a text,” Thomas says.

For guests who want to turn down an invitation if they don’t feel comfortable attending a gathering, give the host an explanation. “Say something like, ‘I just don’t feel comfortable attending events during the holidays. I’d love to catch up with you another time,’ ” she says.

Set the expectations from your invitation. If you want guests to wear a mask, put it on there. And of course, have extra masks and hand sanitizer on hand in case guests forget.

Stock up. “Parties and trends are going to be different,” Thomas stresses. “The onus is on the host to think ahead and provide things like extra toothpicks or plastic gloves.”

This article appears in the November 2020 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.