Two friendly looking women arrived on my porch at the appointed hour one frigid Saturday morning last December. Anticipating their knock, I opened the door, smiled warmly and said, "Merry Christmas. Come in."
Before another word was exchanged, the taller stranger handed me a handsome plaid tin of imported shortbread and exclaimed, "This is just awful!" Her companion, shaking the snow off her boots in the hallway, agreed and offered me a small wrapped box with red foil ribbon trailing down the sides.
"It's just so embarrassing," the shorter woman continued. "It used to be that when a new neighbor moved in, we had a coffee to welcome her. This has never happened before -- you're new in the neighborhood, but we're all so busy that you had to invite us first."
The ice was broken, we all chuckled, and with the arrival of these two good sports, I knew our first party was destined to be remembered.
What confounded these two strangers -- who now are our friendly neighbors -- is that we, the new homeowners, had reversed the standard of etiquette. We'd moved in five weeks earlier, but no one had welcomed us with a plate of cookies.
So what? These are the '90s, not the '50s. Most of the women on our street are employed out of the home: a teacher, an artist, a secretary and so on. Some commute long distances; others have young children; all of us are busier in December than we'd like to be.
My husband and I once moved four times in five years and, no, it wasn't horrible because we steadfastly adhered to one principle: "Don't feel sorry for yourself." Our recipe for quickly becoming acquainted with a minimum of planning and a maximum of zeal?
We invite our new/unknown neighbors for breakfast, usually on a Saturday in December. Two years ago when we lived in St. Louis (and had been in our house only six weeks), we invited 14 families. Twenty-four adults and nine children showed up. One guest confided to me that morning that she had lived across the street from our house for 20 years but had never been invited inside -- until our breakfast.
I will never forget how much fun our guests had. Most arrived about 9:30, greeting us courteously but saying they could stay just a few minutes. (At noon, I made another pot of coffee for them.) They talked nonstop, passed babies around, and checked on their children who made regular appearances at the buffet table and then disappeared to the basement for cartoons and games.
We've hosted at least five Christmas breakfasts in new residences in the past 18 years, and the sizes of our homes had little bearing on the success of each event. Guests have always managed to happily squeeze into our cramped one-bedroom apartment or spacious ranch-style home with a cramped kitchen.
Two weeks before the breakfast, I hand-deliver written invitations (so guests know we're serious about meeting them). We specify casual dress and "Come anytime between 9 and 10 -- and bring the family."
What do you serve a crowd whose tastes you know nothing about? Not to worry.
I like Julia Child's rule-of-thumb that no meal should be all hot or all cold. For ease of preparation, we serve just one hot dish (baked sliced ham, kept warm in a chafing dish). The accompanying selections, served at room temperature, are tasty, attractive, and can be prepared in advance: deviled eggs, nut bread (cranberry is popular), a couple of kinds of Christmas cookies, poppy seed cake in a bundt shape, and fresh fruit (pineapple, oranges, bananas, kiwi and maraschino cherries are beautiful in a glass bowl). A large self-service coffee urn is mandatory, of course, and we also provide hot brewed tea and glasses of cold water.
Our guests typically arrive wearing jeans and jogging shoes, but I like the buffet table to look as though we're serving royalty. A festive table, whether it's decked out in crystal-and-silver or pottery-and-stainless, delivers a subtle message to our new neighbors: We think you're worth it.
When we know that small children are coming, I forget the bone china and provide sturdy divided plastic plates that cost about $10 for 50. They're so good looking that nobody is insulted.
Not enough coffee cups or silverware? We beg, borrow, rent or steal more. Most Goodwill stores are a fine source of clear glass punch cups that cost next to nothing. For me, the only thing that could possibly ruin breakfast at our house would be using styrofoam coffee cups or plastic forks.
Over the years, our guests have consistently remarked how much fun it is to be invited for breakfast. It requires no special wardrobe, no driving, no parking problems, no babysitters, no liquor decisions.
We get to meet all kinds of interesting folks when we invite them over for the day's first meal. Even the skeptics come. One neighbor opened our invitation while I was still on his doorstep. "Christmas breakfast!" he bellowed. "Never heard 'o such a thing!"
Well, sir, now you have.
Aneeta Brown is a freelance writer in Leesburg.