1) Unrealistic Optimism. I have found this character trait to be the primary necessity when planning any family-style event. First you have to picture your ideal. You know, that 8 hour road trip when everyone is singing perfect harmonius rounds of Michael Row The Boat and all of The Alleluias sound angelic. Then add to it. It in this case, 17 people carving pumpkins merrily around a bonfire in the waning gray of a sweet smelling autumn evening while the auburn leaves float gently down around our laughing shoulders.
2) Involve as many people as possible. Always plan on family, extended family, the rebellious teenager from down the street, two adopted kids and the special ed student who found out you live within bicycling distance of his weekend abode. Not to mention dogs.
3) Don't sweat the small stuff. Like whether the propane tank for your barbeque is filled, or how many fallen leaves might suffocate your serene bonfire, or if a bonfire with 11 elementary aged children, combined with a minimum of 37 pumpkin carving knives, is even a good idea. These details have a way of sorting themselves out.
5) Stage at least three major emergencies. This aura of panic lends itself to an atmosphere of relief when dealing with minor injuries such as roasting stick gouge wounds, carving knife lacerations and small burns to ten or twelve fingers. My standby favorites emergencies for this include (but not limited to): neighborhood dog (or cat) attacks, empty propane tanks and an overflowing toiletful of poop.
(Note: this one is only useful if one of the invited extended family members has the presence of mind to turn off the poop covered toilet valve that you're too disgusted to touch.)
7) Get inexpensive food to feed the kids. This provides a great opportunity for parental guilt when you're doling out Foster Farms "blended meat" hot dogs and all of the kids make a scene about the gourmet beer boiled brats that they would much prefer. Over the years this strategy has given me the side perk of developing a taste for raw Foster Farms hot dogs, and ultimately saves my grocery budget.
8) Leave the kids unattended as much as possible. Kids will be kids, right? And I'm sure the "oldest" ones are looking out for the youngers, even if the age difference is a mere 7 months. And who can't learn a valuable lesson from roasting stick gouges and carving knife lacerations?
10) Paper plates and plastic cups. These make EXCELLENT festive decorations alongside the six dozen glasses, 37 regular plates and 97 bowls that people had to scrounge for to save the environment and the stack of disposable tableware present. I'm proud of our social awareness.
Note: dish washing party at my house tomorrow
11) Lots of food. I'm getting better about outsourcing and potlucking. Gone are the days of solo hosting. Plan on feeding at least twice as many people as you intended, plus several dogs, a small hole in the front yard that mysteriously swallows whole packages of hot dogs, and the fire itself, which has a voracious appetite.
12) Alcohol. And love. Always remember that these are the memories that stick. Ankle deep in somebody else's poop, blowing into a faceful of leaf smoke, and lighting your hand on fire inside of a acetone soaked pumpkin (don't ask...).
But seriously. These are the nights we remember. Not the perfect awards ceremonies and the flawless executions of holiday rhetoric. It's the (literal) crap that we face in the midst of the joy, or vise-verse, that makes family family, and life good, and me thankful.