The origin of the term “housewarming” is obvious enough: Traditionally, after a new home was built, the hearth fire was lit to warm the house for living and cooking. Now we invite guests over to fill a cold and unfamiliar place with the warmth of their friendship. Housewarmings are usually held between three and six months after move-in. Most of the boxes are unpacked, and if you haven’t hung your artwork or done a deep clean, hosting a party gives you an incentive to get these tasks done.
But don’t wait for the house to be perfect. An empty house party, usually held the day you sign your lease or mortgage, is always an option for neat freaks. An empty space means no planning, no mess, just some paper plates and champagne in plastic cups. There’s not much to look at, but an opportunity to get suggestions and input from your arty friends up front.
Who to invite to a housewarming? If you’ve moved into a new community, invite your new neighbors as well as your current friends. Whether you snail-mail or e-mail your invitations, include a photo of the front of your house — no one’s seen it before, remember? — and include clear driving directions with both street signs and landmarks. Changing out the front porch light for a colored bulb or hanging a wreath on the door will also help guests identify your new address. If you have a front porch, string a wide, brightly colored ribbon (or yellow construction tape) between two posts for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Housewarmings are a perfect time to give thanks. The United States Department of Health and Human Services estimates that in a five-year period, between five and eight million Americans are homeless. Spring for some box wine and Milwaukee Light and tell your guests to BYOD — bring a donation. Collecting and donating will be easier if you ask for something specific, such as canned goods, toiletries, or new socks. To be even more efficient, charge a $10 charity cover. Have a stack of pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelopes for Habitat for Humanity, the National Coalition for the Homeless, and the SAMM Shelter stacked inside the door for guests to make deposits. In the morning you’ll have a something impressive waiting for your new mailman.
The last thing you’ll want to do (assuming you’ve even managed to unpack all the kitchen paraphernalia) is cook anything elaborate. There’s no better excuse for a potluck, especially if your friends happen to be foodies. If not, indulge in pre-cut veggies and prepared dip decanted onto a nice serving platter, and get creative with takeout finger foods. Try Van’s for fried spring rolls with lettuce (828-8449), Central Market for beef satay skewers (368-8686), and Mexican candy at Toudouze Market (224-1891). Don’t forget the bubbly for toasts: Proseco, from Italy, is just as fizzy and dry as a good champagne but will keep your costs around $10 per bottle.
Speaking of champagne, housewarmings aren’t like ship christenings — I wouldn’t recommend smashing a bottle against your front door (especially since it’s a waste of good alcohol). But there are other ways to recognize this momentous occasion, especially if you’re taking those daunting first steps into home ownership. All you need for a homemade time capsule are a waterproof container with a strong seal, a Polaroid camera for capturing the event, some note paper for guests to contribute their thoughts and well wishes, and whatever else symbolizes your new home. Bury it in the front yard and mark it with a sturdy plant or statue so you can dig it up when you move on, or leave it for the next generation by sealing the capsule up in your walls or foundation (good if you are in the midst of renovations).
Be prepared to give tours. If you’ve done extensive renovations, tape a “before” photo to the entrance to each room. It’s a great gauge of your hard work and your guests will be amazed. To help lead people through the house, consider setting up an additional food or drink station in a back room or in the yard. Light candles in rooms that will have traffic to create a warm glow (but don’t leave them unattended).
Housewarming etiquette is simple: Don’t wait too long (If you’ve lived there a year, it’s just a party; find another theme!) and don’t expect gifts. However, if you are a guest and want to bring something more creative than a houseplant or bottle of wine, weigh the culinary skills of your host and either collect all the local take-out menus in the area, or have your fellow guests each contribute a favorite recipe for a personalized, one-of-a-kind recipe box. If you’re one of the new neighbors, round up contact information on the local business you support and recommend for your host.
Leigh Baldwin’s Clothes-minded column appears in the Current the second Wednesday of each month.