Where Have All the Houseguests Gone?


Mr. Bierut referenced a John Updike short story, “Getting Into the Set,” in which a house-proud couple decorate their New England saltbox beautifully and invite over houseguests who wreak havoc, not necessarily to the couple’s displeasure.

“I’ve had to work to enjoy the mess that houseguests bring,” Mr. Bierut said.

He and his wife have since relaxed a bit and allowed their children to visit. But they are empty-nesters and lately, they are questioning the point of holiday decorating. If a Christmas tree goes up in their living room and no one is around to admire it, does it really exist?

For the Los Angeles-based designer Gere Kavanaugh, inviting people into her home had offered, as she became older and drove less, “a way of getting in touch with the rest of the world.” (She turned 91 last spring, around the time the world first locked down).

On Sundays, Ms. Kavanaugh liked to have old friends and new acquaintances over for tea and show off her collection of teapots and cups. “I’d say, ‘Pick out your cup and saucer and I’ll pour the tea.’ Everyone liked it. It was kind of a ritual,” she said.

Now Ms. Kavanaugh makes do with the telephone and, since May, by staging “porch picnics” of up to six guests at most, four on her porch and two on the bottom steps. She’ll be out on her porch on Thanksgiving with a few neighbors, eating a pumpkin soup she’s been meaning to try instead of turkey.

Mr. Bierut has canceled the office holiday party he hosts every year at his house. A meaningful social exchange will be lost, for himself and his employees, he said.

“Partly it’s the pleasure of welcoming someone into your home and partly it’s the voyeuristic joy of seeing what the host keeps in the bathroom cabinet,” he said. “It adds a dimension to the way we understand each other, doesn’t it?”

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