How to create special celebrations at home during lockdown

Zoe Gunn

8 February 2021

Royally-approved events planner and self-described ‘party architect’, Johnny Roxburgh, on how to mark milestone moments with limited options

8 February 2021 | Zoe Gunn

We’ve been in and out of lockdown for almost a year now which means that almost every one of us has had to celebrate a birthday, anniversary, graduation or other special occasion under coronavirus restrictions. For some it has even meant sharing a wedding or the birth of a new baby online but, as we approach the start of a second year at home, isn’t there something we can do to make these moments feel, well, a little more momentous? A Zoom quiz, quite frankly, isn’t going to cut it the second time round.

For answers we turned to party guru Johnny Roxburgh. He is the mastermind behind many a royal event – including Prince William’s 21st birthday party – and, while his usual show-stopping tactics might be off limits (he’s been known to float an orchestra over a swimming pool and turn the central staircase of the Natural History Museum into a waterfall), if there’s anyone who knows how create spectacular events on a small scale, it’s Roxburgh. Here are his top tips for your next celebration.

Make new traditions

You might not think you’ll want lingering reminders of the Great Pause in years to come but, with time on your hands, now is the perfect opportunity to create new traditions (or rekindle old ones) that can turn even the most routine of celebrations into something personal and memorable. “We always celebrate birthdays by buying a really awful piece of china and using it at breakfast to serve a feast, including duck eggs and caviar. Something like that could be rolled out across many occasions,” explains Roxburgh.

With second-hand and antiques shops closed, this is also a perfect excuse to delve into the world of online vintage shopping. Choose something specific but inexpensive, such as ornaments of your partner’s favourite animal or commemorative silverware, and hunt out the quirkiest piece you can find. After a few years you’ll have amassed a brilliant collection and each one will evoke memories of a specific birthday or anniversary.

Turn your Zoom game up to 11

“I’m completely over Zoom and there’s always some smart alec who wants to dominate things – from that point of view I don’t have a magic wand,” laments Roxburgh. Unfortunately there’s no escaping the fact that, until restrictions are lifted, if you want to share your special occasion with loved ones outside your home, online video calls are a necessary evil.

There are, however, services on offer to take your Zoom event to the next level. “Why not hire someone like Archie Manners to do magic for you? Or get Graham Norton or Michael Macintyre to host an escape room party,” he suggests. “Even famous people will be happy to help if the money is right. Buy some amazing prizes for the winners and it won’t be an evening people forget in a hurry.”

Make the most of the great outdoors

One of the few things you can do right now is get outside and enjoy your local surroundings. While we know you’ve probably walked through the same park hundreds of times at this point, there are ways to make your usually mundane daily exercise into something special. “My family in northern Scotland have been celebrating by going out skating and skiing,” says Roxburgh. “When I saw it was going to be snowing in London I started looking up luxury toboggans. What could be more special than sledging on Primrose Hill?” While we wouldn’t normally suggest relying upon the Great British weather for event success, when it does throw you something unusual like a snow day, get out there and enjoy it.

Give your home a refresh

You can throw as much money as you like at your event but that won’t change the fact that it’s at home, where you’ve been every day for the past 10 months which does tend to take the shine off things a little. Sadly this can’t be helped but Roxburgh does have some creative ideas for switching things up. “Rearranging furniture is a great way to make rooms feel different,” he says. “If your event is a wedding or anniversary you should also find a good florist. Once you’ve filled your home with candles and flowers it will feel like a completely different place.”

Pick a theme

Food is the centrepiece of many a special occasion, and while there are plenty of restaurants ready and waiting to deliver a fine dining feast to your door, it’s up to you to take your cuisine of choice and run with it. “I’ve recently discovered a catering company called Rocket which does a monthly online cook-along,” says Roxburgh. “They send you all the ingredients for a meal for two and then show you how to prepare it. Each month is a different theme a friend was turning 80 recently and I sent them four boxes so they and their family could cook a Nordic meal with reindeer and trout and themed cocktails. It’s a very, very enjoyable way to spend an evening.”

The key to elevating such a meal, Roxburgh explains, is to take the theme and create an entire evening around it. “Say the theme was Venice,” he says. “Make everything – the decorations, the music, the drinks – Venetian. You could order battery powered gondolas and put them in a trough of water down your table to turn it into the Grand Canal or put postcards and pictures of Venice everywhere. With a little imagination that could be a really fun evening.”

Remember this isn’t forever

While the thought of marking a milestone birthday or anniversary in lockdown may seem utterly depressing, Roxburgh does have some words of hope for the future. “As soon as lockdown is over people are going to go mad. The Roaring Twenties will be the theme of the year,” he says, explaining that he already has events with guest lists in the hundreds booked for the tail end of 2021.

There is also, of course, no reason you can’t have that 30th birthday party or big wedding reception once restrictions are lifted, but, Roxburgh believes, the way in which people view events has fundamentally shifted. “People’s whole perception of weddings and entertaining has changed,” he says. “People aren’t obsessed with huge parties for 300 anymore. They think parties for 20 or 30 are much nicer.” So, if your party has a guest list of just four or five, you’re well ahead of the curve.

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