Descent of the space invaders

It's no coincidence that reaching the front door of Charlotte Huggins' Westwood home requires trudging up 68 extremely steep stairs.

"This is where I cool out," says Huggins, who — between her work as president of nWave Pictures and her duties as a soccer mom and room parent for her two kids — doesn't stop moving until she falls into bed.

"I go full-on during the day, then I have to have peace," she says. "My house is private, with lots of long views. I don't have drop-ins. I don't answer the phone. This is my oasis."

Until holiday season, that is. This year, two soccer team pool parties, a Christmas Eve dinner for eight and a sing-along with a guest list of 50 are on her agenda. The entertaining, says Huggins, is one of the season's "most horrible, wonderful things."

It's like that for a lot of people this time of year, when celebration is accompanied by a particular psychic dislocation: Between parties and the invasion of out-of-town family and friends, home is transformed from a cozily private space into one that's utterly public.

Make no mistake — people who entertain at holiday time do so because they like it. (The scrooges wait for invitations or leave town.) Still, there's a price to be paid. According to a landmark theory by the late sociologist Erving Goffman, in many ways, we all live like actors, carefully creating the selves and images we present to the outside world. To maintain these public selves, however, we need a "backstage" area, where we prepare, retreat to nurse our wounds, and allow ourselves to relax, be "real" and less than perfect.

Home, of course, is the ultimate backstage, "a place that normally isn't exposed, except to those with whom we're intimate," says Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

During the holiday season, the backstage that's home is suddenly under the spotlight, "and you find you have to look perfect in the place where you shouldn't have to," says Schwartz. "When you have to rearrange who you are in your own house, it can feel inauthentic."

What specifically brings on those feelings of displacement? Certainly, parties thrown strictly for business reasons, which allow colleagues to peer behind the professional facade to view the unguarded elements of personal life: casual family photos, decorating choices, back rooms where dust and chaos reign.

"New Year's Day, 200 of my husband's work friends and acquaintances swarm through the house, most of whom I don't know," shudders a Hancock Park woman who asked not to be named. "It's the day I dread most. All the papers that have been stacked on desks and tables are hidden, never to be found until February, when the bills are overdue, but I never feel like the house is clean enough. And everyone who comes has questions. 'Where did you buy this?' 'Where did you get that?' I feel like my home is part of a tour, and I'm on display."

Houseguests can be an even greater trial, because "you lose all opportunity to escape into a private world," says Schwartz. "You never know when you'll be called on, whether emotionally or physically, to be present."

Double that, if space is tight. "Having my mother here means an 11-year-old boy shares the room with my husband and me and no privacy at all," says Jody Labov, who lives in a two-bedroom Park La Brea apartment. "And everything I do gets judged — I have an eating disorder because I don't have breakfast till 11. I let my child run my life. There are a lot of pursed lips — no comments, just a silent 'tsk.'

"When Monday comes, I'm absolutely thrilled to go to work, because when I get in the car, I'm alone."

"I love these people," adds Fern Lee of West L.A., who recently played host to her parents and her husband's best friend, plus a family of out-of-town friends whose car had died unexpectedly while they were nearby.

"But with so many people in the house, there's no privacy and all rules and structure for my daughter go out the window. I find myself hiding out a lot in the bedroom, but I can't really get away because someone's always asking what we're doing for dinner or for a ride to the bookstore. And because I know so many people are lonely and wishing for family at this time of year, I feel guilty for not reveling in the warmth of it all."

Then there's the seasonal "open house" — the name says it all. "People can easily tell what's going on in your life, because it's all right there, the kids' bedrooms, the notices from school and doctor appointments on the refrigerator door," says Maryanne LaGuardia of Santa Monica, whose annual dual-religion bagel and lox Christmas Day brunch draws more than 100 guests.

"You are on complete display," acknowledges Linda Noel, who sends out 450 invitations to a pre-Christmas celebration at her Mar Vista home. "Everyone is going through the house and through the kids' toys. I've been doing this for 18 years, and it took a while to get used to it. And last year, someone took the kids' GameBoys, which was pretty dispiriting."

Television weathercaster Johnny Mountain, whose Pasadena home overlooks the Rose Parade route, hosts such a large and ongoing series of New Year's bashes — 75 to 100 spend the night, while an additional 150 to 200 show up at dawn — that all semblance of possession and privacy vanishes.

"For two years, I rented a porta potty, and we, the household owners, were the only ones using it," he says. "A float gets staged right in front of the house, and one year, the Rose queen and all the princesses all ended up inside, waiting to use our bathroom."

Because there's no way to reclaim the physical backstage at holiday time, therapist Deborah Stern of the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies suggests carving out some mental privacy by "keeping at least a few normal activities in your routine, especially those that give you comfort and allow you to be yourself."

"If you can tell houseguests ahead of time that there are things you need to do and that they'll be on their own for a while, you won't be guilt-ridden about it," she adds.

After decades of parties and hundreds of guests, Noel has learned to simply ride out her time in the spotlight.

"I wouldn't give this time up, because it's good to see all my neighbors, friends and family, even if it's just briefly," she says. "And by now, people have seen everything there is to see about us. We started out with a tiny house. Then we renovated, and at one party, we didn't have cabinets because we hadn't had the money to get them installed. One year, we had a giant hole and dirt mountain in the yard because we were putting in a pool. I've learned not to care what people think."

Huggins takes comfort in the knowledge that come January, "we'll go back into refuge mode."

"I rarely go to sleep within two hours of people leaving a party," she adds. "I want to sit there in the living room, with all the decorations still up, and the tree still lit, and just enjoy the quiet."