The term “holiday party” translates to “office party” in my mind, conjuring up images of a long-winded Sunday night when everyone is either bored out of their minds or making fools of themselves. Luckily, festive parties that aren’t thrown by your supervisors tend to be a lot less stale. A well-executed holiday affair leaves your walls reverberating with the laughter and hyper conversation of parties past.
Create the Mood
When it comes to planning your own holiday party, start at the beginning. And by beginning, I mean three weeks early. Write lists upon lists of menu choices, recipes, groceries, decorations, table settings, guests, songs. Pick items up as the days pass by instead of having one massive shopping trip looming.
Holiday celebrations already have an obvious theme, but it’s not necessary to outfit your home with red-nosed reindeer or Star of David images. “Themes can be fun, but if that’s an overwhelming thought, just pulling together a color palette for your table will look beautiful,” party planning neophyte Patricia Anne says. Annie Nast, another amateur planner, takes the minimalist approach to themes as well. “I think that it is important to have a theme or inspiration for each party. It can be as simple as a color theme, an ingredient, a person. Just something to look to when creating the mood,” she says.
Anne suggests using unique serving platters, bowls, and pedestals when decorating the dinner or buffet table to make even the simplest foods look enticing. Also, use silverware instead of plasticware, or at least invest in heavy-duty disposable forks and knives. “I once ended up eating two tines off a plastic fork along with my delicious baked clams,” Anne recalls.
The Velvet Rope
Who has the honor of being included on the guest list? Never stick with the same exact guest list from party to party. Invite people from different social groups—asking only your work colleagues isn’t a soiree, it’s a meeting; only inviting your inner social group is a club, not a celebration. Tip: Only invite people whose events you’ll be happy to attend in return. Otherwise, you’ll both be stuck in the vicious “I have to invite her, she invited me” circle.
Clarity of Invitation
When you’re ready, send out invitations that aren’t perplexing. “Late afternoon cocktail hour” is vague. “Party begins at 5pm, dinner at 7” is not. Include dress recommendations in the invitation as well. Holiday parties are typically “Festive Dress,” unless you’re throwing a New Year’s Day brunch where everyone is required to show up in pajamas.
Let the Chocolate Speak for Itself
Classical music is the background choice of most traditional Christmas parties. If Mozart’s a little too stiff for you, explore the modern classical music of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Feldman, or Reich.
DJ Dave Leonard of JTD Productions explains just how important music choice is. “If equipment fails and music stops, it is very noticeable. If it’s too loud, it can interfere with communication. If you’re playing the wrong genre for your crowd at any given time, it’s a disaster,” he warns. But relax,your main goal is to know your crowd and choose music they’ll like. My favorite piece of Leonard’s advice is, “Don’t try to compete with chocolate.” When food is served, lower the music and let the spread be the center of attention.
Most Parties Aren’t About the Food
Now on to that scene-stealing meal you’ll be serving…
A good rule of thumb is that easy food equals more time with guests and less time cursing at kitchen appliances. Assemble food instead of cooking everything from scratch—your nearest and dearest won’t have more fun at your feast if they know you kneaded, rolled, and cut the pasta yourself. “If it’s a ‘mill around and circulate’ type of party that’s offering a buffet, selections should be kept to bite-size. Even the best-tasting food can’t be enjoyed if it’s not manageable,” Anne suggests. She also warns against ordering or making everything. Instead, mix-and-match homemade dishes with prepared ones. “Delicious is delicious, and guests want to see their hostess,” Nast says. “No one’s going to notice if the bread was baked in your kitchen or the bakery’s.”
Just don’t get Nast started on potluck parties. “When I ask guests to bring dessert, a box of Dunkin Donuts is not what I have in mind. Hint: If you are asked to bring a dessert and have never made one before, please, please, please find a good bakery and buy a pie!” Point taken.
As for alcohol, Anne recommends having an assortment of wine and imported beer instead of expecting to make everyone’s cocktail to their specifications. “Unless you have a volunteer, experienced bartender, a nice cocktail or two works fine,” she says.
Party Poopers Welcome
Instead of kicking guests out as soon as they’ve taken their last bite, Anne suggests moving to another part of the house. “By that time, people are comfortable with each other and probably ready for some relaxing conversation or whatever you have planned,” she says. Nast suggests having an activity ready—icebreakers are great for the people who haven’t gotten a chance to talk to one another yet. Make sure everyone knows that the activity isn’t mandatory—take it from me, the girl who starts to faint at the mere mention of Pictionary. Believe me, I remember every gathering and host who insisted I play, and then whined that I was a “party pooper” when I didn’t. Don’t ruin the party for your guests by putting them on the spot—it’s not the time to take your friend, co-worker, or cousin’s new boyfriend out of their comfort zone.
Complexity is the Enemy of Fun
To ensure that your fete will go off without a hitch, take a good, long look in the mirror and be honest with yourself—if you’re a terrible cook, have the party catered. If you only like whiny emo music, ask a more eclectic friend to put together an iTunes playlist. The point of any party isn’t to show off how well you do every single thing—it’s to get together with friends, celebrate and create memories. They’ll forgive you if send e-vites instead of trying to handwrite calligraphy on every invitation. Also, work with what you have. Don’t let your eyes be bigger than your stove. Or fridge. “Two turkeys for dinner, not just one!” sounds like a great idea until you realize that turkey takes approximately three years to cook and, regardless, your oven barely fits one, and then what about all of those other side courses? A good party doesn’t have to be a complicated party.
You can also view holiday festivities with an alternative eye. Why stress about an 11-course Christmas Eve dinner when you can throw a late afternoon cocktail party and kick everyone out before mealtime? Or, serve “open house” buffet-style food that still tastes delicious even at room temperature. Think baked Virginia ham, cranberry sauce, and an assortment of cheeses and specialty breads.
Peace of Mind
Exhale. Smiling friends are arriving. Perfectly coordinated table settings are in place. Background music is in harmony with guest preferences. Scrumptious, piece-of-cake cuisine is ready to be served. Take it from Dave Leonard, who says, “My focus is primarily peace of mind. Having all the details covered and being prepared and able to adapt allows for a successful event. I am more focused on how I show up and then the results take care of themselves.” Nobody likes a stressed-out, complaining, snippy host.
My favorite party-gone-wrong story? Anne was attending the main course portion of a progressive dinner at a neighbor’s house. As everyone loaded into the dining room, they found a dead grouse lying in the middle of the table. It had crashed through the window, creating a disgusting Medieval Feast for guests.
The moral of the story is, one lemon of a party doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try, try again. Read any entertaining book from the big names and you’ll see that they, too, have thrown a few duds in their lives. Just like your junior high years, it probably wasn’t as bad as you remember.