Holiday hosting 101: From cocktails to coat racks

Published: Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 5:30 a.m.CDT

Not everyone can be Martha Stewart. For the mere mortal hosts among us, holiday party planning can whip up stress and anxiety: Is my house inviting? Do I have enough chairs? What about food?

If the thought of entertaining sends you to the nearest couch with a bottle of aspirin, relax – we’ve compiled advice from some of the best party experts around.

SETTING THE MOOD

“Parties give us the chance to suspend what’s going on in our lives and give us space to be merry,” says Danielle Rollins, the Atlanta-based author of the new “Soiree: Entertaining with Style”(Rizzoli).

The best way to create that space, she says, is to build tradition into your party and make it something people can look forward to year after year. Decide on a theme or an anchor activity – gingerbread decorating, caroling, ugly holiday sweaters – and specify a dress code on the invitation.

“It’s fun to have an excuse to dress up,” Rollins says. “You’ll build excitement around the event if guests know what to expect.”

Decor should echo the theme and reinforce the style of party you want to have. But don’t feel you have to stick with a traditional holiday color palette or decorations. “Thanksgiving doesn’t have to mean orange and Christmas doesn’t have to mean red and green,” says Rollins.

Lyric Turner, the owner of Red House Staging and Interiors in Washington, D.C., suggests introducing a warm color palette – burgundy, chocolate brown, purple and orange – through accent pillows, throws or curtains to create a festive look in an unexpected way.

“If you are going to bring in red and green elements to your decorating, keep the rest of your space neutral. A cacophony of color is too much,” says Turner.

SETTING THE STAGE

Whether your party is large or small, deciding where to put the guests can be tricky. Many people make the mistake of removing all the furniture for a cocktail party, says Rollins, but it’s important to have places to sit.

“Your living space should be structured for conversation,” says Turner. She recommends creating seating clusters around the house. “Anywhere you have a little extra room – an entryway, an office – you can group a few chairs around a small table.”

Rollins emphasizes the need for tables and stools spread throughout the gathering spaces.

“Pretend you’re a drink,” she says. “Where will you go?”

Too much furniture, however, can feel claustrophobic.

“Some editing is necessary,” says Turner, to allow for traffic flow.

“You’re adding a lot with holiday decor,” she adds. “If you’re not taking anything out, you’re just adding clutter.”

SETTING THE LIGHTS

The right lighting makes your home (and your guests) look their best. Our experts agreed that overhead lighting has no place in a party; place lamps on multiple levels throughout your rooms, dim the lights and add candles wherever you can.

“Avoid candles by the bar and the buffet, though,” cautions Rollins. “You don’t want your guests going up in flames.”

She also suggests skipping scented candles because they compete with the scent of the food.

And while lighting should be low in conversation areas, keep bathrooms and food areas better lit.

SETTING THE TABLE

Food can make or break a party, but Rollins insists, “It’s not about what you’re serving, it’s how it’s displayed.”

For buffets, she suggests using smaller dishes and refilling them frequently.

Push the dining table against the wall to create more space for mingling around the food, Turner recommends.

And a signature cocktail adds a festive touch, and can streamline bar mess and bar costs.

For dinner parties, Mindy Weiss, a Los Angeles-based party planner, suggests setting the table the evening before the party.

Personalized place cards are a thoughtful touch and can be tailored to any theme. “My guests were given ‘I’m thankful for.’ nametags one Thanksgiving,” Rollins says. “As I made my toast, I said, ‘I am thankful for all of you gathered with me today to celebrate the blessings we have.’ And I asked each guest to reflect on what they were thankful for.”

DETAILS, DETAILS

It’s the small touches that really bring your party to the next level. Turner recommends wowing guests with a spa-like bathroom: “Remove all your junk and replace it with a sprig of pine, a candle, new hand soap and lotion.”

Provide a stack of rolled hand towels so guests don’t have to share the same (increasingly damp) towel, Turner suggests.

If children are invited, Weiss suggests having spaces and activities available to them – a table with construction paper turkeys or wreath-making kits – so parents can relax.

As for where to hang coats, Rollins recommends a rolling coat rack in a bedroom. “It’s so much nicer than just throwing them on the bed,” she says.

She also recommends being prepared for winter weather: “Keep salt and shovels on hand,” she cautions. “And make sure driveways and entryways are well lit.”

Above all, make guests feel welcome. Get the cleaning and chores out of the way before they get there, and “open your door to welcome your guests looking like you didn’t lift a finger all day,” Weiss says. “If you time things right, then you should be able to offer your guests a cocktail and conversation.”

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