Holiday Entertaining: Out with the Scary, In with the Merry

Photo by Rebecca Jean Lawrence Photography

Photo by Rebecca Jean Lawrence Photography

By Ryan Kroening

Candles lit: check
Beverages chilling: check
Food ready to be served: check
Guest arrival: commence
Let’s get this party started!

Whether you’re a seasoned pro or this is your first soirée, holiday party planning should always keep one element at its core: FUN! In the stressful moments or last minute prep, keep that at the forefront of your mind, because planning and hosting a party should always be enjoyable.

The second most important aspect of any event is to keep it you. It can be a wonderful opportunity to step outside your routine; however, if your regularly occurring gatherings consist of sweat pants and whatever is in the fridge (which are also fun times!) I wouldn’t recommend opting for the 10-course formal dinner route. You and your guests should feel comfortable and engaged, and your presence and decisions as host set that stage…err, table.

So what now? How to begin? Who to invite? Where to hold the actual party? When to have it?

Let’s start at the very beginning (I hear it is a very good place to start)!

Why did you decide to host? If you answer this question first—and truthfully—it will assist to filter the proceeding questions and create a cohesive gathering. Do you want to showcase your new house? Are you excited to share an evening with 10 or 100 of your closest friends and family? Are you sick of your friend’s boring parties and want to shake things up? How much time will you have to dedicate to preparation? Do you smile with glee thinking about planning an event, or feel sick to your stomach?

Again, keep fun in mind! If the entire process is feeling more like a burden, ask yourself why you’re giving yourself a headache to throw a party no one is requiring you to host? If you were asked to host and it is now expected, loop in a few friends (or an event planner) to put your mind at ease.

Hone in on the reasons inspiring you to create this event, and then set the tone.

Photo by Rebecca Jean Lawrence Photography

Photo by Rebecca Jean Lawrence Photography

What do you want to host? Are you desiring a gathering where folks dress to impress and sip lip-licking libations? Perhaps you want a large and energetic theme party with tasty treats and fun music? Or maybe you’d rather host an intimate dinner party for a handful of close friends? All of these options, and many more, are wonderful choices, and is where you can get really creative.

For a fresh start to the day, assemble a holiday brunch with a coffee and cocoa bar where people create their own signature concoction. Mornings (or early afternoons, let’s be honest) aren’t your jam? Then butter your biscuit and entertain an afternoon tea with scones, cookies, and chocolate treats. Eating in the evening is your desire? Collect a cadre by candlelight for dinner or hors d’oeuvres.

When and where? Now that you’ve figured out what you want to host, the when and where go hand-in-hand. The holiday party season typically lasts from mid-November through the first weekend after New Year’s Eve, with the highest concentration of events happening between December 20 and January 1. There is no right or wrong time to have a party, and consider weeknights as a viable alternative to the limited weekend days available.

If the where is your own home, your calendar is the only one that ultimately matters. Pick a date and time, and try to block off the 18 hours prior to and following for preparation, clean-up, and relaxation. If it will be a smaller group, throw out a few dates to a handful you’d want in attendance to try and accommodate their schedules.

The hosted venue is becoming more popular with holiday entertaining. Depending on the venue, it can require less energy with preparation and clean-up if staff are there to support those efforts. Whether private dining room, reserved party room in a condo or apartment building, or full-scale dance hall, approach these situations with at least two dates for flexibility. Start your search 3-4 months in advance (or even further), and then invite your guests 6–8 weeks in advance.

What do I serve? Your options are endless, and menu planning can be one of the biggest headaches. Don’t feel like you must chain yourself to the stove for a month! No matter how delicious the treats, no one wants a host so exhausted from cooking that they can’t enjoy themselves. Ask friends to contribute a dish or lend a hand; prepare ingredients and dishes ahead of time and re-heat before serving. Forgo a plated dinner and indulge in finger foods and dessert stations. If cooking isn’t your thing at all, check out the offerings of your grocery store. Many offer platters and dishes you simply pick up from the deli, heat, and serve. Or contact a great local caterer such as Chowgirls Killer Catering for mouthwatering morsels to craft any creation you desire, with pick-up or full-service available.

If you’re hosting a larger crowd, make a conscious effort to accommodate dietary restrictions and preferences. Providing an array of items that are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and nut-free makes all your guests feel welcome.

Libations can also run the gamut, from only wine and beer, signature cocktails that connect to the party, or a partially to fully stocked bar. Whatever the case, plan in advance. Get lots of ice, purchase a variety of mixers for the bar, chill the white wine the night before, and pre-mix the signature concoction as much as possible to serve from pitchers or carafes. Just like with sangria in the summer, freeze seasonal fruit to use in mixed drinks to add flavor and chill a drink without watering it down. In a similar manner to the food, have non-alcoholic beverage options in addition to the craft cocktail or pre-proofed punch such as flavored waters, sparkling cider, or specialty sodas.

Only have 12 wine glasses for your party of 50 or 8 plates for your dinner of 16? No problem! Head to an antique or second-hand store for unique finds, or budget-friendly Ikea or a dollar store to boost your collection. Want easy clean-up? Go green and get compostable cups, plates, and utensils at Litin Party Supply or other retailers.

Photo by Rebecca Jean Lawrence Photography

Photo by Rebecca Jean Lawrence Photography

How to decorate? Whether renting, repurposing, or purchasing, décor is the way to set the mood for an event. Hosting at home? Swap out your everyday throw pillows, blankets, or centerpieces for festive touches. Color is key, and don’t be afraid to use LOTS of it! Allow yourself to move beyond typical red/green and blue/silver combinations, infusing pinks, yellows, purples, and even neon shades of all the colors into the scheme of things. I’m personally a big fan of adding a bit (or a lot) of sparkle and glitz, but you don’t have to in order to make something cheery and bright. Candlelight can do that for you in simple glass votives dotted around the room to a pillar garden in the center of a table. One or two large statement pieces can go a long way in setting the visual tone for a space. A large vase with a floral arrangement to a beaded candelabra are all you need to do for an anchor, and use smaller accents throughout the space.

For rental venues, be sure to check with the coordinator regarding what they have on-site to use, and what they do and don’t allow you to bring in. Nearly universal rules are: 1) no confetti or glitter; 2) no open-flame candles; and 3) nothing attached to walls. Take those into account, because if they are not followed, you can be fined or required to pay for actual damages or cleaning costs, which add up quickly. And no one wants that to be the lingering note of a fun night.

Who to invite? Directly correlated to why you’re hosting is who you’re inviting, and as with any special occasion, the invite list can be tricky. How many people do you have space, budget, and tolerance for in your home? What is the capacity of the venue? Are you sharing the planning, and thus the guest list, with a co-host?

Think about all the factors that will create your event, and who are those who will most appreciate it, and who are those you’d most like to celebrate with. For a small dinner, an invite can be especially difficult because of plus-one requests for already-limited seating. For larger events, it can still be hard to balance those who you want to spend time with versus those who may expect an invitation. One thing is for certain: don’t let FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) direct your deed. Just because you pass them in the office every morning or wave at them across the bar doesn’t entitle them to be invited to your social gathering. A general rule of thumb is that if you haven’t interacted with someone, in person, in six months to a year, they probably shouldn’t make the cut.

If you happen to be lucky enough to be on the receiving end of an invitation as lovely as this, on behalf of all that is good and kind in the world, actually RSVP! Use the Yes or Decline buttons and leave the Maybe alone.

Hosts and hostesses, I wish you the best of success in creating your holiday cheer!

Ryan Kroening. Photo by Rebecca Jean Lawrence Photography

Ryan Kroening. Photo by Rebecca Jean Lawrence Photography

Ryan Kroening is the owner of Events by Lady K. The Lady K team specializes in providing tailored support for your event needs—from conferences and fundraisers to celebrations and dinner parties. To learn more, visit

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