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Holiday Entertaining: Tips on throwing a spectacular holiday soiree

Nov 27, 2011 10:30PM ● By Cate Reynolds

Photo by Stephen Buchanan

The holidays are the time of year when you catch up with relatives and friends whom you haven’t been able to see for months. Some people choose an intimate dinner party for 10 to 12 people, especially around Thanksgiving, but in December, large cocktail parties attended by coworkers, neighborhood friends, or extended family members fill up your weekends.

The approach to throwing each of these parties is entirely different. However, with the help of catering and decorating experts, you can throw a fabulous holiday soiree of any size.


With the changing of the seasons, your home décor will vary from November to December. This month, focus on decorating with rich purple hues, in addition to the traditional oranges, yellows, and reds of the season. When the calendar flips, replace it with fresh greens, such as Cedar and Douglas fir, as well as beautiful Christmas ornaments. When you invite guests to your home, add flower arrangements to the greens. It might seem like a spring or summer flower, but Gerber Daisies come in a perfect shade of deep red to decorate your home. Other beautiful options include classic roses, soft peonies, and lots of lit candles.

It’s important not to forget the outside of your home. Lighting is key—at minimum, set up floodlights to accentuate the wreath on your door and your house number, so first-time guests don’t get lost.

In addition to the aesthetic décor, there’s logistics to consider— even the most spacious of homes likely doesn’t offer enough seating for a large holiday party. Rent elegant Chiavari chairs, which come in a variety of materials and colors (including wood, silver, and gold) and place them in groups of three to five in various locations around your home. Guests will appreciate the place to sit when they are juggling a glass of Champagne and a plate of food. For a very large holiday party or if you have a smaller indoor space but large outdoor space, consider renting a heated tent.



If the thought of thoroughly decking your halls exhausts you, look into hiring a decorator to do it for you. They can come once to get your house party-ready, or visit twice—once at the beginning of the month to set out greens and non-perishable decorations, and then again right before the party to add floral arrangements.

As for the food, ask yourself these questions when deciding whether to hire a caterer: How much time and energy do you have? How many guests will be at the party? How organized are you? Are you confident in your culinary capabilities? A host or hostess with plenty of time, energy, and talent can succeed in selfcatering a holiday party, while others might be better off choosing a professional.

However, there’s another option: Tackle the tasks you’re best at by yourself, and hire a catering service for the rest. For example, if your butternut squash soup is legendary in your circle, but your baking skills leave much to be desired, make the appetizer or dinner alone, but hire a caterer to create decadent desserts. Prep as much as you can ahead of time—for example, that butternut squash soup can be made in advance, put in the freezer, and then heated the day of the party.

If you decide to go the do-it-yourself route, don’t go it alone. Enlist the aid of two people—whether paid helpers or generous friends/family members—to assist with the finishing details and during the party with tasks such as replenishing foods and picking up glasses and plates left around the house. 



When hosting a cocktail party, invite your guests to arrive at 7 p.m. and stay until about 10 p.m., as three hours is just the right amount of time for a large party.

As they arrive, offer up a cocktail right away. Champagne might seem cliché, but nothing says elegance like a tray of passed bubbly. For a festive look, rim the glasses with pink, red, or green sugar. In addition to the Champagne, offer beer, wine, and a signature cocktail—anything with cranberry is perfect for this time of year— at a small bar. Set up multiple drink stations, away from where the food will be served, to encourage mingling.

Music is a large contributor to a festive atmosphere, and familiar tunes will get partygoers in the holiday mood. If you own a piano, make certain to have it tuned before hiring a professional pianist to play Christmas carols throughout the night. A group of string musicians is another option—live music versus a CD or iPod adds a little something extra to the atmosphere. To find a talented live musician, check with the local arts councils, symphonies and other musical organizations, or local colleges.


Whether you’re hosting a traditional sit-down dinner or a contemporary cocktail party, guests will arrive hungry. Offer two to three passed hors d’oeuvres, mixing traditional and unique recipes. Tried-and-true items include beef tenderloin crostinis or jumbo shrimp, and you can never go wrong with a miniature crab cake. Once waiters are finished passing out Champagne, they can bring out trays of these small hors d’oeuvres. If you’d rather set out displayed appetizers, rent five or six cocktail or accent tables and set out platters of appetizers. Setting out multiple appetizer stations, just as with multiple bar stations, keeps your guests from all lingering around the food. Enlist hired help or a friend to circle the room, replenishing the food on these tables often.

An hour into the party, it’s time for dinner. For a cocktail party, serve an upscale buffet known as a “table presentation” or “forkable buffet,” meaning everything can be eaten with just a fork. Set this up in a central location that offers plenty of walking and standing room around it. For your menu, make your selections like you were designing a full meal, which means selecting a protein, starch, and vegetable. However, it doesn’t have to be the standard roast beef, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Instead, it could be fish topped with crab imperial—easy to eat with a fork— complemented by a corn soufflé and sweet potato gratin. Currently, rustic “Tidewater” food is trendy, so items that blend comfort and creativity are sure to be a hit.

Rather than—or in addition to—the table presentation, consider adding stations to your menu. These setups, where one type of food is served at a station attended by a chef, work particularly well in a house that has an open floor plan, as it keeps guests circulating throughout the space. The sky is nearly the limit when it comes to creativity here: a pasta bar, a stir-fry/wok bar, and a mashed potato bar are all popular selections. However, one traditional station is considered passé—the carving station. If you decide to serve ham, turkey, or roast beef, there’s no need to hire a chef to cut it for your guests.

An hour before the party ends, satisfy your guests’ sweet tooth with decadent desserts. This lets your guests know the evening is winding down. Bring your event full circle and use those butlers who passed hors d’oeuvres to serve small, one- to two-bite desserts as well as small cups of coffee, espresso, or hot chocolate. These finger desserts are incredibly popular and very fun. Cupcakes might seem done-to-death, but mini cupcakes make a perfect one-bite dessert.

In the end, after you’ve made the decisions about food, décor, and entertainment, the most important choice to make is deciding to enjoy yourself. If a host is frantic, worried, and unhappy, the guests will pick up on that vibe. Grab that glass of Champagne, pop an appetizer into your mouth, and celebrate along with the rest of the gang. 

Special thanks to Ken Upton at Ken’s Creative Kitchen, Jenny Francis at The Main Ingredient, and Melissa Houston at Intrigue Design & Decor for their advice on how to throw a spectacular holiday soiree.

When Your Home isn’t an Option

Sometimes, despite your best effort at renting furniture or rearranging rooms, it’s not realistic to host your holiday party at home. This is especially pertinent if you’re saying thanks to employees by hosting a large company party. Consider renting a space in an alternative location, such as:

Country & Yacht Clubs:
These exclusive clubs often boast beautiful views of the water or golf courses. Hotels: Everything you need, including a place to sleep, is right at your fingertips. A good choice if you choose to hold the party in a nearby location that’s not in the same town as your office building.

Local restaurants:
Delicious food, often in a more intimate atmosphere.

Banquet halls:
These venues specialize in hosting events and can create a competitively priced package that includes food, drinks, and entertainment.

Museums/art galleries:
These establishments offer a unique décor and upscale atmosphere for a large party.