Throw a Less Stressful Holiday Party!

By Kate Riley November 18, 2010

Years ago, when the mister and I were first married, we both agreed that the one thing we wanted to do together every holiday season was to throw a party the weekend before Christmas.  Eleven years ago, we started this tradition and it continues every year.  We’re all so busy during the year, and months can pass by so crazy fast when we don’t see our friends.  This is just one way we choose to show others how much we care ~ we open our doors the Saturday before Christmas and invite them all in!

You know that scene at the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ when George Bailey looks around at all his friends and family and Harry toasts, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town!’  It chokes me up every single time!  You too?

harry toast its a wonderful life

The moment in the film is about the importance of friends and a purpose filled life, but here’s what I always get from this classic:  it doesn’t matter how elaborate or modest your home or your lifestyle, the best moments of the holiday season come from the togetherness and good spirits felt from surrounding ourselves with the ones we love.  It has nothing to do with money.

To me, a holiday party is a great opportunity to capture that feeling.  So many people hesitate to throw a party because they’re worried it will cost too much or their home isn’t presentable.  Nonsense!  Every year, our party has grown bigger (we’re talkin’ 100+) but we don’t spend a fortune.  I enlist the help of some friends, but I don’t cater nor do I hire a bartender. (But I did hire a babysitter when the kids were little.)

I was inspired to write about our holiday party after I read 101 Party Do’s & Don’ts in the latest issue of House Beautiful.  A worthy read, more tailored to the dinner party, but here’s a few more things I’ve learned over the years about how to make a crowd feel welcome without spending a fortune.

Tips for throwing a less stressful holiday party for a large crowd:  

country living entry table1) Decorate early!  The weekend after Thanksgiving is decorating weekend!  If you plan to do Black Friday shopping, then I recommend decorating even before Thanksgiving like the retail stores do.  I know that sounds like you’re cheating on T-day, but if you’re throwing a party, get those baubles up early!

Concentrate your holiday decor where people will enter and congregate: the front porch, the entry, your kitchen, family room, dining room, and the powder room.

Your decor need not be elaborate.  Some candles and greenery are all it takes, perhaps some ornaments and twinkle lights strung here and there, just enough to capture the holiday mood.  It doesn’t take much!  Melissa has some great tips today for easy ways to add a touch of Christmas to every room.

Resist the temptation to wait to decorate the week or day before your party, we’re talking about reducing stress, so decorating early is key!

2. Coats and Purses.   The first thing guests do when they arrive is look for a place to store their coat and bag, so you must have a place for their coats and purses.  Set aside a bedroom or a closet away from the party, or invest in a folding coat rack.

3. Have an icebreaker.   Many people love to help at parties so give them a small job if they ask, or play a simple party game.  We’ve played a guess me game during the party before we wrote out names of movie characters on labels and placed it on everyone’s back when they came in.  They had to ask other party guests for clues until they figured out who they were, and it got everyone talking and laughing right away.

martha twinkle lights4.  Create ambiance with lighting and music.  Great lighting is key  to setting the perfect mood at a party, so I’m a big believer in having all your main living area switches on dimmers.  It’s easy to do.  Then light a few candles, and turn on the outdoor lights too.  String some twinkle lights too, they add the perfect amount of light to your outdoor areas surrounding your home.

Also, have a playlist of holiday tunes ready to go that lasts several hours.  Pandora radio is great, also your TV cable station often has holiday playlists.  You can make your own CDs or use your iPod, just have lots of merry tunes!


5.  Distance your food.  For a larger party, serve finger foods or one bite appetizers, nothing guests need to slice.  Keep beverages in one place, food in another, and if you have room, desserts in a third location.  It forces guests to circulate!   I like to keep bowls of pistachios, salty mixes, or chocolate candies scattered around the house in pretty bowls too.

6.  Keep some food warm.  On a winter evening, I believe it’s a good idea to serve some of your food warm, but to also stay away from your oven during a party.     Nothing’s worse than the hostess being tethered to her oven while her guests are in her home (makeup melting from a hot oven, no thanks!).  The way to pull it off?  Rent, borrow, or buy a chaffing dish (or two), or a warming platter.

holiday buffet open house I learned the hard way to not serve those popovers, hors d’oeuvres or phyllo dough appetizers that require you to stand next to the oven for 8 minutes to judge their perfect brownness.  No no no!  I cook my no fail crowd pleasin’ Stroganoff meatballs and penne alfredo before the party, then set them out in chaffing dishes with a nice warmed ham with rolls, and it’s always enough for a crowd.

Then I never need to set foot in the kitchen except to grab more ice!  Oh, and always make more food than you think you need.  Better to have leftovers than hungry guests!

One way to keep costs (and stress) down is to enlist friends to help!  I always ask a few gals to contribute some appetizers or desserts.  People love to bring chocolate candies, cookies, and other signature holiday recipes or small bites to share.

7.  Keep drinks simple.  We serve some wine (including ours), some beer, but mostly local champagnes.  People are always drawn to the bubbles on festive occasions we find.  Rarely do guest ask for mixed drinks, so we stopped serving them.  Always keep non alcoholic sparkling juices available too, plus juice boxes and water for the kids.     .

country living champagne flutes 8.  Real or plastic?  Plenty of entertainers say “never serve your guests on plastic plates”.  Ahem.  I don’t have an extra 80 plates lying around so guess what?  You come to my par-tay, you may dine on melamine or plastic plates.  Sorry, but none of my friends seem to notice or care about that.  But if if bothers you, simply rent or borrow ‘real’ plates.

But while you are free to serve appetizers on plastic or melamine dishes in my opinion, I say never serve wine or champagne in anything but stemmed glassware.  Wine and champagne glasses are cheap (hello Goodwill) or can easily be rented, so at least keep the glassware elegant.  Borrow them if you have to, I always do!

People keep their glasses for hours (use tags or charms to help identify them) but not their plates, so decent stemware is most important.       .

9.  Keep kids occupied.  I set aside a table for kids to do art, and always have a kid friendly Christmas movie playing in another room.  One trick we’ve learned to keep kids calm is to have kids (not parents) remove shoes when they come over.  Something about them being in their socks keeps them relaxed (and mud off your carpet, learned that the hard way too!)

Since we had kids, it’s hard to keep them occupied while we prepare for a crowd, so we invest in a few hours paid to a trusted babysitter to keep the little ones entertained and happy.  If you have a super helpful grandma, aunt, or attentive friends, that works too.  Anyone that can assist with the kids, especially before the party starts, certainly helps!

10.  Stay stocked.  Ice. Toilet paper.  Firewood.  Plates, napkins, utensils.  Have plenty of ’em.

11. Keep a notebook.  Some things work, some things don’t so keep notes!  The day after the party, write down who attended, what recipes were a hit, and how the party could have flowed better.  Next time, you’ll thank yourself!

simple decorations bhg

On a final note, I’d like to say that you should never be afraid to open up your home to your friends during the holidays because you think it isn’t fancy enough or whatever.

Your home is perfect because it is a reflection of you.  Guests remember two things from a party: the flavors and the feeling.  Not fancy decorations or pretentious displays.

Give them some good flavor in the form of food, spirits, and pleasant scents, send them away with a feeling of good cheer, and your party is a success!


What’s your best tip for making guests feel welcome this time of year?

Images: Country Living, Martha, BH&G


  1. What a great post! I’m so glad that you made that last point about never being afraid to open your home to others. I think there’s a lot of pressure these days to have an HGTV-worthy home, but it takes a great deal of time to decorate houses like the ones you see on TV.

    Thanks for posting this one…I really enjoyed it.

  2. This is a great post, some great tips and just plain common sense that we need to hear sometimes. Thanks! I’ll be saving this one for years to come no doubt!

  3. Beautiful post, Kate!! It is so important to open our homes, I feel. I always like to view my hand as being open to receive blessings (like our home), but also remaining open to share with others. Nothing is more special than opening your home to friends and family (especially during the holiday’s!)…thanks for the great reminder! -shaunna :)

  4. Thanks for the list Kate! You make a lot of great points. My husband and I usually give 2-3 parties in a weekend. The house is already clean, right? Smaller parties = more time with each guest. We usually have his office over on Friday, most of our friends on Saturday and sometimes a potluck brunch on Sunday for neighbors.

  5. Thanks so much for this post, it brought me to tears.I absolutely love that scene in that movie, it really hits home with me this year. Especially as am going through a divorce with four little ones and no money!

  6. I am planning a big January party (winter blues theme silver, blues, and whites…)…because everyone’s calendar is so filled before the holidays.

    Plus, January in Chicago is BRUTAL. So getting together with friends (no kids…mine will sleep at Nana Magic’s!) for cocktails is necessary, given that many Chicagoans don’t leave their homes once the temp hit freezing.

    Thanks for mentioning the coat/handbag issue…I just installed some gorgeous coat rack by our front entry way…

    Happy Holidays!

  7. Thank you so much for the tips! We’re having our first party ever for Hanukkah and I’m a little nervous! Hopefully everything will go smoothly!

  8. Awesome tips, Kate! We’re gearing up for a holiday party in a few weeks and I’m just getting ready to figure out all the details. I think you just took care of 75% of it for me. THANK YOU!

  9. Great post! I love the idea about using real wine glasses too. Yes, they are very cheap and so much nicer than plastic cups.

  10. Such wonderful advice. Thank you so much for taking the time to share all this! I hope you’ll post some pictures of your holiday party this year! Or at least I hope you’ll post pictures of your decorations!

  11. Oh, oh, oh I second Kristi…where are those recipes? And love, love, love your entry way..

    Happy Thanksgiving. I am thankful I discovered your blog.

  12. Beautifully written. I’m throwing a little get together, and it is so easy to let the nerves take over and think you have to go all out. Thanks for the reminder that friends are just happy to be welcomed.

  13. If you can believe it, I actually do have 80 plates laying around. For my wedding, which was held at a farm, we bought china from goodwill and other thrift stores for about 8 months before the wedding… the rule, no more than $1.00 a plate. I have kept all of my favorites. If you’re a thrifter, buy cheap plates when you see them. They are everywhere, you’ll a mass a great collectiong and it is so classy to pull out a pile and place them on the table. And, even better, I don’t care if they break.

  14. I have found that crockpots can work well for storing warm appetizers too! Especially if there is a Keep Warm setting. Of course they aren’t really fancy looking but who cares! I have a big one for meatballs and such and a small one I have used for warm dips before.

  15. You give great advice…I host a “Girlfriends Get-together” every Christmas for my girls that has become a much awaited formal affair. If I don’t send out the invites by the first weekend in December I started getting phone calls about it. One thing I do is always make sure that I’m not dressed when my first guest arrive. I leave them with the drinks and appetizers and I finish getting ready. It allows my “girls” time to hang-out and me the opportunity to run around getting everything ready until the last minute and not feel bad about it. :)

  16. Great post, thank you so much for all these wonderful tips. I have yet to have a party in our new house as we are constantly in the midst of renovations. I can’t wait to host one, though! Hopefully next year we will be done renovating!

  17. Thank you for the wonderful pointers. I am really going to try and figure out the lighting during my upcoming holiday party. Also- I LOVE the pointer about kids and socks. I have kids coming this time- and I don’t have some of my own- so my mind is racking over what to do with them.

    My own pointer to share with you- I collect wine glasses as well, but I also collect white plates. No need to match them, you can buy tons from the thrift store. I have almost 30 plates (been collecting them since August), and have not paid more than 50 cents for any of them. Goodwill is great for them. I also get white cups/white mugs/regular glasses/white bowls/white serving dishes etc for other types of hosting. As long as they are in white- you do not have to worry about them being all different. Here are some pictures of my last party:

  18. Fabulous post, Kate!!! December usually stresses me out a bit because I fit in decorating between Thanksgiving (when we usually have to drive 10-12 hours to TN) and my oldest’s bday party, which is always the first Saturday in Dec. The second Saturday in Dec. is my girls day out to NYC, and I always feel like the rest of the month is too busy for friends to want to come by. One of these days I’ll manage to get all the gifts bought and wrapped early and host something for our friends.

  19. One thing I did, that I believe I saw on Oprah was putting famous Christmas movies on the TV with the volume down. It gives people something to talk about, and makes for an even more Christmas atmosphere. Mircale on 34th street and Christmas Story are my personal fav’s.

  20. These are some REALLY great tips Kate since I have a Christmas party too! Mine is usually on Christmas eve night after everyone has done their last minute shopping.

    Also, one more tip to add to your keeping food warm…Your oven set to 200 degrees act as a warming “drawer” for foods!

  21. Wonderful tips, Kate! I love the idea of the “who am i” game! Great ice breaker! I also serve stroganoff meatballs for parties! Takes forever to roll up the little meatballs ha! Love the idea of the alfredo, do you have the recipe posted someplace?

    I put in a shout out to you in my post today. I couldn’t find the exact so I linked back to your home page. Hope you don’t mind.


  22. This is an excellent post! Kate, you always inspire me with your sense of relaxed elegance. I love the rule that plastic plates are OK but always go with glassware for wine and champagne. . . You have totally inspired me to open up my home more often and not fear that things aren’t perfect or fancy enough.

  23. Kristy ~ I’ll have to post those recipes soon! Tina, I make the sauce from sratch then simmer store bought meatballs (I found some that actually taste homemade) in the sauce for two hours. No need to roll them all myself and broil them seperately!

    Heather, I love the idea of the Christmas movies as an ice breaker!

    Amanda, I’m totally inspired to make a Goodwill run for dishes!!


  24. That scene absolutely makes me tear up as well!! Can’t wait to pull out the Christmas movies! Thanks for this excellent overview. I’m definitely going to apply a few of these things for my Christmas get togethers this year.

  25. Thank you so much for this post. We are going to have a huge gang this year and I wanted to figure out a way to not be in the kitchen for the entire day.

  26. Kate, I love love love this post. I have a rule that anything utensil or glass that touches the guest’s mouth must be the real thing (extra flatware and glassware bought on the cheap at Target does just fine). Plastic dishes – perfect for entertaining a big crowd! Also, tons and tons of little festive cocktail napkins are a must!

    PS I made your minestrone soup and it was delish! Thanks for the recipe.

  27. I swear–most entertaining guides are written by people who have NEVER thrown a party! Thank you for this WONDERFUL down-to-earth guide to entertaining in the real world. I’ve learned a few of these lessons on my own (the hard way, haha!) and am happy to soak up your wisdom. I hope to see more posts like this.

  28. I have a friend who hosts a Cookie exchange every year. We each bake 6 dozen of one kind and come home with 10-12 different types of cookies! Then, we stick them in the freezer and bust out a dozen or two at a time for parties, Christmas dinners and when guests just drop by. It is perfect!

  29. Very helpful ideas and tips! I am planning to host a Christmas party this year for all of our neighbors and friends. Thank you for sharing all of your great party planning info, Kate!

  30. Ok we threw major Christmas parties at our home also. We had valet parking which the guest loved. and wonderful soft music. I had someone to entertain the children . And carolers would stop by at during the party. Lots of candles and re poinsettias ……..We haven’t had one in sometime and one of my older sons was talking the other day and he mentioned the awesome christmas parties we once had…Kind of made me sad. have fun your tradition is wonderful and making great memories to cherish a lifetime.

  31. What a great post. We do many similar things. We usually host Christmas day as we live in Germany and many of our friends can’t go home (the US) for the holidays. We do a meal, but I mostly stay out of the kitchen. I like to enjoy myself and my guests don’t mind eating off Christmas patterned paper or plastic plates.
    Can I come to your party? It sounds like fun! :)

  32. This post was perfect for me today…my husband and I decided we are going to throw a holiday party but we are only having 5 other couples over so it should be manageable.


  33. Kate – I swear you have just put that warm glow in my heart……!!! Bring on the Holiday Season……cheers!

  34. Great tips, most of which are applicable to parties during any season. Thanks for the rec against serving phyllo-dough anything. I’ve made that mistake so many times, and you’re right – I’m always stuck in front of the oven by the kitchen island where everyone congregates (whenever I have a party, people ALWAYS end up in the kitchen).

  35. Great post, Kate! You make so many good points. And 80 guests? I’m impressed! The last party we attended had plastic plates, cutlery, and glasses that were compostable, which I thought was a great idea for a large crowd.

  36. Great tips. I totally agree on the plastic plates thing. The best parties are the ones with friends and food and laughter. I don’t much care if they’re serving me on plastic plates. ;)

  37. Girl… I would NEVER have the confidence to host a party! But with these awesome tips it feels so much more doable! Such a practical but helpful post. Very well done. I bet your party is a blast!

  38. Thank you so much for the tips. I love these. We’re hosting a holiday party as well and it’s definitely stressful! But it will still be a great time!

  39. Hey Kate! Im your newest follower! I have been visiting for some time though…Im a blog Newbie, still figuring this all out! I KNOW im like your Billionth follower, but I would LOVE and appreciate if you would stop by my spot and check out my 14 days of christmas trees and a GIVEAWAY!

    *ENTER CUSTOM FLORAL Give-Away Here *


  40. What, you don’t have 100 extra plates earmarked for party use only? Seriously, someone gave me a great suggestion, buy the very inexpensive glass place settings that are always on sale around the holidays. You can store them in their original boxes.

  41. i don’t love that the options listed are either “real” or “plastic”. there are so many more eco-friendly varieties out now for one-time use plates / utensils that will biodegrade or which are compostable vs. sit in a landfill for the rest of my life. they’re a bit pricier, but if i had to go that route, it’s a price i’m willing to pay. i wish people knew those weren’t their only two options!

  42. I love these tips…especially about the OK to plastic (especially with the kids around!) and the notebook. My youngest child’s birthday is December 20, so we are “forced” to entertain before Christmas and I have found that it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. Great post!

  43. Great post! Absolutely love the idea of the Christmas bulbs in the glass. What a great, simple way to add a splash of holiday color! Thanks so much for all the tips. We travel for the holidays. :( But someday we will stay home and your tips will come in handy!

  44. Hey Kate,

    Fun post! I ALWAYS decorate early, even though Sexy Hubby hates seeing Santa prior to the bird! Oh well, it’s really the only way, I agree, especially since we’ll be in PETALUMA this year for Christmas! Fun!

    Maybe I’ll get to meet you someday (while visiting your neighbor!)

  45. Amazing post, Kate!!! We hosted parties all the time when we lived in Nashville, but not so much now that we’re in Texas. I think life is so much more hectic here that we don’t have a many friends, and they are spread all over. This has really inspired me to have a party, and invite all our friends from the many areas of our lives over at one time….maybe next year! ;)

    I’m sure your annual party is always a highlight for your friends!

  46. Loved all your ideas about entertaining during Christmas. Would you share your stroganoff meatballs and alfredo penne recipes? Sounds like a great menu. I’d like to serve it on Christmas!!! Thanks so much.

  47. Thank you so much for this excellent post and advice. I too love the sound of those recipes!

    Best wishes,

    Hope you don’t mind if I tweet about this?

  48. Can you please share your Stroganoff meatballs and penne alfredo recipe? Sounds like a great idea!

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