Want to avoid the hassle of hosting a big holiday party? Enjoy more casual entertaining this season with a festive open house for friends and family.
December is usually a month full of good cheer, fun, holiday wishes and, most of all, packed schedules.
You can take some stress out of holiday party planning (for yourself and your guests) by hosting a more casual event, such as a holiday open house. Your guests can drop in at their convenience and stay for a short time before heading to another party or they can stay all night if their calendars allow.
Geneve McNally, principal wedding and event planner for Dreamgroup Productions Inc., says you can host a holiday open house on any budget. How decadent or extravagant you get depends on how much you want to spend, but you can cover food, drinks and decor on any budget.
Give your holiday guests lots of warning
According to McNally, the most popular weekends for holiday open houses are the second and third weekends in December. Ideally, you should send invitations three to six weeks in advance, depending on who you're inviting.
"The sooner the better," says McNally. Although, if this is an annual event and people are expecting your invitation, two to three weeks may be enough warning.
Always give guests a date by which they should RSVP so you can plan accordingly. "People won't necessarily RSVP, because it's such a casual event, but you do need to know," says McNally. Plan to have to follow up with a few people.
Set the mood for your holiday open house
Decorate your home as you would for any other holiday party, keeping in mind that different guests will come and go as the night goes on, so your numbers will fluctuate.
"The nice thing about decor at Christmas is that a little goes a long way," says McNally. Twinkling lights, candles, a Christmas tree and garlands are all you need. "And you have to have mistletoe!" she says.
The music you choose will create the right ambience. McNally says you can "build up the anticipation of a special event" by playing music by Bing Crosby for the first hour or so. It doesn't have to play all night, but it can set the tone from the start.
Holiday open house food and drinks
When it comes to food and drinks, McNally suggests creating a series of fun stations, carts or buffets.
If your budget allows, hire a bartender. Otherwise, it's just as fun to set up drink stations and let your guests create their own concoctions. For the holidays, think an eggnog station, a hot drinks station with coffee, tea and hot cider (and liqueurs for those who want a splash of Irish cream in their coffee) or a bar cart with chilled micro-beers and vodkas (complemented with lots of ice and mixes or a non-alcoholic punch filled with cranberries that people can spike if they want to).
In terms of food, McNally says open houses tend to be more cocktail oriented. Choose finger foods such as pigs in a blanket, mini quiches, spring rolls and sliders. You want to have enough food that people can feel as full as if they've eaten dinner, usually about 15 hors d'oeuvres per person. However, if you set up a more substantial food station (such as a make-your-own pasta or stir-fry station) you won't need as many finger foods.
Similarly, your desserts need not be extensive. "Go for thoughtfulness and quality over quantity," says McNally. "Have different options for different tastes." Choose complementary flavours that will appeal to different people, such as one chocolate, one lemon and one cranberry dessert.
Keep your holiday open house organized
Laurene Livesey Park, an author, professional organizer and speaker, says planning ahead will save you headaches on the day of your event. Here are her top tips for organizing your menu:
• As soon as you have finalized your guest list, check with everyone about any potential food allergies and then plan your menu accordingly.
• When you nail down your menu, purchase any non-perishable foods you'll need (such as crackers or dry ingredients for baking) and store them separately from your household groceries.
• Make a schedule for cooking. Consider preparing and freezing some dishes ahead of time.
• If other people are contributing dishes, ask what appliances they will need -- stovetop, oven, microwave? -- and then plan your own dishes accordingly.
Prepare your home for company:
• Examine your table linens a week before your event. Launder and iron them, then hang them in a closet.
• Order your flowers at least a week ahead of your party and schedule pickup or delivery the day before your event.
• Do a trial run with your serving dishes and utensils a few days ahead to make sure you have everything you need, then keep them all in one place. "Nothing slows down getting hot dishes served like not being able to find the gravy ladle you haven't used since last Christmas!" says Livesey Park.
Things to do the day before your holiday open house:
• Clean your bathrooms and set out fresh towels.
• Make room in closets for coats and boots. Instead of piling guests' coats on someone's bed, pile your own collection there and hang guests' coats in your closet. This way nobody is roaming around bedrooms looking for coats in the middle of the party.
• Tidy and clean up any area where guests will be mingling in your home.
• Arrange activities for children if any are coming.
Safety first: McNally's final advice is about safety. "You are liable as the host for anything that happens," she says. Keep phone numbers for taxis near your front door so guests who are unable to drive can get a safe ride home.
"When people arrive, have them drop their keys in one bowl and their cell in another," she says. This way, it's up to the host to redistribute keys and everyone is forced to stay off their phones during the party!