The Art of the Party: Fun Get-togethers Start with Good Planning, Attention to Detail
By Jessie Thompson
Central VA HOME magazine
Although Christmas merchandise has been in stores since August, it’s always still hard to believe it when the holiday season really arrives. At no other time are we more thankful for all that we have, including our neighbors and friends. What better way to show your appreciation than to host a get-together?
While many of us may shy away from opening our homes—the cleaning, the cooking, the decorating—throwing a successful party doesn’t have to be difficult. A fabulous, talked-about event boils down to two things: a realistic budget and good organization.
HOME talked with one area couple who opened their home to about 400—yes, 400—to get the nitty-gritty on the “dos” and “do nots” of hosting a holiday party.
“We decided to have a rather large open house as we had not entertained in quite a few years,” says this party hostess. “With a party this size, it was obvious I was going to need help! So I turned to Avenue Foods for my catering needs and Rod Meek to assist with floral arrangements and the greenery.”
The first thing to decide is who will be invited to the party: people from the office, friends, neighbors …a mix of all three? This will help flush out other details, including the menu
and time, and whether it’s a formal event or a more casual, open house.
The second decision—“when?”—can be a little more difficult to pin down, but you have to figure out the best time for you. If that means a Saturday evening, plan it for a Saturday evening. If it’s a Sunday afternoon, put that date on your calendar. It will absolutely be impossible to take everyone’s schedule into consideration when planning a party, so make it work for you.
One trend gaining popularity is the “Holiday Open House,” which is what our host and hostess opted for. “Having an open house in the late afternoon is perfect during the busy holiday season due to the flexibility. Most likely, you’re not conflicting with weekend evening parties and events. With an open house, guests are not required to be there at a set time, or for the duration of the party. If there is a conflict, most guests can work around that and drop in for a few moments. Because of the flexible hours, it’s a great way to have a lot of guests, who most likely will be coming and going,” she says.
Once those details are set, the fun begins. Formal, printed invitations, while lovely, are no longer required—even among the most etiquette-minded. Store-bought invitations in winter or holiday themes can often be personalized in about a week. For those who don’t have the budget or time for printed versions, invitations can also be emailed to guests. Websites offering these environmentally-friendly options often have options to send reminders to invitees, which is a nice feature during those frenzied days around the holidays, and include guests’ responses about whether they will be able to attend.
“I would recommend an ‘RSVP’ instead of the ‘regrets only’ we used on invitations,” says the homeowner. “We learned after the party that numerous invitations did not get to our guests due to some incorrect addresses and invitations being lost by the post office. The ‘RSVP’ allows you to call if you haven’t heard from a guest. You get a more accurate head count, and avoid paying for ‘no shows’ as well as hurt feelings.”
Regardless of what type of invitations are sent, it’s considerate to note whether children are included, and whether the gathering will be a dressy or more casual affair.
Bring us Some Figgy Pudding
As with any entertaining, what to serve is one of the biggest and most intimidating questions. While some have no problem preparing dozens of dishes while maintaining inner peace, others aren’t programmed that way. There is no shame in asking for help.
“Because people don’t do it all the time, they want to really have a great time, and a great event,” says Cissa Willman, who runs Avenue Foods Catering on Rivermont Avenue with her two sisters. While holidays are among their busiest times, Willman says a successful party—whether you have it catered or not—is about forming a realistic vision for what is possible. “The three of us are no strangers to the catering business … our mother, Cissa Basten, and her close friend Laurie Babcock owned a catering business, (so) we grew up going to parties and celebrations and being a part of many special occasions.”
Her jumping-off point with clients is to decide on a budget, listening to their expectations—serving beef tenderloin and salmon will be at a different price point than a cheese platter and desserts—and really communicate about what’s important to the host and hostess.
When developing a menu, she suggests sticking with items that, silly as this sounds, are easy to eat, and that you know and love. “You never want people to say, ‘What was that?’ after they taste something—unless it’s in the, ‘That was so great, what was that?’ way,” says Willman. Hosts will elevate themselves to superstar status when they offer a variety of items that accommodate various food preferences and/or allergies. Offer a few gluten-free dishes, a few vegetarian options, and skip peanut dishes.
Then there is the actual serving of food.
If you’re going it alone, it’s a great idea to get out serving dishes well ahead of time, and label them (drop an index card in with the name of the planned dish, along with a serving utensil), so you can make sure things will fit where you’re envisioning them. Keep in mind too that each guest will need at least one plate, napkins, utensils and glasses for their drinks. Plastic is one way to go—it’s become much more refined since elementary school sporks—but can be wasteful. Renting china is another way
“For the purists, we can provide china,” says Willman, adding she has multiple storage units filled with serving dishes and china in various patterns. “That way, you’re not going to worry about what will happen if someone drops your $100 plate or the special one that belonged to your grandmother.”
Rod Meek, an event designer in Lynchburg, says another thing to consider when serving food is traffic flow. Creating two or three different food areas—a dessert bar, for instance, away from the other food—along with a separate beverage bar, will help guests circulate and might help spark conversations.
“For the desserts, we decided to have a coffee/dessert bar served in the kitchen dining room rather than the formal dining room,” says this party hostess. “This helped with the flow and gave our guests the opportunity to mingle in other areas of the house.”
Both Meek and Willman agree that it’s a good idea when throwing a party to offer a full bar, and if there are more than 40 guests, they urge hosts to consider hiring a bartender. Another trend: the signature cocktail. While they agree that this is a fun trend, they suggest you serve it in smaller glasses, and make it available early in your event, so that if guests prefer their own favorite drink, they aren’t stuck drinking a pumpkin-spiced or cinnamon-swirled libation. And be sure to offer a festive, non-alcoholic option or two, as well.
Decking the Halls
Meek says creating a party atmosphere is much more than just throwing some flowers on the table. There are flowers, of course, and decorating throughout the home, but it’s also about taking off doors if necessary, moving chairs or other pieces of furniture to allow traffic flow, and creating smaller conversation areas where people can feel comfortable.
He says homeowners can never go wrong if they turn toward nature’s beauty when considering decorating for entertaining. Sticking with what is local and in season is smart, he says, and cost effective. Our area has everything from beautiful deep evergreens, to lighter shades with more delicate needles, to magnolia leaves. Holly and cedar berries can add color, as will
an arrangement of fruit—lemons in a glass container—and even just a collection of sticks (spray painted the same color) or various pinecones.
“I tell people who are doing it themselves to go foraging,” says Meek. “Look for things that are unique in nature, organic, and things you like.”
To unify elements throughout the entertaining spaces, he suggests one central focal point—“a beautiful table is a must”—and repeating elements.
For this open house, Meek used an idea the homeowners had and created arrangements with lime green button mums and white orchids, “which played off the Christmas theme beautifully,” says the hostess. “In addition, Rod brought in fresh greens he had collected, and arranged the massive garlands over the arched doorways inside and out. and the stair banister. We kept the fireplace mantels rather simple and used lime-green silk ribbon throughout the home to tie it all together. The greenery really transformed the house into a naturally warm and inviting Christmas setting.”
For those on a tighter budget, Meek says, you can make a centerpiece that features a low platter of pansies—think lasagna-pan sized—with a layer of moss covering the soil and a contrasting ribbon winding throughout the display. Then, to create cohesion throughout, use moss and ribbon in other, smaller arrangements, and place any extra cut pansies alongside the food on serving trays
Low, glass vessels to hold fresh flowers are always on point, and it’s almost impossible, says Meek, to have too many candles, as long as they vary in height and do not pose any fire hazards. Meek also says to be sure to buy candles that are large enough to remain lit for the duration of the party.
“The ideal is for people to engage with the decorations, to connect to them in some way… These elements are more than just a visual experience,” says Meek.
A festive atmosphere can also be enhanced with music. If your house isn’t wired for sound, consider moving wireless speakers throughout the entertaining spaces and hooking them up to cell phones or computers to play soft holiday music.
In the Days Before …
To give yourself plenty of time to attend to last-minute details—filling those dishes, running to the store for more ice, and finding the matches to light all those glorious candles—use the time before the party to get super detail oriented. The more things you can accomplish the day before the party, the more relaxed you’ll be the day of.
Make a master check list; sit down and figure out who will be in charge of what, and especially, what can be done ahead of time.
If you’re providing your own food, put together a list of what needs to be done and when, including a timeline, so that things go smoothly. If they don’t (life happens too!), you can have a handle on what to rearrange. Polish your silver and press your linens well ahead of time. Create a place to store coats for your guests and figure out who will take them upon arrival.
If you’re using your own dishes or plastic, make sure guests can easily understand where to dispose of them. Trash cans and recycling cans, for example, should be easy to find.
If children are included in the event, be sure to have some age-appropriate things for them—a cute holiday DVD for example, in a spot out of the main area, or coloring books or puzzles.
On the day before, check to make sure the bathroom/s are clean and that there is an extra roll of toilet paper that is easily found. Put a hand-soap pump and a deodorizing spray on a pretty platter that also holds single-use hand towels. Consider a candle or small arrangement in these areas, too.
On the Day
Make sure if you’re taking care of the food and drinks yourself that you allow plenty of time to heat things through and that the table is ready to go when the guests arrive. Leave enough time, too, to get yourself ready. Sounds like a no-brainer, but, sometimes time slips by too quickly.
“My biggest piece of advice is to try not to make it too much,” Meek says. “You have to have good food and lovely flowers and enjoy your own party.”
A fantastic host greets guests at the door, takes their coats, and offers them drinks within a few minutes of their arrival. It’s also great to show visitors where the food is, and to introduce those who might not know each other.
The time will whizz by. If you’re taking care of your own food, you will run to check the table every 20 minutes, make sure guests’ glasses are full, and by some miracle, you will not run out of food, and the thing that you thought would be gone first, will not be gone at all.
And once all the guests leave—merry, because everyone loves to be invited to a terrific party—you have to clean up. Unless you’ve called on professionals. As part of their fees, they will wrap up all the leftovers for you, including reheating instructions if necessary, bundle up the linens and china and glasses, and whisk it all away. And if you happen to have an extra flower arrangement or two, you can always give some away to the stragglers.
“When the hosts are calm and enjoying themselves, the guests are too! Again, this all goes back to the organization of the party and allowing yourself enough time. It always takes longer than you think,” says our hostess. “By planning ahead and thinking of all the details ahead of time, your only worry should be the weather! We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and feel our guests did too!”