Tips for Planning Parties for the Holidays

One of the things people look forward to the most during the holiday season – besides the vacation part – is the holiday parties that go along with it. It’s a wonderful time to reunite with friends and family and eating wonderful dishes that you don’t get to eat on an everyday basis.

However, if you’re the host or hostess, the responsibility of making a great holiday party lands on your shoulders. It’s usually associated with some level of stress and pressure – financial, social, and beyond. Before you know it, the invitation you extended to people you love becomes the one you come to regret.

Invite people early.

You may not start thinking about the holidays until after Halloween, but your friends and family’s seasonal calendars might fill up fast, especially on the precious few weekends in December. Inviting them in advance ensures that the guests you really want there will be available for the party. And this way, they can also prepare in advance and set their schedules.

Choose a theme and stick with it.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re hosting a family-only party or a large gathering; setting a tone will help you achieve maximum holiday feel-good status. It can be as simple as a color scheme, a seasonal item, or even a holiday song. Not only choosing a theme can help you plan, but it can also set your holiday party apart from others.

There’s the classic ugly sweater party, Santa and reindeers, and the rustic red-and-green theme – but what about turning it into something unexpected, like a beach-themed Christmas party complete with pineapples, mojitos, and beach balls? When setting your theme on a seasonal item, like cranberries, you can set up floating cranberries and candles on the table, serve a cranberry spritzer cocktail and a cranberry chocolate cake for dessert. When it comes to the color scheme, you can consider white Christmas or silver and gold, and then ask your guests to dress accordingly.

When deciding on a theme, think about your guests, not just about what you want. Will they like it or be comfortable with it? For instance, you won’t like to host a holiday party that involves wild fun and dirty dancing if there are people on your guest list that honor the holiday as the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Do not host a royal and grand Christmas party where you will ask everyone to come dressed up in long gowns and tuxedos if some of your guests are struggling financially.

Think about what will be fun for everyone. If you’re celebrating with your girlfriends, you can hold a cocktail tasting party or a karaoke party. If your family are movie fans, you can try a movie theme and show holiday favorites with lots of popcorn. If there will be lots of kids, try a winter wonderland theme, Christmas Candyland, or a circus-themed celebration.

Once you have chosen a theme, decorate around it, keep your food and drink selection fitting to it so that you won’t get overwhelmed by lots of options.

Create to-do lists.

Perhaps the best way to create a stress-free holiday is to have a list and live by it. Plan ahead, and don’t be afraid to delegate. As a host, know what you are able and comfortable doing and give other people things to do. Asking guests to help makes them feel more involved, so don’t be afraid to ask – they are your family and friends anyway. Take a list of the people you are inviting, the food to be served and how much, who will be bringing things, what games and activities to prepare, and what decorations to use and buy. Don’t forget the gifts (if you’re planning to give holiday gifts), as well as things to keep your house clean and to smell nice, like air fresheners and garbage bags.

Take inventory.

Before spending hundreds on groceries and party supplies, take a look at what you already have. Whether it’s fancy plates, a stack of holiday décor, seasonal tablecloths, and table runners – make it easier on yourself and use it for the party. You may even want to build your theme around it, so you only have to buy fewer items. And if you have to purchase new decorations, avoid going overboard. As long as you have a Christmas tree and some garlands, it would be fine for a traditional holiday gathering.

Stick to the budget.

If you are hosting a Christmas party, you don’t have to blow up your budget. The best parties aren’t necessarily the most expensive, so you don’t need to break the bank. Create a spreadsheet and itemize the ingredients and decorations you already have on hand. This will prevent you from having duplicated items, causing wasted time and money. 

 If you have more holiday spirit than cash, throwing a potluck party is a great way for guests to showcase their culinary skills or the pie from their favorite bakery – while saving you money. A host doesn’t need to shoulder everything.

Always overestimate food and beverage.

The last thing you want to worry about in the midst of the party is running out of food and drinks, leaving your guests hungry and thirsty. Yes, you may wind up with leftovers, but it’s best to send your guests home with take-out boxes than leaving them still hungry and ordering at a McDonald’s drive-thru on the way home.

Cook ahead of time.

Prepare your menu ahead of time, so you’ll have less time in the kitchen and more time mingling with the guests on the day of the party. Whatever menu items can be prepared ahead of time, prepare them before the day of the party. Make quiches and tarts in advance – they freeze well, and you can just heat it up before serving. You can also serve slow cooker dishes that stay warm throughout the party and punches that knock it out of the park.

Ask and accept help.

Even if you love to cook and your creations are amazing, attempting to make everything for your party from scratch is a recipe for disaster. Whip up a couple of signature dishes, but make your life easier and buy the rest. For instance, you don’t have to bake your own cupcakes – there are lots of bakers you can order customized cupcakes from.

And once your family and friends hear that you’ll be hosting a holiday party, chances are they will ask how they can help or volunteer to bring food or do things. Accept your aunt’s offer to bring her cookies and your sister’s suggestion that she arrive early to help set up for the party. You may also consider hiring outside help, such as a cleaning crew, because honestly, who loves cleaning up after a fun day? Being open to helping hands will help you relax and enjoy the party better.

Designate a dessert table.

Holidays just aren’t the same without sweets. Candy canes, Christmas cookies, pies, gingerbread cookies, pastries, holiday cupcakes, and seasonal candies are what get most of us excited about the season. Whether you bake or buy them, it helps to have a separate table to serve all those glorious treats and desserts. Plan the space to allow last-minute additions from guests who decide to bring something.

Make the bar self-service.

Spend more time mingling with your guests than playing bartender by setting up a self-serve beverage station. Offer pre-made signature cocktails, holiday punch, or juice in beautiful beverage dispensers. You can add a small label to tell guests what they’re drinking. Also, save a spot for wine bottles and stemware or a station for beer or hot cocoa. The more self-serve options you offer, the more you will be able to relax and avoid being asked to get somebody a drink.

Arrange the party wisely.

Guests will always gather around food, so it’s best to put your food stations in areas where you want your guests to socialize. If you put your food in the kitchen, people will stay there. For best flow, serve appetizers in different locations, forcing people to move around and mingle.

You may also check out our Fall Hostess Gift Ideas for recommendations on what to give party hosts.

Prepare some music.

Don’t forget to set the mood for your party with music. There’s no reason to hire a DJ, but you don’t want to forget about music completely. You can simply use an app like Spotify and connect your device to a speaker to play a fitting playlist. Remember to keep the music low since conversations are what counts for this type of celebration. Avoid music with lyrics during the dinner or luncheon hour, so conversations at the table won’t go unheard.

Playing games is also a good idea when it comes to holiday parties. If you need tips and recommendations, you may check out our Guide to Picking Fun Games for Holiday Parties.