Holiday Entertaining

Tips for Throwing a Merry Christmas Party, Large or Small

Christmas is tradition. It’s turkey and pudding, mince pies and brandy butter. It’s twinkling stars atop of Christmas trees, hot spiced mulled wine by the mugful, and carols playing softly in the background.

Photo by James Ransom

It's the same every year—and that very sameness is what makes it all so very charming. Part of the ritual of Christmas is the crescendo of anticipation over the course of the month of December. It’s the holiday parties and the chance to celebrate with loved ones and friends before you cozy down to celebrate with family on the day itself.

Every year we host a holiday party for friends; sometimes it might be for ten of our nearest and dearest, other times it’s a more informal affair for a larger crowd. Either way, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without it.

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Here's how to plan your own party (with sample menus)—whether it's buffet for 20 or a sit-down affair for 8:

Photo by Skye McAlpine

For Larger Parties (20+ guests)

For the food, buffet is simplest, with the dishes simply and generously laid out on the table. I like a combination of recipes that can be easily prepared in advance; served at room temperature (guests come and go at different times, so you want something that won’t wilt or spoil quickly); and/or can be store-bought (that just makes life easier). 

I like to keep it simple and traditional: baked ham and a tray or two of something hot, like roast potatoes, that can be prepared in advance, left to cook slowly and dished out over the course of the evening.

Photo by Skye McAlpine

For the drinks, a large saucepan of mulled wine bubbling away on the stovetop. Mulled wine permeates the house with that distinctive (and very merry) scent of Christmas. 

For the logistics, I lay out piles of plates, napkins, and cutlery, then let everyone help themselves. I mentally divide our living room and kitchen into "serving," "drinking," "mingling," and "eating" stations. I set out the food on one table, ideally with the plates and cutlery at one end or on a small table nearby so that guests can easily help themselves. The bubbling hot wine is on the stovetop, which serves as a drinks station, with an eclectic collection of glasses and mugs laid out nearby.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

If it’s a big party, I will also lay out a couple of small platters of mince pies and antipasti around the house so that people can nibble on those as they like. And finally, I like to clear our dining table so that guests can take their plate of food and sit down comfortably to eat it, should that take their fancy. Though I do invite many more than can be squeezed around the table: Some perch on the arm of the sofa, on the floor at the coffee table, stand and others move around.

That is all part of the charm of the buffet party: You get to see more people and catch up with them. It feels more informal, guests feel comfortable coming and going, arriving late or leaving early. 

For the decorations, there's the tree, of course, and then for the rest, I take the view that it’s mostly about creating a festive atmosphere. So Christmas carols playing, lots of candles flickering, and the heady scent of mulled wine cooking.

Photo by Skye McAlpine

A sample menu:
-Cheese straws
-Sausage and chard mini galettes
-Roasted ham (one or two joints, depending on how many you’re cooking for)
-Roast potatoes
-Red chicory salad with a smattering of pomegranate seeds (all very festive looking)
-Mince pies
-Honey, pine nut, and chocolate Christmas cake
-Chocolate yule log with a sweet chestnut filling

Photo by Skye McAlpine

For Smaller Sit-Down Dinners

Sit-down dinners, for me, are less about mustering up an array of Christmas fare and more about juggling oven space with grace and ease. Somehow, everything feels a little more formal at a sit-down dinner, though it's nice around the holidays to have a chance to dress up and spend time over a long, lingering dinner. There is a certain sense of occasion to the whole affair.

For the food, slow-roasted pork shoulder is a personal favorite. It’s not as traditional as turkey or goose, but it still has a festive flare. It’s an inexpensive cut of meat that melts in your mouth once it’s been tenderized in the oven. And the skin turns to heavenly, crisp salted crackling.

Above all there is very little to cooking it and it’s hard to go wrong. I score the skin with a knife and rub it with salt and lightly crushed fennel seeds, then put it a hot oven (as hot as you can get it) for 30 minutes until it begins to brown; then I lower the heat to 285° F (140° C) and cook for roughly 12 hours. The joy is that it doesn't spoil with a little under- or over- cooking, so it’s no matter if guests are running late.

For the rest of the menu, I toss a nice salad and prepare trays of Dauphinoise potatoes in advance, which I can warm up in the oven as the meat rests.

Photo by Skye McAlpine
Photo by Skye McAlpine

For the drinks, I might serve something a little more fancy: perhaps prosecco instead of mulled wine, with a few pomegranate seeds in each flute to give them a festive touch. Then bottles of red wine with dinner.

For the logistics, I like a mix of family style and plated. I lay out the starters in the center of the table before guests arrive, so that everyone can help themselves when they sit down. This also minimizes the need for table decorations, as the table looks beautiful full of food.

But when it comes to carving a roast, it's easier if someone takes charge. So I bring the joint of pork, all crispy and browned, to the table to carve, then I ask everyone to pass up their plates so that I can serve them myself. As for the side dishes, I just set them down in the middle of the table and encourage the guests to help themselves.

For the decorations, the tree, candles, and carols still stand, but I make the table and the meal the centerpieces of the event. I take care to set the table nicely (with a white linen table cloth, fine cutlery, and napkins); then I lay out place cards, and a Christmas cookie or small gift at each place.

Photo by Skye McAlpine

A sample sit-down menu:
-Burrata with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds
-Slow-roasted pork
-Red chicory salad with lightly toasted hazelnuts
-Dauphinoise potatoes
-Shallot and rosemary puff tart
-Panettone stuffed with a marzipan ice cream and dark chocolate or meringue, chocolate, and sugared chestnut cake

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Tory Nettleton
    Tory Nettleton
  • Jaime Alberto Flores
    Jaime Alberto Flores
Writer & home cook living la dolce vita in Venice


Tory N. December 16, 2015
any advice on where best to get two hams? i need to feed 25 people this weekend. eek.
Jaime A. December 4, 2015
Wow...I want to be a guest at your party!