Winter is arguably the best time of year for hosting parties. Summer parties require outdoor space and likely, a grill, spring weather is incredibly unpredictable (and is basically winter), and in the fall, everyone’s busy going apple picking and wine tasting. The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, in particular, is the perfect sweet spot for gathering with friends and family inside your home—and it doesn’t take much more than what you already have on hand.
That said, any good party requires a bit of prep work (but not too much… don’t overthink it!) to ensure things run smoothly. Below, find our favorite ideas for festive drinks, plate-clearing foods, fun games, and setting the mood.
Whether or not your guests drink alcohol, the fact remains that humans need liquids in order to survive (and be merry, while they’re at it). It’s crucial to put a bit of thought into who’s coming and what they might want to drink, and ensure you have it on hand should the need arise. Mom loves a sweet Riesling? Get it chilled. Your friend only drinks bourbon? Stock up the bar cart.
Pick a Signature Drink
Sure, you can hover over the bar and shake up craft cocktails to order… but that doesn’t leave much time for enjoying yourself. There are plenty of drinks that can be batched beforehand (like mulled wine, which can actually be made in a slow cooker), as well as ones that can bet set up as a DIY station for guests to easily make themselves (like a holiday twist on a mimosa with champagne and pomegranate syrup). Set out a simple recipe and let them figure it out.
Another trick for drink prepping comes from sommelier couple Joe and Celia Catalino, who pre-batch drinks in mason jars before their guests arrive. “The jars make it easier to mix and store the drinks,” says Celia, “just pop on the lid—and guests can pour the drinks themselves. We learned that lesson years ago when we served a high-maintenance cocktail that needed to be made individually. Joe was basically the bartender the whole night.”
Set Up a Drink Station
Speaking of drink stations… it’s a simple enough vignette to set up, but will seriously impress every passerby. Things you mustn’t forget: a well-insulated ice bucket with tongs (and keep it restocked to avoid guests clogging the kitchen), a cocktail shaker, plenty of glasses, and ingredients to make a few different cocktails. Things that might take it to the next level: fresh greenery, adorable reusable straws, and festive drink stirrers.
Signal Bedtime With a Dessert Drink
No party is complete without food, and no party is ever lauded if there’s not enough food. Always prepare more food than you think, because a hungry guest is an unhappy guest. That said, this part need not be stressful.
Make it a Potluck
Etiquette expert Marian Bull said it best: “people love to be told what to do.” So tell them to bring something! Preparing seven different hors d'oeuvres isn’t going to make you the hero, it’s just going to make you tired. Delegate easy finger foods and dips to your guests who you know will want to be involved, and don’t be afraid to shop the Trader Joe’s frozen aisle. Their appetizers, after all, are second-to-none.
Do Only Dips
Okay, I stole this idea from Alyse Whitney, the dip kween. I’ve been following her on social media for long enough to see several iterations of her annual “Dip-mas” party with friends, where each of them brings a different dip and dipping vehicle (chips, veggies, fruit, etc.), and they fill up on dips all night long. Her specialty? A crab rangoon dip (which can be found on her Instagram) that flips the popular appetizer on its head.
There is simply nothing worse than looking around at your party and realizing that people aren’t mingling and don’t look like they’re having fun. Games are the most obvious solution, but that’s because they really bring people together. Whether everyone is into the game and enjoying themselves, or bonding about how ridiculous the rules are, keep these in your back pocket as a sure-fire way to revive the vibe.
Keep Boardgames On Hand
A collection of board and party games sounds like a “nice to have,” but when you’re entertaining, it’s actually a must. Lulls in conversations, and groups resistant to mingling, are no match for icebreaker-style games like Buzzed or The Voting Game. Once your guests have gotten to know each other a bit better, you can break out into more involved and competitive games like Exploding Kittens or guessing games like Hedbanz (you know the one, where everyone has a word on their head).
Everyone Loves Jeopardy
Or, if your friends and family are as nerdy as mine, play a seasonally-themed game of Jeopardy. Create teams with a few familiar friends and a few newbies to switch up the groups but make sure no one’s feeling like they’re having forced fun at summer camp. Creating an original game of Jeopardy is easier than you think with online templates, and might be just as fun as playing, too.
Set a Theme
The easiest activity that requires little to no effort on your part? A theme. Even loose themes, like “wear an ugly Christmas sweater,” or hosting a brunch as opposed to a formal dinner party gives your guests something to talk about and look forward to right from the start.
Create a Photobooth
Perhaps photo booths are a tad played-out at this point, but you know what isn’t? Having photos for you and your guests to remember a fabulous evening. This doesn’t have to be super professional or involved, either. A polaroid camera, a simple backdrop, and maybe a couple props are all you need to set your guests up for adorable mementos.
Light Lots of Candles
There is no easier way to make your home feel fancy than to simply cluster and light a bunch of candles. Taper candles, in particular, are an affordable way to convey a luxurious setting, so set a bunch out along the dining table, light some jarred candles on side tables, and definitely keep a scented one burning in the bathroom so no one feels smell-shy.
Create a Curated Playlist
Don’t, and I repeat don’t have a party without a dedicated playlist. Possibly the most important ambience factor is music, since it does, after all, set the tone. Peruse holiday playlists on Spotify or Apple Music and add your favorites to a seasonal mix. I like to have a backup playlist as well, for when everyone tires of Mariah Carey Christmas and needs a switch. Similar to stocking drinks, when you’re making a playlist, think about each of your guests that are coming and try to incorporate multiple genres and people’s favorite songs.
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