By Adam Sobsey and Heather Mallory

‘Tis the season of giving: thanks, gifts, charity – and parties. With the holidays comes the joyful conviviality of opening our doors to our friends and colleagues, and to the wider circles in which we travel throughout the year. This is itself a form of thanksgiving: gratitude for all the company we keep in life, from the office to the outdoors, confidantes to casual acquaintances.

The paradox of hosting parties, especially at the holidays, is that party planning and hosting can stress the host – and if the host isn’t having a good time, no one else will. We gathered ideas and thoughts from professionals in the business of hospitality, from décor to drink, on how to make your party the kind that people – including you – will be excited for every year.

PLANNING
The best way to reduce stress is by planning ahead – “make a timeline and a checklist,” says Deborah Davis, the impresario behind Social Butterfly Events (socialbutterflyusa.com). Send invitations early. “Although evites have become very popular,” says John Griffin of ThemeWorks (facebook.com/themeworkscreative), a Raleigh mecca for party and event services and furnishings, “nothing beats receiving an invitation in the mail.”

If you’re unsure about party size, observe a trusty axiom: “Have a better party and fewer guests,” Davis says. If you are throwing a larger party, you may want to consider hiring an event planner. They won’t necessarily break the bank, conserving your budget for food, drink and décor while freeing you from many burdens. “Three hundred dollars is probably the most you’d need to spend,” Davis says.

THEME AND DÉCOR
Although professional opinions differed on some of the finer points, nearly all of them had this piece of advice for throwing a great party: keep it simple. “I find myself easily stressed when entertaining at home,” Griffin says. “Don’t overthink it. Decorations can be as simple as a beautiful wreath on the door and a decorated Christmas tree in your home.”

 If you’re not using traditional seasonal decorations (e.g. Christmas or Chanukah), design still needn’t be complicated, nor should it be: too much fuss makes for a convoluted party. Event planner Grace Beason (graceleisureevents.com) recommends “to think about your house and how it flows, and find a single element that ties it all together. It could be as simple as gold accents everywhere, even gold linens and flatware.” She also recommends CE Rental for their “really special, spectacular linens. They’re a really nice touch, and you don’t have to have as much floral décor.”

You’ll probably want some flowers, though, and The English Garden, Fresh Affairs, Kelly Odom, and The Watered Garden all come highly recommended. “You can also call people from your local garden club,” Deborah Davis says. “They love making arrangements.” And there’s plenty of flora right in our backyards. “I like North Carolina’s natural greenery,” says Aldena Frye, whose Aldena Frye Floral and Event Design (aldenafryeflorist.com) is just outside Pinehurst. “We use magnolia, camellia, nandina. I also like vegetables and fruits. During the holidays I use a lot of red pears, and preserved dried oranges. You can brush them with a little bit of gold if you like. And of course, being in the middle of pine country, we use a lot of pine.”

“If you want to do more décor using in-depth props,” Grace Beason says, “ThemeWorks is great. If you want to create a winter wonderland in your house, they have everything. For something more chic and elegant, they can rent you a free-standing mahogany bar.” No matter what kind of bar you use, ThemeWorks’ Griffin advises “having it set up in one area and food set up in another. That allows guests to mix and mingle more naturally, and it seems to make the gathering more social and relaxed.”

It’s easy to overlook a simple but important design element: lighting. David Watson, the owner of Get Lit (getlitspecialeventlighting.com), says: “If you’re going to spend hundreds of dollars on décor, flower arrangements and a holiday cake that’s a work of art, spend 50 dollars on lighting so you can see it.”

Watson also suggests thinking about your home’s exterior – not just lighting it, but partying on it. “During the holidays in North Carolina,” he says, “it’s often warm enough to host a party outdoors.” (Rented heat lamps can compensate for colder temperatures.) “Often we’ll upwash trees in different colors, sometimes in blue that resembles winter light. Sometimes we’ll do the whole house. We can even make it snow with our little bubble machines.”

But do make sure you have plenty of candles – “you can’t go wrong with candles,” Griffin says. Frye adds: “I believe candlelight is the best thing in the world. Well, maybe a martini is better, but candlelight is second-best.”

FOOD AND BEVERAGE
“If you get the food and drink right,” Beason says, “everything else tends to be okay.” For a smaller party, you can provide your own food, but Griffin suggests sticking mostly with “foods that are purchased ready to serve: cheese, nuts, and so on.” Beason agrees. “Around the holidays,” she says, no matter their usual diets, “people will eat cheese all night, especially specialty cheeses.” (But be wary of raw vegetables, which tend to be left largely uneaten. Try grilled or roasted vegetables instead, which are more flavorful and partake of seasonal produce like winter squash.)

For any larger gathering, “find a great local caterer,” Beason advises. Among the many advantages to working with caterers – aside from relieving the host of the responsibility, which includes cleaning up the kitchen afterward – is that they can easily accommodate any level of cuisine and formality (and dietary restrictions), from simply dropping off food for you to lay out yourself to serving a fully staffed, multi-course, formal dinner.

Most parties fall somewhere in-between. “I find that people seem to enjoy a party more if it’s not a sit-down dinner,” Griffin says. The preference is for bite-sized foods that guests can eat while standing. “You’re creating an atmosphere where people are grazing throughout the night,” Beason says. Also atmospheric are foods that “kick in the sense of the holidays,” says Daniel Whitaker, proprietor of the ecologically-minded Green Planet Catering (greenplanetcatering.com) in Cary. (Green Planet maintains its own sustainable farm site, works with many local growers and purveyors, and runs its trucks on biodiesel fuel.)

“What kind of feeling does the food invoke when you taste it?” Whitaker asks. At the holidays, “One bite, I’m back in my mother’s kitchen.” He likes to reimagine holiday-season flavors in canapes like turkey roulade: stuffing rolled up in sliced turkey breast and drizzled with gravy; or a stuffed crescent pastry dough topped with cranberry relish.

For beverages, hot punch makes sense for both seasonality and convenience (you can make it well ahead of time). Holiday parties are also great settings for wines that “offer voluptuous personalities and generous perfumes,” says Mic Finger of Wine Authorities (wineauthorities.com). His top pick is a Loire Valley Viognier, “De Butte en Blanc,” by Domaine Robert Serol. At just $11.99, it fits the party-giving bill: at the holidays, fine wine and liquor are unnecessary; drink is more an accessory to fun than serious sipping. On that note, Finger also suggested an economical but good-quality three-liter box (equivalent to four bottles) of Chinon Rouge by Domaine Gouron. The Cabernet Franc-based wine is flavorful and intense but “isn’t massively full-bodied,” Finger says, making it easier on the palate and head (and better with finger foods) as the night goes on. And it’s good for parties because it can be decanted into attractive serving vessels of your choice.

Finger also suggested hard cider, whose fall flavors complement the season – especially pear ciders like Eric Bordelet’s, and the Poiré Domfront from Pacory: “a highly versatile, clean, refreshing crowd-pleaser,” Finger says. Ciders are also lower in alcohol, which tempers the more freewheeling drinking environment of the holidays.

Two ways to control that environment are to forgo hard liquor and to hire a bartender: “It’s not a big expense, and it’s so nice to have,” Davis says – a gracious and elegant service touch. “A bartender can also keep the beverage area neat and stocked,” Griffin adds.” If you’re having a long party, Davis recommends offering alternative transportation via a car service, perhaps even hiring students as drivers. “You want your guests to know that they can enjoy and leave your house without any problems.” (One note: if you do serve liquor, caterers aren’t licensed to sell it, although they can serve it; many have specialty cocktail recipes, which they can mix from liquor you purchase. You might also hire a company like Pour Bar Services (pourbarservices.com), which provides everything from purchase to pouring – and liability insurance coverage, as well.)

Hiring service staff is strongly encouraged. “I always like having a helper roam my home, keeping everything neat, picking up glassware, and keeping restrooms clean,” Griffin says. Of course, all reputable caterers will have a trained, unobtrusive staff that can give the entire night a pleasantly heightened, soigné feel.

ENTERTAINMENT
Most professionals agreed that entertainment generally isn’t necessary at the holidays. For example, “Live music is often distracting,” Griffin says. If you’d like to add that touch, Davis recommends finding some “talented high school seniors who could play as a duo or a quartet before the dinner hour.” Generally, recorded music, played at lower volumes, suffices. Cheerful company and the high spirits of the season are the best entertainment and refreshment.

That’s a good way to approach the entire party, from music to munchies to mistletoe. Molly Rohde, of Seaboard Studio 123 in Raleigh, calls herself “the go-to girl for event planners, decorators and style mavens all over the state of North Carolina.” She recalls a major setback before a holiday dinner party years ago: “The Christmas tree fell over, half an hour before everybody came,” she says. “We just left it on the floor.” But how to distract guests from such a catastrophe? She laughs and says, “Pour ‘em a drink.”

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