I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but a good holiday party is hard to beat. I like every single phase of a party, from initial idea to invitation design to menu planning to decorating to getting gussied up to the actual fête to the clean-up afterwards to the hazy, next-day pleasure of reliving laughs and moments. Most basically, I love parties because they bring people together to celebrate something: each other, an occasion and/or a life event. It's possible my party love comes from having grown up in southern Louisiana, a place that really, really knows how to embrace revelry. I mean, we even have parties for funerals down there. Somewhat interchangeably known as wakes or jazz funerals, these traditions draw heavily from European, African and Haitian cultural practices and include music, marching and very vocal celebrations of the deceased person's life. This doesn't invalidate mourning but, rather, allows people to do so while also finding solace in music, shared memories, laughter and community. I have always hoped that when I pass away, my family will celebrate my life and their memories of me with such a party.
I think I try to infuse this Louisianan joie de vivre into festivities whenever possible. Tom doesn't really get why I make such a big fuss over his and the boys' birthdays, and though he's a great co-host, he'd never host anything if left to his own devices. My mom, who loves to party as much as anyone I've ever met, nonetheless hates the planning and anticipation. She used to pay me, literally, to worry for her before any gathering she and Dad hosted. This worked out well for me because I got paid to be excited.
Tips for ensuring party success and having fun the whole time
Because I like to do all the work of planning, decorating and cooking, I have found it imperative to prepare strategically. Do what can be done early, real early. Like, if your party is on Saturday, you should count and wash all your glassware, linens, silverware and serving platters on, say, Monday. Once you've set your menu, put a sticky-note on each platter and bowl, noting what dish will go in it. Set your table the day before the event, make sure you have candles if you plan to use them, put your ice chest out so that you don't neglect to buy or make extra ice. Get out your coasters, make sure you have cocktail napkins. Is your bathroom stocked with soap, extra toilet paper and fresh linens? Do you want music, and if so, what? Playlists can made well in advance! Is your dress clean? You'll likely need to run to the store every day- allow time for that.
It is equally important to draw up the menu in advance, making sure that it includes a healthy mix of dishes that can be made ahead. Once you've got a sense of what you want to serve, write up a daily schedule starting with the earliest day you can make anything. For example, Julia Child's Reine de Saba cakes freeze beautifully. I made mine a full week in advance to get them out of the way. The schedule started there and moved forward, day by day, with a manageable to-cook list on each. Remember that anything you make and freeze will later need to be thawed; write that on your schedule if there's any chance you'll forget. Make more than you think you'll need. You will never be happy to run out of food. You will always be happy to have delicious leftovers the next day.
As so many people these days have a variety of dietary limitations and preferences, consider a menu that has something for everyone. I always have ample, top-notch vegetarian fare, for example, and also a decent proportion of items that are pork-free. If you know of a guest with a rare allergy, be sure to quietly mention to him/her what on your table doesn't include that ingredient. I like to set my table like a buffet, make small placards with the name and primary ingredients of each dish, and stand those in place-card holders in front of each platter or serving bowl. This prevents confusion and potential unease and also allows folks to casually choose just what they want to eat with zero to-do or public notice.
I'm not big on themes or overwrought matchy-matchy stuff, but infusing something subtle can be fun and cool. Last night, for example, I had Louisiana specialties interspersed throughout the meal: Bourbon milk punch is a traditional celebratory cocktail so I prepped three quarts to serve as the third option in the wine-champagne-other trifecta. Cheese straws were present at pretty much every party I went to growing up; really, a holiday fête just doesn't feel complete to me without them. (Also, they get better over a few days so meet the what-can-be-made-in-advance need very nicely.) I also had a cheese board of Port Salut and Tabasco pepper jelly out, and one of my three desserts was a duo of pecan pies with fleur-de-lis pie crackers nestled in the center of each.
If you enjoy hosting and wish to do so somewhat regularly, consider investing in a "party box" each of wine and water glasses. The first such box I ever bought was a set of 18 wine glasses at Costco. They were glass but inexpensive and dishwasher-safe, which is the best of all worlds. Wine in plastic cups makes me sad unless they're nice, acrylic ones and I'm on a picnic or at an outdoor concert. Dishwasher safe anything is liberating, and if the price point is right, you won't fret over the inevitable broken one per event. After many years, we're down to 4 of that original box, so I've just replenished. While I was at it, I bought 14 water/highball glasses which are indispensable. I think they were $1.95 each at Crate & Barrel. Nice!
Do you know what my new favorite party assistant is? Wine glass markers! Put several out wherever you've set your bar and encourage people to write their names on their glasses. You don't own 85 goblets, right? This prevents constant setting down and immediate loss of one's own glass, wastes less booze and is fun. The writing washes off so easily, too!
Consider using real silveware, plates and platters rather than disposable items. Doing so is the equivalent of getting dressed or staying in your PJs: the latter is more comfortable, but you will feel different, a little gussied?, if you don real clothes!
In your home, how many guests are too few? How many are too many? Are there folks you've been wanting to get to know better? Are there people who mix like oil and water? Are there people you love who just don't love parties? Keep all these questions in mind as you plan your guest list. And remember to count the number of seats you have -chairs, couches, ottomans, whatever- to make sure that everyone can sit at any given time if they so choose.
If you plan to host a party during a busy time of year, consider sending a save the date six or eight weeks in advance. Not only are save the dates exciting teasers, but they can also help you get a sense of who is free and who's not. Remember to follow up with a formal invitation! Increasingly, people are utilizing online invitations, but if you can swing it, I think paper invites win every single time. They're tangible, can be hung as an easy reminder of fun to come, and hey, who doesn't love to get real, non-bill mail?
If you are comfortable and relaxed, your guests will be too. Organize, rest in advance, leave plenty of time to get dressed and do your make-up, put on a pair of heels and have a ball!