When I was 8 years old or so, Santa brought me an Easy-Bake Oven. On Christmas morning I unwrapped it, plugged it in and proceeded to bake and eat every single one of the miniature cake mixes that came with it. To share some freshly baked cake with my brothers and sisters would have been the decent thing to do—and my first opportunity to do some holiday entertaining—but I ate them myself, quite shamelessly; they were all gone by noon and I spent the rest of the day with a stomachache.
Since then, I’ve gotten better at holiday entertaining. And I’ve attended quite a few enjoyable holiday gatherings at friends’ and relatives’ houses. In my last column, I gave advice for preparing massive holiday meals; in this I will describe three fun templates for getting together with friends over the holidays.
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
My dear friend Sidonie Garrett is the executive artistic director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and a respected member of Kansas City’s theater community. Every year, on a Monday in December when the theaters are dark, she invites a small group of old chums, thespians mostly, to help trim her Christmas tree. She loads the CD player with Bing Crosby, Elvis, and Motown Christmas albums, prepares eggnog, hot buttered rum, cookies, and savory snacks. She has her Christmas tree already set in its stand and pre-lit (a critical prerequisite, she says) with boxes of ornaments and hooks laid out, so when her guests arrive they can begin decorating immediately.
They hang ornaments for a few hours, chatting all the while, taking many snack and beverage breaks, and finally reach a point when they cannot squeeze another ornament on the tree. Sid asks everyone to leave the room, turns off all the lights except the magnificent tree shimmering in the corner, cranks up the music, and invites them back for the magical reveal. It’s always a moment of high drama—these are theater people, remember—and they all get a little verklempt.
Part of the rich tradition of Sid’s party is that her guests grumble loudly about how much work there is to do because she owns so many ornaments. Yet they also, in the generous illogic of dear friends, each bring her a new ornament to add to her vast collection. Another part of the tradition is the Ornament Exchange, which follows the Tree Reveal. She asks her guests to bring a wrapped ornament, which she then labels with a number that corresponds with numbers her guests draw from a hat. Then, at the end of the party she presents each of her guests with ornaments she has chosen especially for them.
Celebrate the Solstice
My old friend Susan Toft Everson is a terrific cook and hostess of Danish descent. Every year until the pandemic started, she and her husband, David, would host a big, fabulous party to celebrate the winter solstice, which falls on the 21st or 22nd day of December, depending on the year. Such parties are popular in Scandinavian countries, where the solstices provide huge cause for revelry. The Scandinavians are very strict about celebrating exactly on the day of the solstice, no moving it around for convenience’s sake, and the Eversons would follow their example. More than a decade ago, they moved from KC to St. Louis, where they continued to host the party. In both cities, their friends were able to mark their calendars well in advance, because no one wanted to miss this party.
Here’s what the party was like when they lived in KC. You would walk in the door and there was a fire roaring in the fireplace, wonderful music, abundant wine, and the best food you’ve ever eaten. Susan prepared an enormous cocktail buffet using Scandinavian recipes, many handed down from her grandmother. (Email me for her brown cookies, cardamom rolls, and liver pâté recipes.)
If you stuck around long enough, you would find yourself in the kitchen, knocking back an ice-cold shot of Aquavit, a Scandinavian distilled beverage, 40 percent alcohol in volume, believed to have valuable medicinal properties. My first time at this party, I learned how the Scandinavians toast each other by looking each other squarely in the eyes, saying “Skol!” and tossing down a shot of Aquavit, straight from the freezer. It’s a great way to meet people!
I don’t understand why one does not see more winter solstice invitations. While being seasonal, the solstice is not faith-specific and friends from every persuasion can feel included in the celebration, which is fun, with or without the Aquavit.
The Night Before the Night Before
I have always loved December 23rd, Christmas Eve eve. It’s not really a holiday, but you can feel the excitement and festivity in the air. Most people are off work the next day, and many of the labors of the holiday are finished. For years off and on, my husband and I have had a small group of close friends over for an intimate, very casual dinner on Christmas Eve eve. We never get around to calling anyone until the last minute, and I am always surprised that people are available, but they usually are. It’s so close to Christmas that the non-family parties have all been given, but the family obligations usually don’t begin until the next day.
I usually make something hearty and easy—a simple green salad with lasagna Bolognese is perfect. For dessert, I make plum duff out of Beyond Parsley. (Email me if you want the recipe.) It’s the best holiday dessert recipe in the world, almost as good as if it came from an Easy-Bake oven.
“Oh, You Shouldn’t Have!”
’Tis the season for hostess gifts, giving and receiving them. Here are some tips for being on both sides of the prezzie.
To give: Great gifts are everywhere! A box of chocolate truffles, a festive serving platter, or a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil are all fab gifts during the holidays, as is a book with an inscription from you, a framed photo from an earlier party, the latest hot game, or a bottle of premium hootch—something unusual like currant vodka or pear liqueur. If the party is on the large side, it’s thoughtful to have the gift tagged somehow, so the host knows who brought it.
To receive: When you receive a hostess gift, try not to let your thanks disappear amidst the introductions, taking of coats, and offering of drinks. A brief, heartfelt aside is all that’s needed to accept a gift graciously. If the gift is wrapped, leave opening it until after the guests leave. A handwritten thank you note is never required for a hostess gift, but a phone call, text, or email the next day is thoughtful.
Come bearing gifts
Elegant holiday hostess gifts
A hostess gift is never required for a holiday party, but it’s a thoughtful touch, especially if you’re not bringing a bottle of wine. Consider these holiday hostess gift suggestions:
- An amaryllis or paperwhites in a simple terracotta pot
- A tightly rounded bouquet of red or white carnations in a silver mint julep cup
- A festive serving platter
- A pound of “Christmas blend” coffee beans
- A Christmas tree ornament
- A bottle of pear liqueur
- A copy of A Kansas City Christmas cookbook. Published in 1994 by my friends Karen Adler and Jane Guthrie, this classic book is loaded with tried-and-true recipes, including one of mine. It’s out of print (making it that much more valuable) but still available through online booksellers.
Email me with your entertaining questions, dilemmas, or triumphs at email@example.com