Ideas and Advice for Planning Holiday Gatherings

The flower cooler at Trapp and Company is filled with gorgeous blooms available by the stem, including these luscious David Austin roses.

Kansas City’s haute gaysoise, in their social wisdom, have developed a useful and amusing colloquialism: “N.I.,” code for “Not Invited.” Some examples of usage might include: 

“Where’s Don?”


“Ezra would love to go, but it appears he is N.I.”

Or, as an interjection, to protest one’s own exclusion:

“Terry and Dan and I went to dinner last night and—”

If you’ve found yourself N.I. to a thing or two recently, maybe it’s time to plan your own merry gathering. It’s November and the party-giving season is hard upon our heels, so chop chop, friend. Here is some gentle guidance for hosting holiday fetes.

What makes for an inspired party?

I say this most emphatically: a Pinterest-worthy home is not essential for your guests to have a blast. Some of the liveliest parties are at ordinary abodes, with outdated kitchens and less-than-fashionable furnishings. Remember that people are all a-tingle to be invited to someone’s home, no matter how humble.

Great hosts give serious thought to logistics. For a big party, you might need to rearrange your furniture—or even move it out altogether—to create the best flow and surge space. For a smaller party, make sure you have intimate groupings, so guests can sit close together and sip and gab.

Ambience, ambience, ambience

Music gives a party energy (email me for a list of my favorite holiday party CDs), but not at a volume that drowns out conversation. It’s wonderful to have a professional at a piano, tickling the ivories, or in the corner, strumming a guitar.

Soft, romantic lighting makes everybody look good and hides the pet hair. Quash the overhead lights and put 15-watt light bulbs (I get mine online) in all your lamps; you’ll be pleased with how pretty your house looks. You might need a bit stronger lighting in the kitchen and bar areas, but avoid anything over 40 watts, unless you have to perform emergency surgery.

The olfactory sense is closely connected to emotion and memory, so make your house smell divine. KC’s own Ursula Terrasi has launched a killer scented-candle line called Sempre Beve, available online and at her Plaza shop, Terrasi Living and Scandia Down. Her Champagna scent has a hint of evergreen; perfect for the holidays.

Fresh things work miracles

Leave money in your budget for fresh flowers, which add life and cheer to even the most ho-hum room. A hundred bucks can go a very long way at wholesale clubs and even many grocery stores, which offer nice blooms at great prices. And many area florists, in addition to creating beautiful bouquets, daily sell flowers directly from their cooler. Even better, they often reduce prices on individual stems late in the day.

Small, tight clusters of deep-red or white roses look beautiful at holiday time. A bowl of clementines and figs dresses up a tabletop, as does a basket of polished apples and spruce twigs—or pomegranates, with tiny branches of bittersweet tucked here and there.

Poinsettias are a bit cliché, but I love the rich, saturated red of a classic poinsettia. And poinsettias are definitely better than nothing.

The classic holiday cocktail party

Hosting a big holiday cocktail party can make you a hero among your friends and is a fine way to reciprocate hospitality you’ve enjoyed through the year. It’s fun to bring everybody together under your roof. Consider co-hosting a party with a dear friend; it divides the burden and doubles the merriment. 

There’s a reason the conventional cocktail party invitation is for two hours: spread it out for the entire evening and you won’t get that electric, butt-to-butt crowd that makes a cocktail party fun. You can always encourage people to stay later, once the party is raging and everyone is enjoying themselves. Don’t be stingy with your invitations. It’s better to over-invite than under-invite. People like to walk into at a party that looks like a sell-out crowd.

Turn your dining table into a bountiful, self-serve bar or, if you have the funds for it, do hire a bartender and if further funds, a server. Make it easy for guests to get a drink very soon after they arrive. I love being welcomed with a glass of bubbly. Consider having someone greet guests with a tray full of prosecco or Champagne flutes—nothing will get your party off the ground faster. Or assemble a combo platter of vodka tonics, white wine and Pellegrino water with lime. You could mix a special drink in quantity. My new favorite holiday drink is the Whiskey and Maple Syrup Sour, delicious and very easily multiplied—email me for the recipe.

Clockwise from top: Whether rented or purchased in bulk, classic stemmed wine glasses can serve a variety of libations. Single-bite canapés are most appropriate for a cocktail party nibble. Dress up a table top with a bowl of fresh fruit.

Fork off, people

Finger food is best for cocktail parties. Don’t make your guests juggle plates, forks and drinks. People deeply appreciate having food passed butler-style. Even if you have staff, at the height of the party walk around with a serving tray of nibbles for your guests. It’s a great way to connect with everyone individually. Email me for my favorite recipes for make-ahead cocktail food.

Quantities should be ample

For booze: on average, assume your guests will have two drinks per hour. There are approximately five glasses of wine per bottle; most mixed drinks are made with a one-ounce shot of liquor. A one-liter bottle of booze contains enough for 32 mixed drinks. Mixers are usually poured in four-ounce portions. One liter of mixer will make eight drinks.

For food: Figure on six bites per person per hour, more if your guest list has a lot of men or if people aren’t going on to dinner. People will eat more of the beloved favorites, like anything fried or cheesy, so plan for more of those items. The more options you have, the fewer you will need of each one.

And finally, the glassware lecture

Try to avoid using plastic glasses, which make even good wine taste wretched. It doesn’t cost much to rent glassware if you pick it up and drop it off. You don’t have to wash it, just plop it right back into the crate. Glassware should not be a deal-breaker though, darling. It’s better to have a party with plastic than no party at all.


The Perfect Cocktail Nibble

This is a fabulously versatile recipe. Make these classic cheese puffs and serve them now, or pipe out the batter and freeze them on a baking sheet before transferring to a resealable bag and storing in the freezer to have on hand. Change the flavor with different cheeses, but Gruyére is traditional.

Makes about 50 Gougères

  • 1 cup water
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pats
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup flour
  • 4 eggs
  • Freshly grated nutmeg
  • Cayenne pepper
  • 1 cup grated Gruyère, plus more for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 400°. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone baking mats.

Combine 1 cup water, the butter, and the salt in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. As soon as the butter melts, add the flour, all at once. Stir over low heat until a smooth dough forms and a film starts to form on the bottom of the pan, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a stand-mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat for a minute or so to cool the mixture slightly.

Beat in the eggs, one at a time, making sure each one is completely incorporated before adding the next. Add a dash of nutmeg, a pinch of cayenne, and the 1 cup Gruyère and beat to combine. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a large plain tip and pipe out the mixture into small mounds on the baking sheets, about the size of a cherry tomato, about 2 inches apart. Sprinkle with more grated cheese and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden and puffed and not too moist inside, or they may collapse. Let cool in the oven for 5 minutes with the heat off and the door ajar. Serve immediately, or cool and freeze and then reheat in a 350° oven before serving.


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