Help for the Holidays



Illustration by Julia McLaughlin

Christmas party for about 150 guests. She moves all the furniture into her basement, decorates each room to the hilt, and sets up high-top tables throughout the house for the party. Sandra Sigman likewise removes the furniture from her kitchen and brings a rented buffet table, plus three eight-foot tables that she sets up in a U-shape to encourage conversation during her Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner on Christmas Eve.

Plan ahead: “I’m a huge fan of lists,” says Janie Haas. “I think people get overwhelmed by the holidays because they wait until the last minute and don’t feel very organized.” Think ahead, make a shopping list, and plan your menu well in advance. Wilson suggests a backwards schedule: If guests are arriving at 7 p.m. on Friday, plan what needs to be done an hour before, five hours before, or days before. Also, be sure to have enough food, “even if you have to send everyone home with doggy bags,” Diane Manahan says.

Embrace a theme: The holidays might be about tradition, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shake things up. Haas’s Christmas Eve dinner parties embrace a different theme each year. Once, it was South Beach, with romantic white décor, crystal, candles, and clear chairs. Another year, a tropical Caribbean-themed party brought fun and warmth with playful décor and linens in mango orange, hotpink, turquoise, lime green, and lemon yellow.

Get outside help: Renting tables, chairs, dishes, linens, and flatware lets you change up the décor each year and frees the host of cleanup duty. Instead of spending the night washing dishes, Sigman can be with her guests. For her party, Duffy enlists a bartender, DJ, servers passing hors d’oeuvres, a driver who busses guests from a parking lot down the street, chefs, and greeters who welcome each guest with a cocktail. “We want everybody to feel comfortable and welcome,” she says.

Welcome the late- nighters and overnighters: Duffy serves tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches at 2 or 3 a.m., “for the late-night revelers who are out dancing on my porch,” she says. A backyard bonfire adds to the coziness. Sigman’s overnight guests enjoy a casual Christmas morning brunch on a farmhouse table with a burlap runner and a fire roaring on the hearth. She serves ham, frittata, mimosas, and challah crème brûlée French toast in honor of her husband’s Jewish heritage. And don’t forget to have a good Bloody Mary mix on hand for the next morning, too, Manahan says. Embrace traditions and create new ones. For Haas, it’s stringing popcorn and encouraging the kids to bring their homemade ornaments to hang on the tree each year. For Sigman and her family, it’s making, bottling, and gifting dozens of bottles of limoncello from her grandfather’s recipe. For Duffy, it’s passing the eastern European oplatek cracker around the holiday table and making a wish. But new traditions are wonderful, too. Sigman and Haas each have dual-faith celebrations that encompass Jewish and Christian traditions, and both agree that incorporating both makes everyone feel loved and honored. “I love the spirit of the holidays,” Haas says. “For us, it’s really about being with those you love.”

Details, Details! Small details can elevate your party from fun to unforgettable. Try these tips: Duffy and Haas both serve signature cocktails at their annual parties. Some of Haas’s favorites include peppermint martinis and Moscow mules served in copper mugs.

Hire a musician. “It just adds such a level of excitement and sophistication to any kind of event you can do at your home,” Manahan says. A singer-guitarist lends low-key intimacy, while carolers dressed in 19th-century garb add extra cheer at Duffy’s annual bash.

Make your prosecco pours even prettier by floating a syrup-soaked hibiscus blossom in the flute, says Manahan.

Serve dips in hollowed-out gourds surrounded by flowers. “This item that would normally be put in a bowl is now this gorgeous statement,” Manahan says.

Lighting is a small detail that can completely change a room’s ambiance, says Haas. Try replacing a lamp’s light bulb with a colored LED bulb, use LED lights that sit on the floor, or opt for dozens of candles instead.

Say thank you to your guests with a thoughtful favor or gift bag. Duffy likes to gift her guests with things thatare near and dear to her and her family, like their favorite foods or handwoven scarves from Cambodia that support the family’s charity, My Cambodian Sisters.  

Take a cue from Sigman and tie a sprig of juniper or other natural greenery onto each place setting.

Dress up your mantel. Both Sigman and Wilson love to use items from the natural world in their holiday decorating, such as freshly cut juniper or boxwood from the garden. This nod to nature finds a festive home in a mantel décor idea from Wilson: Drape a six- to eight-foot length of evergreen roping, such as white pine, across the length of the mantel. Find pinecones and large, intact leaves, such as oak leaves, and spray paint them gold. When the paint has dried, intersperse the leaves and pinecones throughout the roping. Next, weave a gold mesh ribbon along the roping. Finally, set votive candles along the mantel, using glass vases of differing heights (three to six inches) turned upside down as pedestals. 

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