I’ve spent most of my 11 years as a New Yorker living in places like Jersey City and Harlem that are accessible only by an extended train ride – neighborhoods that were both inconvenient and unfamiliar to many of my centrally-located friends. Last year, when I finally made the move into Hell’s Kitchen (a rapidly-growing residential neighborhood just west of Times Square), I had one thing on my to-do list which I could never have pulled off before – a holiday party. While I don’t consider myself a social butterfly, there’s just something about planning and hosting a get-together with friends in my own home that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Whether you’re already an established stop on your neighborhood’s holiday party circuit or taking the plunge for the first time, ensure a fun, festive and stress-free experience for all by checking off these items on my ultimate holiday party checklist.
The Guest List
Invite more people than you expect will actually attend. Think about it – would you have more fun at a party with too many people or too few? Most people would prefer the former. Keep the guest list too small and you may be disappointed.
Bring people together. Consider using your party as a way to bring together people from different facets of your life. It may be the perfect opportunity to bond with co-workers or neighbors, and adding to the mix of guests by using your party as a way to reconnect with old friends who you haven’t seen in years could help others forge new connections of their own.
Encourage people to bring friends. Some guests will know fewer people than others, and your guest policy may determine whether or not they attend at all. The more, the merrier!
Expect the unexpected. Your most dependable BFF may bail on you at the last minute, and the co-worker who you never expected to come will arrive first with an entourage of friends in tow. Resist the urge to micromanage your guest list. Be flexible, and go with the flow.
Avoid (or warn) outliers. Your hosting duties will keep you very busy during the party. For this reason, be cautious about inviting any outliers in your life who may require lots of 1-on-1 time to be comfortable. Encourage these folks to bring guests, and ‘warn’ them that you’ll be busy.
Get the party started. Picture this: you’re all alone in your home, entertaining an early arrival — a friend-of-a-friend whose name you can’t remember — while you wait for others to arrive. Sounds awful, right? Expect people to be ‘fashionably’ late, but do what you can to get the party started on time. Consider asking a handful of your closest friends to arrive first, before or at the start time, before most guests have arrived.
Encourage overnight guests. If you’re able, invite out-of-towners to stay the night in your home. This may prevent some of your closest friends from canceling at the last minute, or leaving early due to travel constraints. Let the fun continue over breakfast or brunch.
Consider the date and time of your party carefully. If your party will occur during one of the two weekends before Christmas, give your guests plenty of notice. The holiday season is full of social activities and obligations, and your guests may have multiple invites to choose from. Let them prioritize your event by announcing it early and let your invitees ‘squeeze in’ the other parties. Also, avoid throwing your party on a weeknight in order to best accommodate those who work traditional hours.
Create a Facebook invite. I recommend a Facebook invite for a few reasons. A Facebook event is easy for your guests to access via mobile devices when they need to confirm the date and time of your party, review directions, or sneak a peek at the guest list. The events themselves are easy to create and allow your guests to interact with one other on the event page.
Be clear on time and location. Be VERY clear on the start time of your party, as well as the directions to your home. You won’t want to be buried in your phone, giving directions, when the fun is underway.
Put on your party promoter hat. Keep the party top of mind by sharing updates and other content on the event page as the party date approaches. I like to share photos of my holiday décor, photos from previous parties, and any specialty snacks and cocktails that I intend on serving.
Get personal. Facebook invites, though convenient, can seem a bit impersonal to some people, and they can also get lost in the shuffle among other notifications. In addition to your Facebook invite, extend personal invitations and reminders to those who are most important to you. Send an email, a text, make a phone call, or invite them in person.
B.Y.S.O. In my humble opinion it’s in poor taste to invite people into your home and expect that they’ll help foot the bill for your party. People will undoubtedly bring a snack or beverage with them regardless, which you’ll graciously accept, but tell your guests in the invite to bring only themselves. If you are unable to cover the cost of food and beverages, consider reducing your guest list, or perhaps try your party again next year when you’ve had more time to plan.
RSVP not required. Here’s a theme that you may already see developing throughout this checklist: resist the urge to micromanage and control every detail of your party, like a barrage of incessant requests to RSVP. An RSVP is nice, but in reality the semblance between those who RSVP and those who actually attend is purely coincidental. Be flexible – this isn’t a wedding!
Keep it coming. Plan on putting out a lot more food than you think you’ll need – especially if your party is beginning early in the evening and you expect that some guests will skip dinner. When food runs out, it sends the message to your guests that the party is over. Keep the food coming and the party will stay alive.
Plan on restocking. If you don’t have much room to display food, keep your reserves easily accessible so that you can quickly replenish items that run out.
Sloppy seconds. Unless you have lots of room for people to comfortably sit at a table and eat with a plate and utensils, avoid messy foods like salsa, dips, chips and wings. Most people are more comfortable picking individual items off a food table than making a plate that could cause an embarrassing spill, or potentially waste food if they don’t like what they’ve taken. Focus on easy-to-eat foods that your guests can eat with their fingers.
Keep it clean. Keep plenty of napkins and paper towels on hand, and keep your garbage can accessible.
Keep it simple. If you’re like me and you don’t consider yourself an expert cook or baker, it’s OK to keep things simple. Heat-and-serve items like mini pizzas and cocktail franks are tasty and inexpensive. Prioritize taste and convenience over presentation.
Specialty diets. Ready to win Host of the Year honors? Provide a few snack options for those who are gluten-free, lactose intolerant, or have food allergies.
Sweet stuff. Serve lots of holiday-themed treats.
Know your guests. I know for a fact that when I host a holiday party in my Manhattan apartment, 90% of my guests are expecting vodka drinks with mixers and hardly anyone will touch the beer that I provide. Your gathering may be exactly the opposite, but be prepared, regardless. Build your shopping list with your guests in mind — not yourself.
Back to basics. Provide plenty of beverage options for those who don’t consume alcohol. Cans of soda (both diet and regular) and chilled bottles of water are nice to have on hand.
The big batch. I am an enthusiastic advocate of preparing big batch cocktails. Your guests will enjoy the taste and convenience, they’re easy to make, cost less, and it’s a great chance to get creative. Last year I made a White Christmas Sangria and a Vodka Cranberry Punch that were well-received. Label any big batch beverage so that you don’t have to explain them repeatedly. Be prepared to replenish as needed. Skip the punch bowl; a crock like this one is more sanitary and appealing.
In the mix. Even though your big batch cocktails will certainly be a hit, provide the basics that will allow people to mix their own cocktails. Think vodka with lots of mixers like tonic, seltzer, soda, and a variety of fruit juices. I also like to provide gin, a flavored rum, and a few unexpected mixers like curacao for blue drinks. Use an online drink calculator to guide your shopping list. Slice several limes into small wedges and leave them out.
Wining and dining. Wine is the one beverage that your guests are most likely to bring, but start your party off with a bottle of red and a bottle of white, regardless. Chill them as appropriate. If you’re concerned about money, there are plenty of quality wines priced under $10/bottle. Ask your friendly wine store employee for a recommendation.
Beer blast. Provide at least 2 mainstream varieties of beer, perhaps one light and one regular. Spring for bottles, not cans. Avoid craft, specialty and imported beers. Guests with a taste for specialty beers will most likely bring their own. A keg or mini-keg may be an option, depending on the company you keep. Keep beer in your fridge or on ice where it will stay cold; nothing spoils a party like warm beer.
Pop the top. Provide multiple bottle openers and corkscrews. They are certain to disappear.
Pretty in plastic. Get LOTS of cups. Plastic cups are fine for large parties, but go to a party store and purchase nice ones – clear plastic rather than styrofoam or paper. Red plastic cups are for fraternity parties.
Ice, ice baby. DO NOT RUN OUT OF ICE! It’s been my experience that more parties than not end on a low note when party basics like ice, cups and cocktail mixers run out. Again, this sends the message to your guests that the party has ended. Stock up on ice, or better yet, make your own. Don’t expect guests to rummage through your freezer in search of ice trays, let alone refill them; leave ice easily accessible to guests in a large bowl or ice bucket, and be prepared to replenish it frequently.
Preparing Your Space
Clean your act up. Give your home a thorough cleaning. Vacuum, mop the floors, dust, wipe down counters, clean your windows, eliminate pet odors, and clean out the fridge. It is especially important to give your bathroom a good cleaning.
Deck the halls. Put some genuine thought and effort into decorating your space for the holidays – especially if you live alone and people aren’t expecting you to do so. Be creative and unexpected with your décor; decorate with a ‘conversation piece’ or put Christmas lights in an unexpected place. I get lots of great ideas every year from my favorite home décor stores.
A place to hang your hat. Plan a place for guests to leave their coats – even if it’s as simple as a bed or a few chairs.
Goody two-shoes. Which concerns you more – the comfort of guests in your home, or a little dirt making its way indoors? Do not require guests to take off their shoes.
Kids and pets. If necessary, plan a special space and activities for any children who may attend. Toys, games and movies are a good idea. Do the same for pets. If you have pets that are anxious around people, provide them with their own quiet space.
Cold turkey. Ensure that your space remains at a comfortable temperature. Expect the heat to rise as guests arrive, and adjust accordingly. Open windows, crank the AC – do whatever you can to keep people comfortable.
Light the night. Avoid harsh, overhead lights. Let table lamps and Christmas lights create a soft, relaxing environment.
Feng Shui. Consider the flow of guests – especially around the food and beverages. Party guests tend to congregate in the kitchen, so if you have a small kitchen, consider setting up food and drinks elsewhere.
Get smart. I make it a point to move my most personal items – especially things like prescription medications – out of site. I’m happy to entertain guests of guests, but I’m not crazy.
Dress to impress. Wear a fun holiday tee, or a sweater, or a Santa hat. I always purchase a tee from 6-Dollar-Shirts that reflects my personality, and I even have a Santa hat that lights up.
Set the mood. Create a holiday ambiance with a scented candle, or better yet – use seasonal scents like pine oil, peppermint oil and cinnamon leaf in an aromatherapy diffuser.
Music matters. Enhance your environment with music. It’s my personal opinion that your guests hear more than enough Christmas music in their day-to-day lives during the month of December, so I create a different type of playlist that my guests will enjoy.
Class it up. I also like to put a Christmas movie on my TV, with the sound off. A classic movie in black and white will add a touch of class.
Your Hosting Duties
Find balance. Balance your efforts to be a gracious and attentive host with having fun yourself. Cleanup can wait until everyone is gone. People can make their own drinks and find their own snacks. You’re doing this for fun, so have fun!
Disconnect. Don’t bury yourself in your phone. Keep it on your person just in case, but enjoy the event IRL (in real life).
Crasher Courtesy. Be especially courteous to friends of friends who you’re meeting for the first time, as well as any other unexpected guests. Personally, I feel extremely uncomfortable attending parties in which I don’t know the host – even if the party has an open guest policy and I’ve arrived with an invitee. Do your best to make everyone feel welcome.
Picture perfect. Take lots of pictures. You put a lot of work into this, and you’ll want to remember it! Make it a mix of candids and posed photos, and post them all online the next day.
When it’s over. The party will end when it ends. Allow the event to run its natural course, and allow guests to stay as long as they like.
As a 30-something single New Yorker who lives alone and hosts guests in a studio apartment, these tips may not all apply to you, but I hope that you found them helpful. What else would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments section below.