The Holiday Open House: Five Easy Steps for Hosting
I love hosting parties at our house and the holidays are the best time to do it, because almost everyone’s house looks ready for a party at this time of year. Additionally, almost everyone is ready to be at a party at this time of year. Unless you’re a heartless Scrooge, in which case consider yourself not invited to my party.
A holiday open house is an excellent way to open your door to lots of people with less strategic planning than hosting a sit-down meal. An open house is also a family-friendly way to entertain. Here are my top five tips for hosting an easy holiday open house.
1. Choose the date and time, and make a guest list.
The advantage of an open house is that it’s a come-and-go event, which can be a nice alternative to a normal party, especially since your typical holiday party can end with people hanging out in your kitchen until the wee hours of the morning. Choose a date and a time of day that works for your family — that could be early, like a brunch/lunch thing, or something late afternoon, that starts after the kids’ nap time and ends just before dinner. Whatever you decide, be clear on your invitations about when the party begins and ends — for example, “Join us for a holiday open house on Saturday from 1:00 to 5:00 pm.”
Invite as many or as few people as you’d like. With this type of party you’re more likely to have people stopping in for a bit and moving along to their next party or other holiday commitment. One of my nightmares that I host a party and only one person shows up, which is worse than no one coming to your party because at least then your shame is hidden. Unless you have a blog and then you know you’re going to write about how you threw a party and no one showed up. You can avoid this situation entirely by inviting lots of people and assuming they aren’t all going to show up at the exact same time.
However, it is possible to invite too many people, even to an open house. For years my husband and I invited just about every person we knew, except the people we didn’t like very much, to our parties. This made for a festive atmosphere but it also left me feeling as if I didn’t have one conversation all night. There’s just not enough time to entertain all the guests, especially if you’re bringing together people from different parts of your life. These days, I throw three or four smaller parties during the holiday season, at least one of which is an open house.
2. Plan your menu.
When people come to an open house, they expect to be fed. I know, how presumptuous, but there it is. Since I like to spend most of my party planning time focused on getting my house ready instead of on making a million tiny sandwiches, I outsource at least some of the food I serve. I don’t know about you but if my house isn’t comfortable I will not be able to relax at my party. It wouldn’t matter if Julia Child rose from the dead and prepared all the food, my guests would be like, “Holy crap! This duck a l’orange is amazing, Julia, but the hostess is a mess and it’s totally stressing me out.”
I realize catering can be expensive and reviving Julia Child is impossible, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend the whole week before your party cooking, especially if that’s not your thing. Decide what you want to serve — I recommend finger foods because people can nibble and mingle at the same time — and then figure out which things can be bought prepared or hired out. Costco is a wonderful option for this — I really like their roll sandwiches and olive tapenade on crusty French bread. And honestly, no one cares if you made those sandwiches with your own hands. They’re just happy they didn’t have to make the sandwiches.
If there are things you really want to make yourself, plan to do them two or three days ahead, if that’s possible, rather than the day of the party. Trust me on this. You don’t want to be washing dishes as guests are arriving.
3. Fluff your house.
Please promise me you will never host a party like the one I attended 10 years ago at the home of an acquaintance. The hosts had arranged about 30 metal folding chairs in a circle in the living room and they had the lights turned up to the level doctors require to perform open heart surgery. Maybe not that bright, but it was at least bright enough for an appendectomy. There was no music and the seating arrangements resulted in an atmosphere which felt a lot like group therapy, and generally one does not mingle or even have fun at group therapy.
You do need some seating at an open house, because people are going to hang out for at least a little while, but never ever line a room with chairs. You want to encourage people to mill about and to do this they need places to sit and talk to two or three people at a time, at the most. Instead of a big circle of chairs, set up some cozy little spaces for people to visit. You also want to encourage people to mingle. To get them moving, put food in several spots in your home. Set up a small buffet in your dining room, a selection of appetizers on the coffee table in the living room and a dessert station in the kitchen.
At all of these food stations you will need napkins and plates, to encourage people to eat. I love personalized items for parties, I think it conveys how special you think this event is and how excited you are to be hosting it even if it’s just a little party with friends. Sites like ForYourParty.com make it easy to order things like custom napkins and coasters, which you can scatter around the house. Personalized swizzle sticks are also fun if you’re serving drinks. You can design something specific for your party, or go with a more generic design that you can reuse for other events.
Finally, lighting is really important. Never turn the lights up full force at an evening party — use candles and lamps instead. The lights in my kitchen and dining room are on dimmers, which is great for creating a cozy atmosphere. Long ago, we lived in a house that had industrial florescent lighting in the kitchen, so for parties we would bring in a lamp from one of the bedrooms.
4. Set up a DIY bar.
I cannot say enough about the importance of having a self-serve bar. Once upon a time, we thought it would be fancier to have someone mixing drinks for our guests. Unfortunately, my husband ended up trapped in the kitchen making drink after drink, which made it difficult for him to enjoy the party.
As a solution we decided to go with a self-serve bar. This takes the pressure off of you and it also gives you one more fun way to decorate for the party. But your guests may need a little help: The first year we did this we learned that people often have no idea what sort of cocktail to mix for themselves. So we made up four drink recipe cards and left them out on the bar next to the ingredients for those particular cocktails. This freed us up to spend our time mingling with our guests. We were also able to avoid having to buy a ridiculously full bar in an effort to anticipate every single cocktail someone might ask for (I know you want blue curacao in your drink, but you’re the only one and I will be stuck with that bottle for the rest of my life). But the best part of the self-serve bar is that it gives people who don’t know each other or who have little in common something to do together and therefore chat about. Which is the whole point of a party!
Make sure your bar has plenty of glasses and a bucket of ice. You might also want to provide some non-alcoholic alternatives to your party-themed cocktails, as well as the ingredients for a basic vodka tonic or scotch and soda, for guests who want to stick with what they know.
5. Give kids something to do.
An open house is a great way to include kids in your entertaining. We were the first people in our circle of friends to have kids, therefore entertaining with kids seemed like the most foreign and unpleasant idea. These days, most of our friends have families of their own and while an adults-only event is still well loved, we also like including our kids in our celebrations. For me, it’s like the family parties of my youth only everyone actually enjoys each other’s company. So really nothing like those family parties.
The trick to entertaining kids is to keep them engaged doing something fun and constructive. This can help to avoid the manic chaos which results when a group of kids is together for a long period of time without direct supervision and a purpose. (I completely failed at this at my house last Friday night. It was like “Lord of the Flies,” only louder.)
One way to keep kids busy during an open house is to set up several easy and festive crafts, like this lovely crepe paper gift ball idea that I am planning to co-opt for our New Year’s Eve Family Party. Even better, hire a responsible teenager or two to do the crafts with the kids while the adults mingle. That way no one is bored and everyone is having fun.
Note-to-self: Follow my own tips.