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5 Easy Steps for Hosting a Holiday Open House

The Holiday Open House: Five Easy Steps for Hosting

By Melissa Summers

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 soul, in which case consider yourself not invited to my party.

The 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 an excellent family friendly way to entertain. Here are my top five tips for hosting an easy Holiday Open House.

1 – Decide on a date, time and guest list.

Set a day and time that works best for your family. For example, if you don’t want to entertain my husband and me well into the night because he is always the last person to leave a party, you’ll probably want to have a brunch or lunchtime open house running about four hours between 11-3. If you’re including children you may want a late afternoon party that ends just before dinner.

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. So inviting more people may be wiser, it’s one of my nightmares that I host a party and 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.

For years my husband and I have invited just about every person we know, except the people we don’t like very much, to our parties. This makes for a festive atmosphere but it also leaves me feeling as if I didn’t have one conversation all night. There’s just not enough time to entertain all the guests, especially when you’re bringing together several groups of friends from different parts of your life. For that reason we’re having three or four smaller parties this season, one will be an open house and the others will be cocktail hour type parties.

2 – Decide what food you will make and where you can cut corners.

Because I like to spend most of my time making my house comfortable for a party, I outsource at least some of the food we serve. If your house isn’t comfortable and you aren’t relaxed at your party, it won’t matter that Julia Child rose from the dead and prepared all your food. All your guests will be all, “Holy Crap! This Duck A L’Orange is amazing Julia, but the hostess is totally stressing me out.”

I realize catering can be expensive, so look at your menu and decide which things can be bought prepared. Costco is wonderful for this, try their roll sandwiches and olive tapenade on crusty french bread. Decide which things you’ll make yourself, especially items which can be made ahead of time and things for which you’d like to order out.

Even better, a prep-kitchen in my local area, there’s a shop that offers appetizer prep stations. You spend a day preparing several different appetizers in their prep kitchen and then freeze until you need them. Your results will vary depending on your prep kitchen. I’ve had better luck at privately-owned kitchens rather than franchised chains, you can find a location near you at Meal Assembly.

3 – Atmosphere, Atmosphere, Atmosphere

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 around the living room, had the lights turned up to the level doctors require to perform open heart surgery. Maybe not that bright, it was at least bright enough for an appendectomy. There was no music at this party and the unfortunate arrangement of seating 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, 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. Otherwise people should be up and moving around. To get people moving, put food in several spots in your home. Have a small buffet set up in your dining room, some other food on the coffee table in the living room and another station set up in the kitchen.

Never turn the lights up full force at an evening party, use candles and even lamps where you need to. We have all the lights in our kitchen and dining room on dimmers, but in our old home an enormous florescent light prevented that solution so we used a lamp in our kitchen for parties.

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. It helps that my husband is a graphic designer but there are great sites with amazing designs. We just used to order personalized swizzle sticks and custom napkins for our neighborhood’s upcoming holiday party. I also love the coasters and with a generic enough imprint, you could use these for several events.

4 – The DIY Bar Is Key

At every party we’ve ever hosted we’ve had a self-serve bar. When we do not have a self-serve bar my husband ends up trapped in the kitchen mixing drink after drink which makes enjoying the party difficult for him. It also means everyone becomes inebriated because my husband mixes very strong drinks.

As a solution we decided to start the self-serve bar. The first year we did this we realized 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. This way we were able to free ourselves from drink duty, avoid having to buy a ridiculously full bar (I know you want blue curacao in your drink, but I’m going to have that bottle for the rest of my life) and surprisingly the self-serve bar has given people who have little in common something to do together and therefore chat about.

5 – Consider including kids.

An open house is a great way to include kids in your entertaining. When we first had children we were the only ones in our circle of friends to have them, therefore entertaining with kids seemed like the most foreign and unpleasant idea. However now we have many families in our circle of friends and though the 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.

The trick when including kids is to keep them engaged enough to avoid the manic chaos which results when 8-15 kids are together for long periods of time without a purpose. (As an example, please see: My House Last Friday Night. It was like Lord of the Flies, only louder.)

One idea is to have several easy and festive craft ideas to do.  Here’s a lovely crepe paper gift ball idea I plan to co-opt for our New Year’s Eve Family Party. Even better, hire a young teen or two and pay them to do these crafts with the kids while the adults mingle.

Note-to-self: Follow my own tips.

Melissa Summers
About the Author

Melissa Summers

Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.


Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.

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  • Fer

    Thank you for the cocktail cards! That is a super idea, & you made it even more “idiot proof,” which I sometimes need this time of year.
    P.S. The Vodka Gimlet is my favorite drink!

  • I *love* hosting a holiday open house and am totally bummed that I have no good time to do it this year. So, I’ll share one of my favorite food sources: GFS (Gordon Food Service). They’re open to the public and have bulk quantities of things like appetizers, desserts, even some entree items. Many are frozen for you to thaw/cook. Plus, they’ve got all sorts of serving and dining ware. All without the membership fee like Costco or Sam’s. They’re my go-to when I’m hosting a larger gathering like an open house.
    Great tips, Melissa!

  • Emily

    Love the cocktail cards — I’m totally going to use this idea. However, I have different drinks I’d like to use. Can you share the fonts you used for your cards? They’re very cute!

  • Great tips and great cocktails! Thank you. Very timely: we’re having our first open house ever in a few weeks.

  • MelissaS

    Hi Emily. The font I used for the recipe was Didot and the font for the headers is aptly called “Cocktail Script”
    Share what you come up with if you can!

  • Kristyn

    I also have the DIY bar and I also make 1 signature drink and put it in a big pitcher. This year I am hiring a teen to help build one of those pre-fab gingerbread houses I got at Costco with all the kids. Last year I had a cheese board with about 5 cheeses. It was a complete hit. I will be doing it again this year. You can buy a few tiles of slate from Home Depot for really cheap and write the name of the cheese on it in chalk. Also to save money I buy those $2 bottle of wines from Trader Joes and I put them in fancy looking carafes that I got from for only $6.95. I love partys!

  • wndl

    We have an annual party at our house and we do it similarly to yours: invite everyone we know, have it open house style over many hours, there’s an open bar and food tables are spread around the house.
    How we handle the kids is to have the party start at 7pm, with children welcome until 9pm (when our kid usually poops out), and party running easily until midnight, sometimes til 2am. Our friends with kids come early, childless folks come later. There are even some who come early with kids, take them home, and come back w/out them (best of both worlds). Thankfully, we have a basement with family room to keep the kids contained (and allow parents to sneak out easily for a smoke).