Great Holiday Party Tips

If you can't have a bash, just make some hot cider and invite some friends over for cookies and a chat in front of the Christmas tree. If you're in the mood for something more challenging, here are some of my favorite tips:

Pick your party dates early: The premium weekend dates get booked fast. Consider having a party between Christmas and New Year's when schedules are lighter. I'm having a Boxing Day party on December 26 this year!

Don't have a Rolodex party: That's where you call everyone in your address book just to get your entertaining obligations done for another year. I prefer a few smaller, easier-to-manage parties with close friends who know each other to a huge bash where I spend a lot of time introducing strangers to each other.

Create a "do-able" menu: Choose some recipes that benefit from being made ahead—marinated vegetable salads, gingerbread, dips, cheese balls and trifle are just a few suggestions. Don't make too many new recipes, or you may get overwhelmed.

People love old favorites: I rarely bake a ham throughout the year, but I love serving it on my holiday buffet. To make it extra special, serve it with homemade mustard and mayonnaise and fresh-baked rolls. Along with roasted turkey, it's an easy and delicious way to feed a crowd.

Serve a delicious nonalcoholic punch, too: It isn't a Christmas party at my house without a bowl of my eggnog. But, be sure that your designated drivers and non-drinkers aren't restricted to boring old club soda, and offer something special for them, too—I like to serve a hot, spiced cider punch with rum on the side so folks can spike their drinks if they like.

Make desserts that can be eaten out of hand: To cut down on the dishes you'll have to wash, serve sweets that can be eaten with from napkin, such as spice cakes and (of course) cookies. Or make candies like homemade fudge, rocky road or candied walnuts.

A coffee bar is a simple but elegant touch: Along with hot coffee, offer a bowl of whipped cream and an assortment of liqueurs (Kahlua, brandy, rum and whiskey) so guests can create their own coffee drinks.

Set the mood with videos: In your TV room, play Christmas movie favorites like A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Carol. If you play It's a Wonderful Life, have Kleenex handy.

Mouthwatering kitchen aromas make happy guests: If you make things too far ahead, your guests will miss out on some wonderful kitchen smells—and we all know what it is like when you walk into a house that is redolent of roast turkey or gingerbread. If necessary, burn spice scented candles or simmer cinnamon sticks, allspice and cloves in a pot of water.

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