Congrats, you’re hosting a holiday party! You’ve sent out the Paperless Post invites and gathered all your friends for a night of celebrating. You're doing it, and that's the most important thing. So for starters, go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back for that. And next—and perhaps, most importantly—don't for a second be self-conscious about the imperfections in your home or cooking. (We all have them; no one person or one thing is perfect. Plus, your friends do not care. )
Why? Because Rebecca Gardner—event designer, hostess extraordinaire, and curator of the upcoming Sugarplum Pop-up at The St. Regis New York—told us so. You can make up for mismatched silverware or not enough china settings with the most important elements of any party: the right candlelight and lots of lots booze. Sounds easy enough, right? We think so! But just in case, we asked Rebecca to give us a dozen no-fail tips to help you host your first holiday dinner party.
Below, she shares her hard-won wisdom. (Now would be a good time to take notes.)
1. Make an itinerary
Even if it’s just in your head! That way, you know exactly what’s supposed to happen when. This ensures that you don’t forget to open the bottle of champagne or serve the dessert you drove across town to pick up.
2. Stock the bar, and serve a signature drink.
I think it’s fun to serve punch for a holiday party—it’s strong, and it loosens people up (as we all learned freshman year of college). It also looks pretty, especially when served in a silver revere bowl. I like a bourbon, an eggnog, or even a cranberry vodka.
3. Have (lots and lots of) flattering candle light.
Go ahead and turn off those overhead lights and fill your space with candles and lamps. On the dinner table, it’s nice to have mix of heights, like both votive candles and large hurricanes in pierced vessels (like the ones you see in Morocco). And have candles scattered throughout the room, too. It's a known fact that people have more fun in a dimly lit room.
4. Mix high and low decor.
The low makes people feel at ease. So, yes, you can go out of your way with a starch monogrammed napkin or a fancy silver tray, but mix that with a terra cotta pot (to show that you’re at ease, too). At the Sugarplum Pop-up, we’re setting vintage china with these fun paper holiday crackers—each is filled with a paper crown, costume jewelry, and chocolate—and arrangements of lemons and kumquats from the grocery store. If you’re still figuring out your entertaining rhythm, don't try to have some ambitious floral arrangement. That just feels silly.
5. Create a casual centerpiece.
I love seasonal amaryllis and paper whites in pots. Line the center of your table with four to six pots, spaced apart because they’re tall, and you're done.
6. Don’t worry about your plates.
Now is the time to show off your beautiful wedding presents, even if you don’t have enough of something just yet. Simply mix whatever you do have together. And instead of worrying about each individual place setting, follow this motto: Make it look as beautiful as you can and then fill in with food. People are only going to remember the atmosphere—and that you were a relaxed and good hostess!
7.When cooking, stay within your means.
These days, there are so many easy ways to supplement your cooking. You can even do Chinese takeout if you can’t boil water. (I've done that before and it was a huge success.) Ultimately, you want to serve something that tastes good! I think that simple things are better if it’s your first dinner party. Go to a butcher shop and get a beef tenderloin, which can be served at room temperature and still be good. Then, add a beautiful salad and a really, really sinful starch. No party is too fancy for mac and cheese.
8. Invest in serving pieces.
If you’ve yet to register, I think a bar tray is a great thing to ask for. It’s very elegant, and it makes people feel at home. It should fit six glasses, a bottle of vodka, bourbon, some mixers, and an ice bucket. For a makeshift bar, you can put it at the end of the dining table or on the sideboard. And beyond the tray, ask for serving pieces—like big chunky spoons, and basically anything you can use to make a buffet pretty and interesting.
9. Do place cards.
I always say use place cards, but especially so for a group of six or more people. With a group of that size, you have to tell people where to sit! Also, never seat couples next to each other or even best friends. A seat assignment is truly the loveliest gift you can give a friend.
10. Play Music.
Create a playlist for the night, or have your musically-inclined friend (or husband) do so. And when in doubt, turn on Bing Crosby’s Christmas.
11. Put a surprise on the table.
Any provoking activity shakes things up, whether it’s party crackers, funny crowns, costume jewelry, or even outrageously large sugar cookies.
12. When in doubt, pair flattering light with a strong drink.
After all, at the end of a successful party, everyone should go home with a bad hangover and a new friend!
Rebecca Gardner's Sugarplum Pop-Up opens at The St. Regis New York on November 24.