Holiday Party Planning Made Easy
by Cathy Corcoran
If the thought of throwing a holiday party has you muttering "Bah humbug!", take a few tips from those who thrive in party situations. With a little help from these friends, you can be the Martha Stewart of your neighborhood - and have fun doing it.
“The most important thing about any party is for the host to feel comfortable,” says
Mary Cochrane, Head Event Planner for The Catered Affair, an upscale party planning group in Boston.
Cochrane manages more than 150 parties a year, everything from little cookouts at the beach to a black tie gala at the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, where the New England Patriots were presented with their Super Bowl rings. She meets with clients well in advance of their parties and makes planning headaches disappear so hosts can enjoy themselves at their own events.
“Decide on the feeling you want,” Mary advises. Do you like formal or informal? Will the guests be close friends and family? or business associates? In home, or at another location? A Sunday afternoon open house with children and families? Or an elegant Saturday night with guests in evening dress?
If the party will be at your home, Mary advises hosts to determine available space. If you’ll have lots of people at an open house, consider removing some furniture, especially large sofas and cabinets, to accommodate traffic flow. “The house may look a little strange with no one there,” Mary says, “but when it fills up with people, it will be perfect.”
In general, Mary says it’s better to have things a little crowded, rather than have a few people rattling around in a room that’s too big. “When people get closer, it promotes intimacy and fun,” she says.
Allow for people to move around by placing the bar in one place, the food in another, and have another draw, such as Christmas tree or a fire in the fireplace in yet another area. “The more people move around, they more they talk to other people, the more festive the gathering,” she says.
It’s nice to greet each guest as they arrive, and maybe offer them a special drink, like a champagne pointsettia (champagne with a touch of cranberry juice), a glass of wine, or even hot cider or hot chocolate.
“Smells are important to set the mood of a party,” Mary says. “Have a nice scented candle burning near the door, and a beautiful wreath. Arrange fresh greens around the party room. Hot cider smells wonderful in the wintertime, or you could serve hot chowder or soup.”
Substantial hors d’oeuvres can take the place of a sit down dinner, and allow hosts to accommodate more guests. The Catered Affair often sets up a carving station with a tenderloin or a roast turkey that they slice and serve with small yeast rolls so guests can make little sandwiches and hold them in their hands. A raw bar might be set up in another corner of the room with cold shrimp, crab legs, and oysters on the half shell. Wait staff can pass hot hors d’oeuvres, and guests can help themselves to cheese trays and veggie platters.
“Food is important,” Mary says, “but the most important element in a successful party is the host. “Do as much as you can before the guests arrive, but once that first person walks through the door, the preparation is over. Your most important job is to relax and enjoy the party.”
In eight years of party planning, Mary knows that, despite the best preparations, sometimes things don’t go as planned. She once worked on a large wedding that was inundated with sudden thunder squalls. The bride was in a panic.
“We secured everything the best we could, then I took the bride by the shoulders and looked her in the eye,” Mary said. “I told her to get out there on that dance floor and have a good time. The bride danced through the cloudburst, dry under her striped tent, and the guests cheered. “If you’re having fun, your guests will have fun too,” Mary said.
When she entertains herself, Mary takes her own advice about what feels comfortable to her. When her daughter made her confirmation recently, Mary decided to invited about 20 close friends and family to dinner at a Thai restaurant.
“This is my busy season, and I know I don’t have the energy to cook,” she says, “My daughter loves this particular restaurant, se we decided we’d all go together. It was wonderful.” Guests ordered off the menu, and Mary’s planning was confined to telephoned invitations and a bakery-bought cake. Everyone had a great time.
At the other end of the restaurant-party spectrum is Sharon Weber of Cohasset. A corporate trainer whose job requires her to travel around the country most of the year, Sharon loves nothing better than to spend December days in her kitchen, planning her renowned holiday dessert party.
“My work really slows down in December,” Sharon says, “That’s when I start flipping through cookbooks and glossy magazines to find desserts that will look wonderful and taste great.”
Sharon admits that she rarely bakes sweets the rest of the year, but there’s something about the holidays that says “sugar!” to most of us, and Sharon is no exception.
Her last dessert party featured a spectacular three layer torte stuffed with coconut and raspberries, and cut into the shape of a large five-pointed star. There was a hazelnut chocolate extravaganza, a creme caramel, and dozens of cookies. Sharon also made a gingerbread house and gingerbread people for the kids.
Though she doesn’t throw her dessert party every year, each time she does it, she uses only new recipes. Unconventional by nature, Sharon doesn’t follow traditional wisdom that says only serve tried and true recipes to guests.
“When party time rolls around, each dessert is a first,” she says. “I like to live on the edge. It’s not fun unless there’s a sense of uncertainty about how things will turn out.”
She says that, while some desserts haven’t lived up to what she had hoped, she’s never had a real disaster. “Even if it doesn’t look like the picture in the magazine, it will probably still taste good,” Sharon says. “Someone will eat it.”
She admits the preparation is a major time commitment, but says she views each step in the process as a party in itself. “I spend a couple of days just looking for the right recipes,” she says, “Then it takes another day or so to make up my shopping list, and another day to get everything.”
Then the baking begins. Sharon puts Christmas music on the stereo, and sings along as she measures and mixes.
“The quiet time alone in the kitchen is great for me,” Sharon says, “like a renewal after working so hard with groups of people the rest of the year. It’s a Christmas gift to myself. Then, when the party comes around, that becomes my Christmas gift to all my friends."
Decorating the dining room table is something Sharon considers an art project. She does this several days before the party, and she and her family eat in the kitchen so they don't disturb the dining room. She favors white linen table cloths, and lots of candles, holiday ribbons, and stars arranged on the table.
“I leave empty spaces where the desserts will go, then place decorations around them,” Sharon says. She orders dozens of white roses in advance, then arranges them herself in small wide mouthed containers. She does use good quality paper plates so guests can taste several different desserts, but uses real silverware and serving pieces.
As soon as first of her 50 guests arrives, the preparation is done. “If it’s not done by then, it just doesn’t get done.” she says.
“This is the kind of party that’s a lot of work, so if you love long hours in the kitchen, it’s great,” Sharon says. “If you don’t, don’t do it. Do something else instead.”
Joan Gatturna is a historical storyteller, who prefers something else instead. She plays the part of Rachel Revere (Paul’s wife) at the Revere House in Boston. She also works with school groups and other museums, and is frequently hired to play her historical characters at conventions and corporate events.
“A lot of these parties are set in hotel ballrooms,” Joan says, “and even though the food and the room are fancy, the whole thing feels kind of sterile to me. A successful party should have something going on besides just eating and drinking.”
Joan carries that belief over into parties she hosts at her Hingham home. When a performing friend was booked on the South Shore to play Dorothy Parker, the witty New York writer, Joan saw a chance for an unusual gathering.
“I thought a certain group of my women friends would enjoy seeing the performance, and I planned a Sunday afternoon luncheon before the show,” she said.
Dorothy Parker was a member of the famous Algonquin Hotel Round Table that gathered in the 1930s in New York. Joan found an old photo of Parker, and had it printed on invitations she had made up at a local Staples store. She invited five women friends for lunch and the performance, and asked them to dress up in “sophisticated New York clothes of Dorothy Parker’s era.”
Everyone was so enthusiastic, the idea took on a life of its own. Several guests asked if they could bring friends of their own, and before she knew it, Joan had a guest list of more than 20 people.
“I had planned on a nice sit down lunch for six, but there was no way I was going to cook for 20 people,” Joan said. She ordered cold shrimp and little roll up sandwiches from a local restaurant, said “yes!” when guests offered to bring other food, and concentrated on setting the stage for the party.
She pulled out old martini glasses, hobnail dishes, and depression glassware her mother had owned, and placed little candy dishes and cigarette boxes around her living room. She chose the music to reflect Dorothy Parker’s time, and played Cole Porter songs in the background.
She mixed cosmopolitans and martinis at the bar, and also served sherry ( a favorite of Dorothy Parker’s) and sparkling water. The food and drink wasn’t really the point at this party,” Joan said. “The characters were. Instead of having one costumed character walking around, everyone came in costume. They really got carried away.”
Guests arrived in little black dresses with fur stoles, long gloves, little hats with veils, and rhinestone cat’s eye glasses. Red lipstick was everywhere. “Many of the guests didn’t know one another, but the costumes gave them something to talk about,” Joan said.
After lunch, the group traveled en mass to the performance at the James Library in Norwell. “We caused quite a stir,” Joan said. “Everyone was asking about the ladies in costume. We had a ball.”
Joan says the all-woman guest list probably helped the costume party work. “I doubt many men would have enjoyed dressing in period getup,” she says, and adds that when her husband and other couples are included in her guest list, she usually opts for a smaller sit down dinner. “It all depends on my mood,” she says.
“There’s a party for everyone and every budget,” Mary Cochrane says. “The only bad party is one where the host is neuronic and uptight. No matter how big the budget or extensive the preparations, that does NOT make for a good gathering. Do what you can to prepare, then just relax and enjoy yourself. That’s why you had a party in the first place, isn’t it?”