So you’re hosting a holiday gathering.
Whether you’re a newbie or an experienced pro, having guests requires planning, work and a certain je ne sais quoi if you want the occasion to be a success.
After all, gatherings are about more than just serving the right appetizers. They’re opportunities to create meaningful memories with friends and family.
[Lead Photo: Samantha Gale Designs]
Fortunately, making your event memorable doesn’t require a whole lot of cash or time.
Adding just a few special touches is all it really takes to transform an everyday get-together into an unforgettable one.
“The main thing is you want to give your guests something they just don’t get somewhere else,” said Samantha Thomas, designer and owner of Samantha Gale Designs, a vintage farmhouse design company in Canton.
She says it starts with atmosphere.
“Music is key; one of the things that really pulls at people’s heartstrings is vintage music,” she said. “I find that music that we don’t hear every day is really inspiring and breathes different life into a party, table setting or intimate dinner.”
Stacy Moher, founder of Living Interiors of Connecticut, an interior design and home staging firm that serves Hartford, Litchfield, New Haven and Fairfield counties, agrees that music is fundamental to setting the mood.
“It really depends on the type of get-together you want to have and what you want your ambiance to be like,” she said. “You can even make a playlist or listen to music related to the holiday season.”
When it comes to creating atmosphere, proper lighting is also important.
“Always have your lighting be low and use natural lighting; candles everywhere, in different sizes,” said Thomas.
Repurposing unconventional items like old posts or chair legs into ad hoc candle stands is one way Thomas adds some distinctive flair.
“Anything that’s a bit different,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to take chances.”
After ambiance, it’s all about the tablescape.
“For the holiday season, take out the good stuff,” said Moher.
“Many of us have china collections and rarely use them because we’re always waiting for some special day to use them,” she said. “But your guests will appreciate that you’re using your special dishes with them.”
And no worries if they don’t all match.
Thomas says it can be more appealing to mix and match dishes and table settings, especially when you layer items that you might not ordinarily think to combine.
“On a table do a natural, organic material like burlap, then layer it with a plaid runner, then on top of that, a bold-patterned tea-towel napkin,” she said.
“My philosophy is that there are no rules. It’s all about a feeling, and if you achieve that feeling, you’ll know that you nailed it.”
When your gathering includes children, Moher suggests going the extra mile to make the kids’ table special.
“At my holiday gatherings, they get their own special holiday glasses and some type of game or craft at their table to keep them occupied after they’re finished eating and the adults are still indulging.”
Moher also said that kids appreciate having their table decorated using whimsical accents like candy canes in jars.
“A lot of kids don’t like to be at the kid’s table,” she said, “so make it fun for them, too.”
For either children or adults, Moher said that place cards can make table settings feel more formal and elegant.
And to give them a festive flair, they can be attached to pine cones, pumpkins or ornaments that guests can later take home as party favors.
“Another special thing you can do is, at each place setting, you can include a photo of the guest that you may have taken of them throughout the year,” she said.
To give your gathering a farmhouse feel, Thomas recommends using vintage breadboards as serving platters.
“You don’t want to eat on them,” she explained, “but you can throw a tea towel over them, put a fresh-baked loaf of bread, slice it up, and do big chunks of three really great kinds of cheeses with a knife stuck in the top, and let people serve themselves.”
She also suggests adding a jar of jam with a burlap tie and plaid bow to add to the harvest atmosphere.
If alcohol will be served, Thomas recommends offering hot and cold signature cocktails to your guests.
“Think simple. Hot chocolate with chocolate liqueur and some take on a Moscow Mule. Or depending on what holiday it is, an apple cinnamon or moonshine drink.”
Serving a specialty cocktail is something guests often find memorable about an occasion.
When it comes to food, Moher said that if your budget and time allow, serve a variety of options that will appeal to all taste buds.
“It’s also good to know ahead of time if any guests have any food allergies or health concerns, so you’re prepared to accommodate them.”
And if you’re short on time or cooking just isn’t your strong suit, Moher says, there’s nothing wrong with letting someone else do the work.
“Don’t think you have to be a professional chef to have a pleasing meal prepared,” she said.
“Catered foods or ready-made foods that you can find at your local supermarket can be a great time-saving solution.”
Another added touch is printing your menu and displaying it in a frame for the guests to see what’s being served.
Framing the menu will make guests feel they are in for a treat. (Living Interiors of Connecticut)
“It makes guests feel like they’re in for a real treat,” Moher said.
Finally, when it comes to the rest of the house, adding a few accents can go a long way toward making your home feel cozy and festive.
“Don’t break the bank trying to redecorate,” said Thomas. Instead, she recommends decorating key areas with textured pillows and bold-patterned throw blankets to pull your house together before hosting company.
“Things like that are really easy, quick fixes that inspire,” she said.
Other easy ways to decorate include using big stalks of wheat as accents or filling large bowls with natural and woven items like fabric pumpkins and real gourds to create visual interest.
“It ignites something in a person’s senses,” Thomas said. “It ignites a feeling.”
Depending on the holiday, other elements like tree branches in vases, wreaths, mini pumpkins and pine cones can also be used to help create the seasonal tone, Moher says.
Perhaps most important: Be sure to enjoy the gathering.
“You don’t need to strive for perfection,” Moher said. “If you don’t have time to make that last dish, or make a song playlist that you’d hoped for, it’s all OK. Perfection to me is seeing smiles on my guests’ faces, not whether my décor, food or whatever is perfect.
“As host, we need to have fun, too.”