The holiday season conjures up the best aspects of celebrating: food, drinks, family, friends, warm feelings, and good cheer — but for planners, it also represents one of the busiest, most stressful times of the year, and advance preparation is key.
Seasoned planners know the best tips and tricks for anything from a large corporate event to a private party to their own personal celebration. Here, I cover the four most important aspects of holiday entertaining from a planning perspective: venue, décor, lighting, and food and beverage.
The best venue for a holiday party exudes warmth and intimacy – but isn’t necessarily small. Architectural details like fine molding or a fireplace set an immediate tone, as does a beautiful view of a glittering skyline or a snow-covered garden. If necessary, larger spaces can be made more intimate with screens, furniture, or large décor elements. Abundant seating, preferably plush or upholstered, as well as a variety of high-top and cocktail tables, encourages mingling and conversation.
Most, if not all, commercial venues install their own holiday decorations for the season. A good planner will ask about this well in advance, and either tailor the décor to match, or speak to the venue manager about removing the house decorations prior to the event.
In general, holiday events are more decorated and more atmospheric than typical events — but for many, particularly those for a corporate or public institution, non-secular décor is necessary. In these cases, planners turn to nature and its seasonal bounty for décor inspiration. A departure point of cool “winter wonderland” or rich “natural forest” immediately evokes a panoply of ideas: glittery snow, glistening snowflakes, beautiful bare tree branches and twigs, white mushrooms, raw bark, for the former; evergreen fronds, pine cones, dark wood and branches , acorns, berries, and dense moss for the latter, and so forth.
Even for non-secular events, trees and branches make wonderful holiday décor — even unadorned. Large vases of white birch branches or a cluster of plain evergreen trees are simple, beautiful, and inexpensive.
At a small or seated event, décor elements can be limited to the buffet and bars, or used just in table centerpieces.
The preferred color palettes for a holiday party have evolved in recent years to brighter, more vibrant shades, but the classics are still reliable. Wintry whites, gold, silver, pewter, light gray, and ice blue are always popular for a winter theme; while creams, browns, reds, greens, navy, and plaid are very traditional holiday colors. For a modern, high-energy party, lime and chartreuse green, magenta, fuchsia, bright yellow, and robin’s egg blue are quite popular.
While the creative opportunities are endless for holiday party décor, many planners stick with familiar colors and motifs, appropriate for this festive, nostalgic season.
For any holiday party — and arguably, any event during the rest of the year — lighting is perhaps the most important décor element. At an evening holiday party, candlelight is de rigueur, but LED tealights or white string lights can achieve a somewhat similar effect when candles are not permitted (a knowledgeable planner ALWAYS asks the candle policy at any venue). Combinations of pillars, votives, and tealights arranged throughout a space or interspersed on a buffet create a warm atmosphere, especially if placed on an architectural support such as a mantel or window sill or mullion. If the budget includes professional lighting, projections of forest imagery, falling snowflakes mixed with sparkle, or just a wash of color accented with uplights can transform a space.
Food and Beverage
Holiday parties, large or small, are best served by a well-stocked buffet. For large corporate groups, contiguous staffed buffets with repeated offerings lined cleanly against a wall are perfect: they can accommodate many people at once, and perform especially well for a sudden influx of guests typical of a corporate holiday party.
The menu is typically heavy and seasonal. Roasted meats and poultry at carving stations or richly-sauced pastas are excellent base dishes. Seasonal vegetables in chafing dishes such as potatoes, squash, and greens like Swiss chard and kale are hearty and can stand up to time on a table. Most importantly, a heavier menu can offset the common problem of over-imbibing.
A recent catering trend that works for large holiday parties is casual comfort foods. French fries, mini cheeseburgers, individual mac and cheeses, tuna melts, little ice cream cones, and cookie sandwiches have been re-imagined by caterers with high-end ingredients and delicious results.
Whatever the menu, food should be constantly replenished and available throughout the party via the buffet and passed hors d’oeuvres. Light appetizers should be followed by main dinner, followed by a dessert offering or bar. Snacks should also be available throughout the space and on the bar — mixtures of nuts, pretzels, and dried or candied fruit work particularly well.
People love to drink at holiday parties, and bars are typically long and well-staffed to accommodate the crowds. For large crowds or venues, most planners will add smaller bars around the space, and will place the main bar as far from the entrance as possible in order to draw guests in and prevent bottlenecks at the door.
A good cost-saving technique for the bar is to offer only beer and wine, as well as a signature seasonal cocktail. Caterers are accustomed to this request and will craft a perfect drink for the evening.
The holiday season is a festive but incredibly busy time of year, and once underway, the social calendar can seem overwhelming. Experienced professional planners know that wrapping up all of the details in advance will always guarantee for all a good night.
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