5 Tips to Host the Perfect Wintertime Gathering Between Holidays

The holidays are here, and you know what that means: opening presents, dressing up for fancy dinners, sharing cocktails with co-workers, and then rushing off to the next party!

If you aren’t already holiday-evented out, try hosting a more relaxing wintertime gathering that isn’t focused around a specific holiday, like Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Year’s.

Why am I encouraging you to fit yet another event into your schedule at this time of year, when it’s already packed to the brim?

Vertical image of friends celebrating the winter festivities together, with text on the top and bottom of the image.

Realistically, a between-holidays meal or gathering helps to take some of the pressure off for you as well as your guests.

Since many of your friends or relatives are most likely already committed to traveling to a certain relative’s house for holiday-oriented events, or hosting a dinner or get-together of their own, pressure is often high to attend multiple events on the same day, the “right” day – i.e. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, etc.

Opening up the calendar to allow for less formal wintertime get-togethers helps to create new traditions, and allows for a more flexible schedule.

This also gives your guests an opportunity to relax!

If they’ve been spending the majority of their time playing host, surviving the twists and turns of the holiday season, or worrying about whether or not they’ve prepped correctly to meet the dress code, chances are they could use a break.

Ready to set up the buffet table, prep some winter-themed goodies in the kitchen, and dim the Christmas lights?

Here are my five tips:

1. Be Flexible with the Invite List, within Reason

If your goal is to have a fun and festive time with a bunch of friends and loved ones, they might be more excited to come to your event if their siblings/children/roommates/significant others are invited to tag along.

Horizontal image of friends celebrating together in festive rompers.

Keep in mind: it’s likely that your event will be well attended, barring an unforeseen snowstorm, since most if not all of the people on your guest list will already be on vacation or will at least have some down time from work.

If this scares you, be casual with the invites and don’t be afraid to send them out last minute.

If alone time with a core group of friends is what you’re really after, or if you can’t imagine a relaxing get-together that’s packed with kids, don’t be afraid to say so.

Though an open-door policy is nice, a kid-free cocktail-fueled dance party might be even better.

And maybe Grandma will even volunteer to babysit!

2. Have Fun with the Menu

Since the goal here is spending time with the people you care about – plus enjoying some delicious food! – it’s best to stick to a simple menu and fill in with extras.

Horizontal image of a group of friends celebrating together with appetizers and drinks in the kitchen.

Maybe your aunt is overloaded with Christmas candy that she received from coworkers, or your dad overdid it this year in the cookie baking department.

Sounds like an excellent spread for the potluck dessert table at your gathering!

And because the menu is going to be super casual, you might find yourself with some free time on your hands leading up to the party. If that’s the case, now is the perfect opportunity to go against all of that tried-and-true party-hosting advice.

How? By breaking out an unfamiliar recipe or two that you’ve been dying to try!

At best, you’ll have something new and exciting to surprise your guests with, but the experiment won’t be crucial to your event’s menu if it’s a total flop.

Lots of people like to host Thanksgiving leftover parties to not let anything go to waste, or cook up a big pot of chili for Super Bowl Sunday.

My advice is to look to those types of events for inspiration and then throw in a special surprise or two, like homemade mulled wine or homemade soft pretzels paired with wintry ales.

Make sure to check out our food inspirations for Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners, too!

3. Let Guests Serve Themselves

So many of us are downright robbed of our agency at the holidays.

Evidence of this runs the gamut from our inability to convince our aunts and uncles that we no longer eat meat, or that we no longer belong at the kiddie table despite being in our 30’s, to that feeling you get when sitting down to yet another formal dinner, and facing yet another poorly cooked prime rib with a side of steamed green beans.

Horizontal image of a hot chocolate bar.

Counteract that familiar holiday feeling of desperation by putting yourself and your guests in control and avoid the sit-down formal meal at all costs!

Instead, serve some fun bites, indulging in childhood favorites and finger food.

For example, you can set up a buffet for your guests to create their own unique grilled cheese sandwiches. Plug in the panini maker and set out various types of bread, cheese, fruit, meat, and condiments.

You can also have a self-serve hot chocolate bar, with a big batch of hot cocoa surrounded by large bowlfuls of toppings like homemade marshmallows, mini chocolate chips, peppermint bark, caramel sauce, and a mini bottles of booze!

Now, that’s a party!

4. INCLUDE a Laid-Back Activity

At this point in the holiday season, many of your guests will have already socialized their brains out.

Horizontal image of a group of friends playing board games together.

For some, this can be a good thing. But others are sick of explaining their latest project at work, or listening to a detailed account of an unpleasant medical procedure for the umpteenth time.

Take some of the pressure off by including a relaxing activity that emphasizes time spent together, with a different format than the usual conversation-fueled holiday meal or party. This could be:

  • Watching a movie together, and serving snacks or an easy meal that’s tied to the holiday’s theme, or that appear in the film. Hey, “Home Alone” fans – mac and cheese, cheese pizza and ice cream? Sounds good to me!
  • Dancing to – refreshingly non-holiday – jams, with a bowl of punch or bottled beers on a side table, and a few snacks to keep your energy up.
  • Building snowmen in the backyard, followed by steaming cups of your favorite wintertime beverages to warm up.
  • Baking cookies and making candy together.
  • Playing a competitive sport such as sled racing or touch football, or playing cards, a board game, or video games, with or without corresponding snacks and beverages.

The point is simple: to relax and have fun without any social anxieties!

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Shut It Down

Sometimes, one of the best parts about hosting your own event is that you get to decide when it’s over.

Vertical image of friends celebrating Christmas together.

Don’t be afraid to let guests know when it’s time to go home, either on the invitations themselves ahead of time, or whenever you’re ready to close up shop for the night.

Again, the goal here is to hold one of those casual events where the pressure is off and you’re free to relax and enjoy each other’s company, but not to the point where everybody has free reign of the fridge, your entire movie and photo collections have been spread throughout the living room, and you’re starting to wonder if your guests have actually decided to move in.

On the other hand, it’s also up to you to determine if a never-ending party is exactly what you’re after.

For many of us, the holiday season is a magical time when we get to see childhood and college friends, and distant relatives that we rarely get to see at any other time of year, barring a wedding or something of similar magnitude.

This is your opportunity to host a sleepover, complete with a pancake breakfast and real maple syrup the next morning. Go crazy!

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. If you do go with this option, just be sure to let guests know to bring their pajamas and to make sleeping arrangements that fit your living space.

Speaking from Experience

In my own family, we’ve instituted an annual cookie baking party. Sure, we’ve only held this event once so far, during that lull between Christmas and New Year’s, but the likelihood of turning it into a family tradition seems high – at least so far!

Horizontal image of a family baking together during the Christmas season.

One of my aunts is the host, since she has two ovens in her kitchen, and everyone is encouraged to bring the homemade cookie dough of their choosing, already prepped and ready for baking.

Takeout is ordered for dinner, in addition to all of those delicious cookies that everyone gets to sample.

And the party favors are built in with any remaining cookies, which everybody gets to bring back home.

Plus, there’s nothing like watching the football game together as a family – finally, something we can all agree on, or at least something other than politics and religion to argue about!

I’ve also hosted gatherings of family and friends a week or two before Christmas, on a weekend afternoon, with snacks and drinks provided.

Everyone gets to mingle and enjoy each other’s company, and this gives me a chance to socialize with everyone I care about, rather than seeing all of them separately.

I love exchanging Pollyanna/Secret Santa gifts and making foodie party favors, like homemade Nutella, maraschino cherries, pickled dilly beans, and spiced nuts for these kinds of things as well.

Again, this requires some advance planning and may be more stress-inducing than not for some. But for the Etsy and Pinterest lovers among us… this is what we live for!

We also hold an informal cookie bake-off competition at my mom’s house every year. It’s never planned for a specific day, but instead it happens more informally, sometime before Christmas and after I eventually roll into town.

It’s spontaneous, based on whenever we’ve made the effort to gather the requisite recipes and ingredients. And whoever is around is invited, including a few quick phone calls to anyone who is a short car ride away.

We listen to Christmas music, critique each other’s cookie prepping skills, share cookies with the neighbors, wrap last-minute presents, mix up cocktails for each other, and sometimes bake long into the night, with bakers drifting off to bed a few at a time, until all of the cookie batter is gone.

No Invitation Necessary

In the past couple of years, I’ve started collecting new cookie recipes for months before my wintertime vacation, and I send one to my mom every now and then.

Everything leads up to the day when we can finally all convene together, from family members who live thousands of miles away to next-door neighbors, to celebrate and relax.

I think it’s something that all of us look forward to.

Horizontal image of a group of friends celebrating Christmas together with drinks.

My hope is that you’ll find inspiration to create similar memories together with your special people, and that my tips will help you to host your own wintertime between-holiday gathering.

Do you already host an annual non-holiday wintertime get-together? Do you have the perfect cocktail or cookie recipe to share? Tell me all about it in the comments. Happy Holidays!

For more advice on hosting, cooking, baking, and gift-giving, read through our entire collection of essential tips and tricks, starting with these other holiday articles to stay on theme:

© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos via Shutterstock. Originally published on December 10, 2015. Last updated on December 22, 2023. With additional writing and editing by Nikki Cervone.

About Allison Sidhu

Allison M. Sidhu is a culinary enthusiast from southeastern Pennsylvania who has returned to Philly after a seven-year sojourn to sunny LA. She loves exploring the local restaurant and bar scene with her best buds. She holds a BA in English literature from Swarthmore College and an MA in gastronomy from Boston University. When she’s not in the kitchen whipping up something tasty (or listening to the latest food podcasts while she does the dishes!) you’ll probably find Allison tapping away at her keyboard, chilling in the garden, curled up with a good book (or ready to dominate with controller in hand in front of the latest video game) on the couch, or devouring a dollar dog and crab fries at the Phillies game.

7 thoughts on “5 Tips to Host the Perfect Wintertime Gathering Between Holidays”

  1. Although I have never experienced a cold Christmas holiday because I live in a tropical climate, I still found your article very entertaining and full of good information that anyone can use. You have shared several good ideas that I can apply to my holiday get together’s to ensure there success. Thank You!

  2. Thanks for writing this article in time for the holiday season! Of your tips I think number 2 is definitely the most important. Being a good host entails catering to preferences of different people, it is essential to offer options e.g. alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, heavy meals and lighter/vegetarian snacks. Hope everyone has a wonderful holiday!

  3. Well written, well said. I find it that relaxing with a group of close friends and family over holiday gatherings is always the way to go, but I’ve never been that much of a crowd hard-party person, so the tips on getting the laid-back atmosphere down are much appreciated.

  4. Great write up Allison.
    As someone who is trying to lose weight during the holidays I cannot stress how important it is to let people serve themselves.
    I don’t like it when someone else decides on how big my portion is, because I end up getting faced with the dilemma which is do I waste food that was given to me or do I overeat.

  5. I feel it’s important to make people feel comfortable and to let them snack when they want to. Those with diabetic or other health issues may need to eat as and when necessary and don’t want to be a bother, so keep food and snacks in the fridge or handy so they don’t need to look for them.

    I do feel sometimes paper plates help, when people want to have a snack and don’t want to create a mess. Keep lots of napkins around and be prepared for mess. I also label containers, so people can find what they are looking for or know what is what.

  6. Yay! Holiday parties are so much fun. I love the idea of using your panini maker at a party- putting out a bunch of different stuff for grilled cheese?! It’s brilliant and super hassle-free. Here’s another tip for a fun thing to do for the party activity: Heads Up! If you haven’t played it, it’s really easy and fun. You just have to download the app, and everyone can sit around the circle with a mug of mulled wine in hand!

  7. So why am I reading this at the end of January, right?! I loved these ideas, and I’m reading it now because I start getting excited about the holidays as soon as Labor Day is past… *but* I’m thinking a whole year long about things to do to make those last few months of the year very special. January is NOT too early for me to start! 😀

    Great idea about trying new recipes for parties… there’s no reason to always stick to the tried and true… none at all! I’ve been collecting recipes for years now, and trying them out on others is one of my great joys. Well, unless the recipe doesn’t turn out as expected, but that’s another story!

    Letting guests serve themselves is something I usually do as well… the more casual the gathering, the more I enjoy hosting *and* attending.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.