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!
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?
Realistically, a between-holidays meal or gathering helps to take some of the pressure off, for you (the host) 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, or worrying about whether or not they’ve prepped correctly to meet the dress code, chances are that they could use a break.
Ready to set up the buffet table, prep some winter-themed goodies in the kitchen, and roll out the red carpet?
Here are my tips:
1. Be flexible with the guest list (within reason)
If your goal is really to share a meal (or at least some snacks) with friends and loved ones, they might be more likely to come to your event if their siblings/roommates/significant others, etc. are invited to tag along.
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 friends is what you’re 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 nicer (and maybe Grandma will even volunteer to babysit!).
2. Be flexible with the menu
Since the goal here is really spending time with the people that you care about (plus, enjoying some delicious food…) it’s best to stick to a simple menu, and fill in with extras.
Maybe your aunt is overloaded with 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!
Bonus: Since the menu is going to be super casual, if you do find yourself with some free time on your hands leading up to the party, this is the perfect opportunity to go against all of that (supposedly) tried-and-true party-hosting advice.
How? Break out a 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, 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.
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 Grandma that we no longer eat meat (or that we no longer belong at the kiddie table, despite the fact that we do not have our own children) to that feeling that you get when sitting down to yet another formal dinner (and facing yet another prime rib with a side of green beans).
Counteract that familiar holiday feeling of desperation by putting yourself and your guests in control. Here’s how:
- 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), hot cocoa, or cocktails.
- Serve “fun food” and indulge in childhood favorites.
- Avoid the sit-down formal meal at all costs.
4. Build in a laid-back activity
At this point in the holiday season, many of your guests will have already socialized their brains out.
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 – macaroni and cheese, cheese pizza and ice cream? Sounds good to me!).
- Dancing to (perhaps 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 hot chocolate (especially chestnut hot chocolate) to warm up.
- Baking cookies (like these snowflake cookies) and making candy together.
- Playing a competitive sport (like sled racing, or touch football… or MarioKart – that’s a sport, right?) or a board or card game, with or without corresponding snacks and beverages.
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.
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 decide to move in.
On the other hand, it’s also up to you if you actually decide that 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 (or perhaps even close) 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, make sleeping arrangements that fit your living space, and have fun!
Speaking from Example
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!).
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 (plus all of those delicious cookies that everyone gets to sample) and the party favors are built in (in the form of the 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.
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… do I need to say it? This is what we live for.
No Invitation Necessary
Back at home, we also hold a super informal cookie bake-off 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’s around (or a quick phone call and short car ride away) is invited.
We listen to Christmas music, critique each other’s cookie prepping skills (some people are best at doing the dishes… so what?), 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.
Now that I live thousands of miles away from my brother, I have to say, cooking late into the night with him on these rare occasions before holidays has become one of my favorite ways to spend time with him, and his fiancé.
In the past couple of years, I’ve started collecting new cookie recipes for months before my wintertime vacation, and I send one to her every once in awhile, leading up to the day when my husband and I will finally hop on a plane to go home.
I think it’s something that all of us look forward to.
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!
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.