The Keys to Hosting a Stress-Free Holiday Gathering

Tablescape by Party Little Things. Photography by Katherine Mei Photography.

One of the hallmarks of the season is a calendar full of soirées, and the most memorable usually occur in someone’s decked home. If you long to throw a holiday party but the stress of it all is holding you back, you’re not alone. We reached out to a few scouted party experts for their advice on how to host a casual gathering that’s low on fuss and big on quality time, which is the whole point in the first place. Go ahead and gather your people, cue the holiday music, and get busy making merry. 

Curate your guest list. There is no rule that says a holiday party has to be an over-the-top extravaganza. “Less is more in all aspects,” shares Taylor Larson, owner of Hill Event Co. in Monmouth County, New Jersey. For a casual gathering, your guest list can range from eight to 20, depending on the intimacy you’re going for. Anything bigger, and you get into large-party territory. Furthering the casual messaging, Larson recommends sending out a simple text with the date, location, and time, along with a note that their presence is all that’s needed. 

Make your space cozy. Whether sipping on a glass of wine around an outdoor firepit or enjoying company beside the hearth indoors, Larson stresses that ensuring your guests are comfortable is key for casual entertaining. Consider encouraging your guests to slip off their shoes and have a basket of blankets at the ready that invite settling and cozying up. 

Opt for a theme. Choosing a theme is a professional party planner’s trick. Not only does it give direction to your guests on what to wear, explains Anna Wynn Rogers, owner of Anna Wynn Event Designs in Huntsville, Alabama, but it streamlines your entire planning process from invitations to what food and drink to provide. There are many directions you can go, from Tacky Christmas and Favorite Holiday Movie to White Elephant and Best Holiday Dish Cook-off. The sky is truly the limit, and if you have a theme, the details come together way more effortlessly than an event that is more general. 

Tablescape by Hill Event Co. Photography by Mary Dougherty.

Keep your focus on your guests. The main objective of entertaining should always be around connection. Katie Denton, owner of Bees Nees in Virginia Beach, Virginia, makes a point to make her guests feel like the most important people in the world. “I always welcome them with grace and warmth,” she shares. “I try to greet each guest at the door with a handshake or a hug, offer to take their bags and jackets, and immediately take their drink order.” A stressed out host who is banging around in the kitchen rubs off on your guests, so she stresses that attention should always be on quality exchanges rather than fussing over decorations or highly involved food and drink prep. 

Batched cocktails for the win. Following the advice of simplified entertaining queen Ina Garten, Rachael Bruzas, co-owner/event designer at Party Little Things in Carmel, Indiana, and Chicago, Illinois, advises making batched cocktails in lieu of spending the evening with a cocktail shaker in hand. “I always make sure to have one or two pre-made cocktails for my guests to enjoy,” she shares. “There are so many great festive drinks for the holidays and most taste better the longer you prep ahead, giving the ingredients time to marry together in the fridge.” She keeps things special by styling her bar with on-theme drink stirrers, patterned straws, cheeky cocktail napkins, unique glasses, and an assortment of garnishes such as skewered fruits, fresh herbs, dried citrus slices, gourmet olives, and various bitters. Guests can then enjoy an interactive DIY bar experience and dress up their cocktail to their liking. Denton makes a point of having a pitcher of water available with glasses so guests can help themselves stay hydrated while imbibing.

Tablescape by Bees Nees. Photography by Katie Slater.

Consider restraint with your menu. One area where people often go overboard is with food and drink options. Larson explains that all you really need is a great bottle of red wine, a few flavorful cheeses, and crackers. Bruzas opts to purchase ready-made items rather than spending all her time on cooking up elaborate recipes. “I’ll pop into my local high-end market and bakery and seek out a few high-quality, pre-made items, saving me hours of work,” she explains. She also pays special attention to presentation; plating her store bought items on gorgeous serving pieces and adding garnishes adds a special je ne sais quoi. Denton’s entertaining go-to is baked brie covered in phyllo dough. “I serve it warm with crackers and fig spread and it’s always a crowd pleaser,” she says. 

You don’t have to go overboard on decor. Presumably, your halls will already be decked for the holidays, so in the name of simplicity, you don’t really need to do anything extra. If you do, Denton advises adding greenery to vases, either trimmed from your backyard or even a couple of snips from your Christmas tree. “I also love sourcing eucalyptus and rosemary and adding it to unexpected places around the house, focusing on areas where my guests are going to relax or dine,” she says. As a final touch, she sprinkles light-smelling or unscented candles throughout her entertaining spaces, and it’s an especially nice and refreshing touch in the bathroom.  

Tablescape by Anna Wynn Event Designs. Photography by Aislinn Eileen Photography.

Music is essential. As with any gathering, your playlist selection sets the tone for your party. Rogers is always a fan of old-school holiday music, but if that doesn’t fit your gathering, there are plenty of festive playlists on the music streaming service of your choice—or make your own—that will help make your event a hit. A good rule of thumb is to start out with the classics, roll into more contemporary music, and close out with calmer selections. Rogers notes that when you’re ready for your gathering to wrap, silence is usually the social cue that “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,” so use it to your advantage. 

TSG Tip 447 from Taylor Larson, owner of Hill Event Co. in Monmouth County, New Jersey; Katie Denton, owner of Bees Nees in Virginia Beach, Virginia; Rachael Bruzas, co-owner/event designer at Party Little Things in Carmel, Indiana and Chicago, Illinois; and Anna Wynn Rogers, owner of Anna Wynn Event Designs in Huntsville, Alabama. Hill Event Co. appears in The Scout Guide Two Rivers & The Shore. Bees Nees appears in The Scout Guide Tidewater. Party Little Things appears in The Scout Guide Hamilton County. Anna Wynn Event Designs appears in The Scout Guide Huntsville