How to Throw an Awesome Holiday Bash & Stay Sane Enough to Enjoy It

Whether it’s a family reunion or a New Year’s Eve bash, throwing a great party is a snap. (Photo by Juliet Jarmosco)

’Tis the season to be merry . . . and that means holiday potlucks, dinner parties, open houses, cocktail parties, New Year’s Eve bashes, and Super Bowl get-togethers. Maybe it’s your turn to host the family dinner or perhaps you just want to show all your friends a good time. Here’s what you need to know to navigate the pitfalls of holiday entertaining and throw a great party!

The Guest List—Who’s Coming?

You’ve decided what kind of party to throw, carefully crafted your guest list, and issued the invitations. Now all you have to do is buy some chips and dip, and wait for the guests to show up, right? Hah! If that were true, Miss Manners would go out of business, since half of the people who write to her are desperate hosts wondering how to get a simple yes or no out of their invitees.

What can you do to increase your odds of getting a response to your invitation? Try giving a deadline: “Please let me know by the 15th if you’ll be able to attend so I will know how much cheese dip to prepare.” You could send an electronic invitation that automatically reminds guests. If you’re lucky, after the second or third reminder they’ll finally let you know one way or another. Ultimately, you may have to approach getting RSVPs like a big game hunter and resort to tracking down your prey—er, guests—one by one.

Look, invitees, I get it. You don’t mean to be rude or drive the people who want to feed and entertain you crazy; you’re just really busy and haven’t had a chance to RSVP yet, even though you’ve known since last week that you’ll be going. Late RSVPers, be warned, though: your aspiring host may take Miss Manners’ advice and strike you from future guest lists.

Feeding the Hordes

What’s the most important thing to know when it comes to providing food and drink to your guests? Serve an abundance. Not even bad lighting or obnoxious music will kill a party as effectively as inadequate refreshments. Your guests will stare morosely at the empty platters as if they could replenish them through the power of their gaze alone. Eventually, they will give up and make up an excuse to leave early so they can hit the drive-thru on the way home.

Moral of the story? Don’t skimp on the refreshments unless you want your guests to spend the drive home talking about you behind your back while they shove French fries in their hungry mouths.

Picky Eaters

It used to be that you could serve a generous assortment of delicious food and your guests would be happy. If only it were still that simple. As you receive your hard-earned RSVPs, you’ll also start receiving notice of food preferences and allergies. “Everything will be organic, right?” “I’ve been on the Free Diet for three months now—it’s soy, dairy, egg, meat, sugar, nut, gluten, yeast, tomato, and grain free.” It’s enough to make a host give up and cancel the party.

But don’t throw in the towel yet! Food allergies are serious and require accommodation, but those with genuine issues are usually willing to work with their host and often volunteer to bring a dish. For everyone else, just do what feels manageable within the budget and time you have available. Most guests, when confronted with an array of mouthwatering foods, adopt a policy of don’t ask, don’t tell. If they don’t ask you if that sour cream dip was made with organic spinach picked by the light of the full moon, you won’t tell them that you have no idea where the spinach came from because you bought the dip premade from the grocery store.

“Cleaning” Your House and Other Illusions

Now that you’ve planned your menu, it’s time to get the house ready. The most important thing to do is plan ahead. If you deep clean and organize your house the week before, all you’ll need to do on the morning of the party is a quick vacuum and dusting.

All right, now that we’ve all stopped laughing, here’s how to make your house look clean in ten minutes. Tidiness gives the impression of cleanliness, so gather up all the miscellaneous clutter lying around  any room your guests might enter, dump it in laundry baskets or garbage bags, and stash it in the closet under the stairs or in your spare bedroom. If you want to be able to easily redistribute the mess later, use a separate receptacle for each room’s junk. Wipe and vacuum up any obvious dirt, but don’t get carried away—if your party is any fun at all, things will just get dirty again. In the bathroom, pull the shower curtain closed to hide the moldy bathtub, give the countertop, sink, and mirror a good wiping, scrub the toilet bowl, and neatly hang a clean hand towel.

Look, your house is gleaming like it’s actually clean!

The Early Bird Deserves Worms

Okay, your house is clean, or at least looks like it is, and all that’s left is for you to slip upstairs and change out of your sweatpants into something nice. Unless the doorbell rings, heralding the arrival of everyone’s least favorite guest—the Early Bird. You can’t get the Early Bird to stop treating the time on your invitation as if it were issued in a different time zone anymore than you can get the elusive non-RSVPers to actually tell you ahead of time if they’re coming.

But seriously, guests, don’t be early. And don’t be more than 15 to 30 minutes late either. As for you, host, aim to be presentable a full hour before guests are due to arrive.

How to Get Your Guests to Leave

Is it possible for you to be too successful at throwing a great party? It may feel that way if the invitations say the shindig ends at midnight but the party’s still going strong at 1 a.m.

How can you get your guests to leave before you turn into a pumpkin? If subtle hints about the late hour have no effect, you may have to resort to stronger measures. Start putting away the food and drinks. Hand people their coats and thank them for coming as you steer them to the door.

If all else fails, put on a video montage of your child’s ballet recitals and watch everyone suddenly remember that they have to be somewhere early the next morning.

Facing Cleanup

Now that the guests have cleared out, it’s just you and a house full of half-empty plates, lipstick-stained glasses, and overflowing trash cans. Should you turn the music up and clean it all up now? Or face it the next morning after you’ve gotten some sleep?

I’m afraid you’ll have to figure that out on your own, as I’ve got a very important appointment first thing tomorrow. Otherwise, I’d definitely stay and help. Thanks for inviting me. Goodnight!