Holiday cooking makes its debut with Thanksgiving. That holiday has its regional and national favorites. Few people can imagine Thanksgiving day without a turkey taking center stage in all of its golden brown glory. Pumpkin pie runs a hot second, with sweet potato pie chasing it in the South. With all of that said, and at this point, eaten…it’s the Christmas season that sees American cooking go all out.
We see the Christmas parties start making their rounds with next weekend, generally. As the first weekend in December, it’s the unofficial start to the holiday season’s parties. A few kinds of foods are traditional treats during these events.
The first section is the appetizer, hors d’oeuvres, or finger foods. Typically, these are savory single-bite foods that can be eaten with the fingers or a cocktail fork from a plate balanced on the hand or a napkin. They are perfect for the buffet line, cocktail party, or even open house parties.
These can be everything from fruit & vegetable platters served with dips, to more elaborate affairs of hot and cold formal hor d’oeuvres. Often, they are miniaturized versions of popular entrees, sandwiches, etc. They also tend to be regional–no one in New Orleans would consider a party to be complete if it lacked miniature muffalattas! On the Gulf Coast, offerings including things such as shrimp, crab, and oysters are considered to be “must-haves.” For affairs at home, served without caterers and other staff, the hostess needs to remember temperature requirements for various offerings, and ensure he or she is not a slave to bringing food to the guests by mixing hot and cold appetizers and trays. There is no fun in giving a party if you can’t even enjoy the compliments on the food!
Another area in which holiday offerings are the very pinnacle is the sweets department. Everything from pecan pralines to elaborate gingerbread houses, tiny spiced cookies to fat decorated and frosted ones, complicated pies and elaborately decorated cakes make their appearance during holiday celebrations. Skilled bakers really find ample opportunity to let their skills shine during holidays.
These sweet treats make for great open house parties with nothing more than the sweets, tea, and coffee on the menu, allowing people to drop by and enjoy your company and then go about their regular schedule. This style of party works well with families who often have busy schedules and are unwilling to commit an entire evening and hire a baby sitter for a cocktail party or supper party.
I used to host an open house the weekend before Christmas each year. It was an easy way to celebrate with family and friends when I had young children myself. The preparation was done the prior days before the party, and the day of the party meant only a few things had to be done…like arranging vegetables & fruit on platters, setting out the dips in their tray of ice, arranging platters of cookies, cakes, candies, and other sweets, filling a couple of slow cookers with offerings such as chili, soup, nacho sauce, etc. and filling some bowls with chips. By using disposable plates, bowls, napkins, cups and glasses, as well as flatware, I kept the clean up to a minimum and was able to enjoy people as they dropped by. Small decorative bags were filled with cookies and candies, and were ready to be handed to people to take home with them as they left, with trinkets for the children to enjoy.
I also made it known it was a family-friendly holiday party…without alcohol. I may be rather conservative, but past experience had taught me that mixing alcohol, adults, and children was not necessarily a recipe for success. Eliminating the alcohol meant that everyone felt comfortable dropping by with their children and that I felt more comfortable about the party with my own children there as well.
Preparing for the party is more than dusting your bric a brac and putting away shoes. With an open house party, people may stay for only a few minutes or for hours…and their children are going to be milling around and playing with your own children, often with minimal supervision. That means making everything child-friendly is wise, as well as putting up any special toys that your children may have. Pre-schoolers are not known for their hosting skills, and having children they may have not met before invading their space and potentially mishandling “special” toys is a recipe for tantrums and disputes.
Put together three different toy areas, if possible, geared around age groups. By enlisting your children’s help, they can also learn lessons about everything from “sharing” to “preparing”. Toddlers and preschoolers would have one designated area, the 5-8 yr olds would have toys for them in another area, while the toys for 8-12 yr olds would go to a third area. Enlisting the “help” of older children to supervise the younger is also an excellent way to ensure that things go smoothly the day of the party, and many neighbor, nieces/nephews, cousins, etc. will be willing to help in return for something such as a pizza party, trip to the zoo, movie night, etc. Pre-teens and teens are especially good “assistant hosts” for these kinds of events. They aren’t really “babysitting” so much as hanging out and making sure that no one gets hurt and that parents are quickly brought in if there is a problem.
Set rules for the kids and the food too. Specify where they are allowed and not allowed to take their drinks and food but be reasonable. Without supervision, sticky fingered toddlers are undoubtedly going to make it into the living room with the white rug and china statues. We all like to show off our prized possessions, but in an open house situation, it is often best to remove breakables, stainables, and treasured items from the reach of potential disaster. If you are going to be heartbroken if it is damaged…move it.
If you have pets, remember that doors are going to be open, gates are apt to be forgotten, food is going to be accessible, people are going to be allergic or phobic, and there are undoubtedly going to be problems. Even if Fluffy and Fido love everybody, everybody doesn’t love them, and few people are going to be mindful of minor details like how toxic chocolate is to dogs or that indoor cats should not be allowed outdoors.
Be safe, and remove your pets from harm’s way as a caring and responsible pet owner.
Lock them in a separate part of the house or better yet…board them with a friend or kennel for the day. (I’ve had people let dogs out that were in a crate in a bedroom that was designated off-limits, so it DOES happen!) Keep a close eye on aquariums, especially when toddlers and pre-schoolers are around (my 2 year old daughter fed ours cereal & milk once…not too good for fish!) and for other small pets, once again, remove them from harm’s way or PADLOCK cages closed to keep them safe. Even padlocked, some people may not show consideration for the pet, and continue to bang on the cage, poke things into it, and generally stress the small creatures immensely. You are giving a party, not presenting a seminar in pet care, and it is much less stressful for everyone if they are simply not visible to guests. Save the educational experiences for another day.
So you have selected your menu and recipes, done your shopping, prepared the food, prepared the house, prepared play areas and come up with some rules to use for the day. You have chairs and tables scattered around to allow people to sit and enjoy the company, food, and beverages. You’ve enlisted a couple of teens to help monitor the kids’ activities through the day. You’ve decorated the house from top to bottom. What else?
Special touches make it even more fun for people to come to your parties, and even anticipate an invitation to come the following year. A good party this year often means a great party next year, with it expanding each year into a bit bigger event until you finally draw the line. On the counter side, a poorly planned party this year will likely result in next year’s party having fewer guests actually attend. None of us want to have the “bad party”, and we all want our guests to leave feeling truly privileged to have been invited and attend our open house party.
Decide which day and what hours you are going to devote to hosting your party. Saturdays are a great day for doing them, and I typically would host a party from 2 pm until 9 or 10 pm, with most of the families with children attending prior to 7 pm, and my childless friends coming later in the evening. I chose those hours to accommodate work schedules, as many of my friends would be working sometime during that day. The open house style allowed everyone time to plan on coming, yet deal with their regular routine. Fridays and Sundays might be other good days for your particular circle of friends and your schedule. I also made sure that I was not going to be working the day before or the day after the party, as well as the day of the party. That allowed me time to prepare for the party unfettered by work, as well as rest and finish clean up after the party. Extra preparation time was needed to ensure that I had some special touches to add to the party atmosphere.
Its those special touches that go from go-eat-drink-hang-out-and-get-going-again to I-can’t-believe-we-have-been-here-for-three-hours-and-we-can’t-wait-to-come-again-next-year. Your party can also serve as a method of collecting for a charity, whether its a “bring a can of food and get a cookie bag” or “donate a new toy and get a surprise package” or whatever. Trinkets and treats for the youngsters are always a great touch, and keep the gift giving to a minimum too. Don’t pass out the packages until your guests are leaving, which means they take home the wrapping as well. Santa at the party is also a fantastic special touch.
Ask your guests to RSVP so that you can accurately prepare sufficient gift bags, food, beverages, etc. but leave their time of arrival at your open house as open–that leaves them plenty of flexibility. Some families encounter numerous scheduling conflicts due to church, school, social organizations, charity organizations, and family, leaving little time for their friends during the holiday rush. Your open house party means that people can drop by for half an hour, an hour, or the entire afternoon, depending on their individual schedule. This style of party suits everyone with busy schedules, from the host to the guests, as the host has an opportunity to see far more people during an open house party comfortably than could be accommodated at a supper party or cocktail party. The smallest house or apartment can manage a hundred people in a six or seven hour open house, whereas it would normally only manage a dozen for a more formal party.
So get to work and get planning. There is no better time to make your foray into social events than the holiday season!