Like everything else in 2020, your holiday gatherings are going to look a little different this year. To make the most of the season, we asked some of our favorite entertaining experts for their best advice on creating holiday magic in the midst of it all.
1. Enlist Help
The pros, who in the best of times have teams of people to do the work, know that the key to any successful party is sharing the labor. And even if it’s a small (safe) gathering of your closest family and friends, that still applies.
“You don’t have to do it all yourself,” says Jung Lee, one of New York’s most sought-after event planners. “Your guests want to spend time with you, not watch you toil.”
Lee suggests outsourcing some tasks, whether that means supporting your favorite restaurant by ordering some of the food or asking friends to bring a side.
Catherine McCord, Food Network personality and founder of the family food–focused brand Weelicious, agrees.
“People want to help, so assign dishes or special batched cocktails for them to bring,” she says. “It helps you, and your guests will feel good about contributing.”
Once you delegate, think about what’s left for you to do and figure out what can be done pre-party. McCord preps everything—from slicing crudités to making dips and marinating proteins—a day ahead and sets the table that morning. Her husband kicks in on music, creating a fresh three- to four-hour playlist the night before.
2. Be Festive Virtually
For those hosting remotely, there’s no need for your gathering to feel like work—literally. To keep the “party” intimate, try to limit the guest list to four to six people or households, so the screen doesn’t get too crowded. Just as you would set the mood in person with music, consider creating a Spotify list to share that everyone can listen to while they’re getting ready.
The best parties happen when guests feel taken care of, which presents challenges when we’re not physically together. But thoughtful touches like sending each household a care package of party favors and a recipe for a signature cocktail creates that shared experience we all crave. Ask guests to play show-and-tell with a favorite holiday ornament or memento; or lead a game of trivia or Scattergories to help people feel connected.
Dressing the part also brightens spirits. Booth Moore, fashion editor and author of American Runway, suggests setting a festive mood by decorating yourself.
“Have fun with large, sparkly earrings that stand out on a screen,” Moore says. “Also, since we’re getting used to wearing masks when we go out, dramatic holiday eyes are going to be a big thing this year.”
3. Get Inspired with the Decor
“Pick an anchor and design the party around that,” says Brooklyn-based events planner Jove Meyer. “The inspiration can come from anywhere: a color, a specific plate, branches from the garden—look around you!”
Meyer suggests raiding closets and drawers for decor items, like forgotten candlesticks or empty wine bottles to hold flowers or candles: “Wrap bottles with yarn or wire; have fun with it!”
Chef and artist Natalia Pereira loves the ritual of setting a table, which reminds her of the welcoming feeling her mother created when she was growing up in Brazil.
“Flowers are so celebratory,” she says. Whether it’s in her intimate Los Angeles restaurant, WoodSpoon, or at the holiday table with close friends, Pereira likes to arrange simple bouquets in milk bottles and set the table with vintage textiles and mix-and-match ceramics that make for a gorgeous backdrop whether you’re able to safely gather together or you’re hosting remotely.
“Arranging your own flowers is such a beautiful gesture of love,” she says.
“I’m actually excited to host smaller or virtual get-togethers. I know it’s tough and different, to say the least, but I see it as a chance to slow down and have more personal and in-depth experiences.”—Jonathan
4. Set the Mood
For Lee, a party’s vibe relies less on decor and more on lighting. “Make it moody! Dim all overhead lights and use smaller table lamps and candlelight. I love putting scented candles in different parts of the house. During the holidays it’s sage and citrus, with an amber scent in the powder room,” she says.
Briana Valdez, founder and owner of HomeState, the cultish breakfast taco joint in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, creates mood with music. She uses Sonos to play the same playlist throughout the house.
“Having the same music indoors and out creates a fluidity as guests are moving around,” she says.
5. Help Them Help Themselves
To make things easy on yourself and let guests choose exactly what they want to eat, it’s hard to beat a platter full of cheeses, meats, tinned fish, and other tasty stuff.
“Party boards are visually abundant, like holiday eye candy,” says McCord. “They’re conversation pieces as well.” McCord also keeps backups of all food and beverages in similar containers for easy access to replenish platters so they look abundant and fresh.
Lee agrees that accessible self-serve stations—platters of small bites set out in different parts of the house, a buffet, and a self-serve wine station—mean guests don’t feel like they have to ask you for everything, keeping the party feeling casual and easy.
“I love a family-style meal because it allows people to connect, and you spend less time plating,” Meyer says.
And remember that if you’re hosting multiple families, it’s a good idea to set up separate food stations for each family, allowing for social distance between them. Have hand sanitizer out, and know that a gentle reminder that a guest replace her mask when not eating or drinking is totally OK.
6. Give Treats
Party favors aren’t mandatory, but sending your guests home with a little something to remember you by makes the fun last. Meyer always gives guests a gift as they go, like an extra dessert so they have a treat for later. “Give something you’ve made ahead or bought,” he says, and have them ready to go before the party starts.
Another go-to for Meyer? “I have a no-shoes policy in my home, so I love to give out fun socks to each guest because they’re both functional and festive! I buy a variety of styles, so each guest can have something that matches their personality.”
Moore suggests sparkly holiday masks as a favor. She suggests handing them to guests upon arrival, along with a boxed or canned cocktail with a straw as a social distancing–friendly mixed-drink alternative.
Lee likes having Polaroid cameras around at her parties because the cute, candid photos double as favors. “I also love having guests take videos that can be compiled and sent around to everyone later—especially now that we’ve spent months apart from loved ones. It’s so important to be able to look back and appreciate special memories together.”
7. Find Your Cleanup Rhythm
While Meyer appreciates guests who offer to help, he usually turns them down. “I’m very particular about the way I load my dishwasher, so it’s best if they leave it to me,” he says. “And as I’m not one who can leave the dishes out overnight, once everyone is gone, I sip on one final drink while I rinse and fill the dishwasher and let it run while I sleep.”
McCord, a busy mother of three, takes a different tack: “Don’t make yourself the only one who’s working. Sign up your kids or partner to help, whether they’re on dishes, blowing out candles, or taking out the garbage. Get your older kids involved post-party by offering a trade, like special time with you or an activity they’ve been excited about doing.” Make it fun for everyone by cranking up the music and turning it into another party!
By Heather John Fogarty | Illustrations by Peter Arkle