Written by Stephanie Scholl
The holidays create the perfect time to gather your friends for a festive and fun dinner party! There's already such a feeling of joy and revelry in the air, and gathering loved ones around your table is so celebratory and meaningful this time of year. I’ve long been a huge fan of dinner parties, as they’re the perfect combination of many of my favorite things: opening my home to others, delicious food and drinks, sparkling conversation, and creating special memories and moments. Even in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it’s necessary to gather friends together to celebrate life and celebrate friendships, and what better way to do that than across the table from one another?
Before all of this, though, here are some of my favorite essentials for throwing a successful and festive holiday dinner party with friends!
The basics: the design and the people
What kind of dinner party do you envision hosting? Before I do anything else, I plan some sort of general theme (like “holiday dinner party”) to build my dinner around. I love hosting seasonally festive parties and soirees, especially when embracing the elements of the Christmas and holiday season. There is an endless array of themes and ideas to choose from, and all it takes is a little creativity and a little inspiration to get your party on the right track!
For a sit-down dinner party, inviting six to eight guests is an ideal number. Of course, more or less is always fun – but ensure that it’s a somewhat-cohesive group of people. It’s fun for guests to mix and mingle, and choose your group of friends with your theme in mind, too! Dinner parties are a wonderful way to get to know others with similar interests, to expand friend groups, and to enjoy one another’s company in this particular setting. I love dinner parties, in particular, because it’s nice to see the whole group at once, and having six to eight people around a table is ideal for ensuring that you get to speak with everyone – and that everyone can be heard!
Ambiance is everything, and it should be carefully thought through to ensure your holiday dinner party evokes the feel that you intend and leaves your guests feeling that way, too! Think through all five senses as you plan out your party and which feelings you want to evoke (warmth, festivity, holiday cheer, etc). Setting the mood or ambiance of your dinner party is one of the crucial elements of a successful event, and those little details can really amount to a profound impact. Think about lighting (candlelight, string lights, Christmas lights, etc) so that your dinner party reflects the ambiance you intend – no one wants harsh fluorescent lighting at a holiday dinner party! Soft lighting (again, string lights or candles) offer a great and inexpensive option to really set the mood. And this time of year, it’s especially fun to have a fire roaring in the fireplace. There’s nothing cozier and happier than that - especially with a Christmas tree covered in lights nearby!
Fresh flowers and greenery (especially seasonal ones such as berries, holly, eucalyptus or olive, amaryllis, or anything foraged) are also a key elements of setting the atmosphere of your party – I always have plenty of blooms or greenery to scatter around in various vases or bottles. You don’t have to go over the top with elaborate floral arrangements to bring the holiday cheer indoors and make an impact with your decor. Extra branches of pine from your Christmas tree - or cut straight out of your yard - is easy, effective, and beautiful. Sometimes simple, more organic elements are even better! Background music (make a festive playlist, crank up Spotify or Pandora, or find the best channel) is also an excellent way to set the mood and bring that festivity to the air.
Personalized touches + meaningful details
It’s really all about those personalized touches and meaningful details. Demonstrating care and thought to your guests is paramount, and it’s a fun challenge to see how you can love your guests well through sometimes the smallest details. Even if you aren’t a calligrapher, you can hand-letter names for each place setting. If you have your own wedding china or any family heirlooms, break those out for this special occasion! I’m a firm believer that your best china and servingware should be used, and often. Think of special ways to include your friends in the prep of the dinner, or send them home with a sweet gift to remember the evening by (like a miniature rosemary Christmas tree, a favorite candle, or a goodie bag of sweet treats!). If you and your friends have any favorites (a favorite drink, song, tradition, or anything else), try to include it! And, above all, try to think ahead and see how you can love on and welcome your friends well by anticipating any needs and wholeheartedly welcoming them into your home. The smallest details often leave the biggest impression.
What’s a dinner party without the food?! One of my favorite aspects of hosting a holiday dinner party is deciding on the menu for the evening. There are so many different routes you can go, dependent on your skills and abilities in the kitchen, your budget, and what type of dinner party you’re hosting. I would advise that you try to keep the food as simple as possible so that you aren’t spending hours upon hours in the kitchen the day of the party (or worse, during it!). Simple doesn’t mean boring or unappetizing, though! Sitting down in the weeks or days before your dinner party to really meal plan can be a game changer. I always say that planning ahead and making detailed lists are key. Stick to what you know, curate the easiest (and most delicious!) menu to suit a variety of palates, and then get started with the shopping and prep work. Ideally, you’ll have a meal that is easy to prep in advance, and then it’s ready to go when your guests arrive without having to be stuck in the kitchen all night long.
When guests arrive, be sure to greet them with appetizers, a cocktail, and, most importantly, a hug or a big smile! If you think your friends would like to help out, setting out appetizers is a simple way to include and engage guests in the process. I believe that a fabulous cheese board is one of the most perfect things in the world, and it’s an ideal appetizer for a holiday dinner party. The presentation can be beautiful and leave an impression, and there is enough variety to please every palate. Choose several varieties and styles of cheese, have cracker and baguette options, fill in the holes with fresh fruits, nuts, and jams or spreads, and arrange it on a cheese board or even a wooden cutting board. A dinner party is, after all, about a meal together, so be sure to think ahead and plan your menu and food items!
Drinks + desserts
When I host a dinner party, I love selecting a couple fitting cocktails or drinks to serve! Oftentimes, it’s more simple to serve one or two signature cocktails instead of a plethora of drinks, especially if you prep in advance. You can also just serve a types of couple varieties of wine or beer, though I think themed cocktails have such pizzazz and really brighten things up. Plus, you can get creative with what you make (especially making it festive for the holidays!), thinking of a great name for your drinks, making pretty signage, and then serving it with all the holiday trimmings. Pull out your favorite glassware, utilize your bar cart and all its accessories, and top off those drinks with sugared cranberries, pomegranate seeds, a twist of orange, or some rosemary! And when in doubt, champagne is always the answer.
Don’t forget to provide other (non-alcoholic) drinks, too! Since it’s the holidays, you can add some fresh cranberries or pomegranate seeds to chilled water for a seasonal pop of color. Sparkling juices, hot apple cider, and sparkling water are also festive options to serve during a dinner party! You could also end the evening serving hot chocolate with all the toppings.
This essential dinner party tip speaks for itself, but make sure you have a delicious, showstopping dessert on hand to serve to your guests (homemade or store-bought – totally your call!). If baking really isn’t your thing, or if the thought of making a dessert makes you want to run for the hills, then, by all means, outsource your dessert! During the holidays, there are so many festive routes you can go: using a family recipe, baking a layered cake or a pie, serving an array of Christmas cookies, or really anything sweet! I also really love a beautiful presentation for a dessert, as it makes your guests feel special and well taken care of. A fabulous and mouthwatering dessert is the best way to end a successful dinner party!
Before you put too much pressure on yourself, especially during the holiday season, to throw a perfect and over-the-top dinner party, be sure to remember that true hospitality comes down to the heart behind it. I absolutely love the beautifully curated details, the amazing meal, a well-stocked bar cart, and a gorgeous tabletop, but I deeply believe that all of this is for nothing if your guests don’t feel welcomed and loved! Ultimately, be sure that you’re creating an atmosphere where your home is warm, welcoming, relaxed, and fun. If you’re stressed, worried, or harried, chances are, your guests are going to feel it, too. Embrace the fact that something may go wrong! Allow ample time for socializing, mixing, and mingling in a relaxed, comfortable, joyful atmosphere – this is key to a successful, memorable dinner party. Fully enjoy that loved ones are gathered together at your table and be thankful for that. And if all else fails, pop the champagne and cheers to that!
Photography by: Rebekah Senter