Tom Covello, owner of Celebrations Design Group in Wilmington, provider of party decor and flowers, is already working busily on three holiday parties with three different themes: enchanted forest, snowflake fantasy, and fire and ice. While some holiday parties are in the works—repeat customers often schedule venues a year in advance—there’s still time to plan a unique and memorable event for your family, friends or office. To help you out, we’ve consulted the experts for guidelines on planning, themes, decor and more.
When planning your shindig, your budget should be “first and foremost,” says Lynda Neef, owner of Events Your Way in Wilmington. “How much do you want to spend? How much can you spend? Holiday parties can become pricey.” Consider hiring an event planner, particularly if you’re pressed for time or are one of those people who love parties but hate the planning, preparation and execution.
Having someone else in charge of party planning cannot only save time and headaches, but money as well, since event planners often can negotiate price breaks with vendors, says Kameron McConnell, co-owner of Afflair Events in Wilmington.
“Some clients hire us just for the day to make sure everything arrives on time and that the event runs smoothly and exactly as they imagined. We allow the hosts to enjoy their own party,” McConnell says.
Once you have an idea of how many people you can afford to invite, you’ll have an easier time defining your target audience. Are you inviting work friends? Just family and close friends?
“If it’s intimate friends and family, you don’t need to rent a space,” says Neef. “You can host it in your own home or find a banquet room at a restaurant.”
On the other hand, she says, “If you’re having clients come, do you want to make this an adult-only event? You’ll want to have a more professional atmosphere; you won’t want DIY food.”
If you’re planning a party outside your home, look into a location ASAP. “We can pull anything together as fast as you need, but we can’t build the space,” McConnell says.
If you don’t already have a venue, it’s time to start searching, Neef adds. Wait too long and “you’re stuck doing a Sunday brunch instead of a Friday or Saturday night, if that’s what you were originally looking for,” she says.
Still, don’t feel obligated to stick to the Friday/Saturday night tradition. It’s not just the venues that might be overbooked; it’s your guests as well. McConnell says that Thursday nights are becoming more popular in recent years precisely because of potential guests’ busy schedules. Holding holiday parties at nontraditional times and days can result in a better turnout.
Next, figure out what kind of a party it will be. An intimate, sit-down dinner party will make for lots of conversation among a small, close group of people, while a cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres, buffet or food stations will allow for a more energetic setting that encourages mixing and mingling. These work better than sit-down dinners for most parties because guests tend to drop in at different times.
If possible, select a caterer eight to 10 weeks in advance and discuss your setup and menu options. The caterer can clue you into the trends and help set your party apart. For example, mashed potato bars can be fun, “but if everyone is doing that, you might want to do something different,” says Neef. You might instead serve risotto in martini glasses, McConnell says.
It’s best to have primarily finger foods that can be eaten with one hand, such as mini-pot pies. A taco bar can be made fancier with “foodie-based toppings” like pulled pork, braised chicken, and red lettuce and cabbage instead of regular lettuce, Neef says.
If there will be children at the party, make sure there are food options that will appeal to them and are within their reach, suggests Leanne Silicato Prosser, co-owner of Make My Day Events in Rehoboth Beach.
“At the holidays many people want to be with friends and family and all the children. But people don’t always think about how they will entertain the kids and serve foods the kids will like and can eat on their own,” she says.
Some changes have come with economic troubles. People might decide to offer wine, beer and a specialty drink instead of making any and all liquors available with an open bar. “People are drinking a lot less than they used to,” says Polly Weir, director of conference services at the University of Delaware. “We don’t sell nearly as many open bars as we did 5, 10 years ago. There’s a lot more sensitivity to driving under the influence.”
Just as weddings can have a “theme” for the decor, food and entertainment, so too, can a holiday party. If you are having a Christmas party and inviting children as well as adults, you might decorate using a North Pole theme and have Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive at some time during the event, suggests Prosser. Children can arrive in their pajamas and adults might wear ugly Christmas sweaters.
“Kids can be so amused by that. Their parents usually try to look so prim and perfect that it’s fun to do the opposite,” she adds.
For a high-end, more traditional adult Christmas party you might have passed hors d’oeuvres and cocktails and carolers in period dress welcoming guests at the door.
Families who celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah can throw a “Chrismakkuh party,” Prosser suggests. The hosts might decorate with blue and green or similar color tones and have both a Christmas tree and a menorah. Games or other activities can be a fun way to educate guests about traditions from both religions. “We often do that at weddings,” she says.
Some people use holiday events to give back by planning charity parties for which guests will make donations of toys, books or children’s shoes. “Holidays are such a gluttonous time of year,” McConnell says, that it’s nice to see charity parties becoming a trend.
McConnell has seen other themes that don’t necessarily scream “the holidays.” For example, one client chose to use Mardi Gras as a theme, while another reversed the seasons with a luau Christmas. A Christmas in July theme with beachy decor is another idea, and it works particularly well for those living in coastal southern Delaware. One of McConnell’s favorite holiday parties was circus-themed, complete with a cotton candy maker, hot dog machine, funnel cakes, a ringmaster and a fire spitter. The whole event looked like a three-ring circus, she says.
Decor for these types of parties naturally matches the theme, but even with more traditional holiday parties the decor can be imaginative. Neef finds that people are becoming more comfortable playing with color instead of just decorating in blue and silver or red and green—“everyone and their mother has done that,” she says. Event planners are seeing more patterns and color combinations at their parties, like magenta with lime green, a vintage look (muted pastels against vibrant purples) or a central pattern, like chevron, that pulls everything together.
Weir finds that “colors that are rich and festive but aren’t traditional work very, very well,” such as purples and golds. Even with a strong color scheme, hosts are moving away from matching every piece of decor, instead finding coordinating pieces to bring the look together.
“Up until around three years ago, people would get caught up in a color theme like a black-and-white or a pink party, and then everything at the party would be that color and it would become washed out,” says Neef.
Of course, sometimes one strong color choice can still create a dazzling effect. In Covello’s snowflake fantasy themed party, “everything is all white and iridescent,” with white Christmas trees, icicles and flowers. “Taken together there’s a cold, brrrrr kind of feeling to it,” he says.
Coleen Fitzpatrick of Flourish Designs Unlimited in Wilmington says vintage decorating themes have become very popular, both “vintage glam” and “vintage rustic.” The vintage glam look uses a lot of pastel colors—silver or gold with light pinks and pale greens. Decorate with delicate mercury glass balls, a pink-striped Elf on the Shelf, vintage books, and pictures of old-time Santas. “What comes to mind for me is very ’50s glamorous—white carpet with a white sofa, very sparkly and yet soft. Audrey Hepburn-ish,” says Fitzpatrick.
For many homes, though, creating such a look is not practical, so clients opt for the vintage rustic look: think lace and mercury glass with burlap, pine cones, birch branches and other natural elements. Decorate with antique ice skates, antique sleds, rustic versions of old-time prints, lace-trimmed mason jars holding votive candles, old-time paper chains and vintage toys. The end result will include “a little bling” but will also be “kind of old and homespun,” says Fitzpatrick. “It makes for a more comfortable, homey, kind of a shabby chic look,” she says. Instead of using pastels or traditional Christmas colors, hosts will want to stick with lighter greens to create this look.
The trick to planning the perfect holiday party is to decide who you want to invite, where and when you’d like to host it, and what type of mood you’d like to set with your food, theme and decor. Pick something you are passionate about, whether it be a fun, family-oriented party; a classic, vintage bash or a twist on the holiday theme.
“Your party should reflect who you are as a person and what type of experience you want your guests to have,” Prosser says. Once party day arrives, relax, socialize and enjoy time with your guests. Happy holidays!