You’d love to give a holiday party, but those events can be real budget-busters. Well, ho-ho-hold on there. There are ways to do it up right and not break the bank. Here are some tips.
Most people today are OK with an e-mail invitation. If you know someone who isn’t, get inexpensive plain invitations from the dollar store, add some holidays stickers and mail a few. Or pick up the phone and give them a call.
Don’t invite the whole office. You probably don’t like all those people and the feeling may be mutual — but they’ll come anyway for free food and drink. Smaller is better. Tailor the size of the group to the size of your space. An optimum size or everyone to get to visit or know each other is maybe 20 to 25 people. Invite a few special people from work (and ask them not to spread the word), along with some personal friends and you might have a nice mix of folks for interesting conversations. Just make sure when they get there, everyone gets introduced around so the office folks don’t hang in a clique and not mingle with others. Try to hook up interests or experiences, such as “George, meet Tom. George loves car racing and Tom used to be an amateur race car driver.”
Don’t try to set up a full bar. It’ll cost a fortune just to provide the basics. Maybe get a keg of a popular local microbrew beer, or search the oenophile websites for best bargains on some decent wine. Better yet, do a punch. If you’re having a theme for the food (say, Caribbean or Mexican), do a matching punch (i.e., rum punch, sangria or a margarita bowl). Punch ingredients can hide a multitude of flaws in a moderately priced alcohol. For the nondrinkers, how about a crockpot of spiced apple cider?
Do a buffet. A sliced ham or turkey breast might seem pricey, but it feeds a lot of people. Add some slider rolls and condiments and most people feel like they’ve had a whole meal. Deviled eggs are cheap and everybody loves them. Dress them up with a little sprig of fresh dill or a tiny dollop of domestic caviar (a small jar goes a long way) and they look extra-fancy. Roasted vegetables are cheap, easy to cut into small bites, and offer a substantial side dish. Or go with crudités (raw vegetables), which are colorful and filling; serve them with a simple dip (even plain old ranch dressing in a bowl), and they’ll be snapped up. Add your own or favorite bottled dressing to coleslaw mix and you have another side dish.
For dessert? Bake (from scratch or a box) a double batch of brownies, frost them for extra richness, cut them into bite-sized squares and put a Christmas candy or some crushed candy cane on the top of each one. Or keep it light and festive with some Strawberry Santas, super easy to make and fun for all ages. In a pinch, open that box of candy from Grandma and set the pieces out on a pretty dish. Check out our tips for cheap, healthy party snacks.
Cook for a crowd
Cheaper still would be a giant pot of your famous chili or pans of your family’s favorite lasagna. To help cut costs, keep the sides simple: fresh toppings like chopped scallions, sour cream cilantro and avocado for the chili and a nice green salad for the lasagna. Bread (such as cornbread for the chili or garlic bread for the lasagna) would also be a nice (and filling) accompaniment.
If your friends are good cooks, ask them to bring their favorite holiday dish (and let you know what it is, so you don’t end up with 20 desserts). Ask them to make copies of their recipe to place alongside their dish. You could even ask them to bring something specific, like their favorite holiday appetizer, for a fun sampler of flavors.
Theme it up
Instead of a meal, do a wine-and cheese tasting or a dessert-and-coffee buffet. You can even ask your guests to bring their favorite cheese and/or wine. That’ll really cut the cost. Or you can bake up dozens of plain sugar cookies and have a cookie-decorating party. Offer several flavors of icing, maybe some colored ones, plus lots of decorations. Each guest gets to take home the cookies they decorated. Maybe do a holiday “high tea” party on a weekend afternoon and do several kinds of tea (saves on pricey alcohol) and lots of finger foods. It kind of depends on your guest list. If your guests tend to prefer pilsners to oolongs, invite them to each bring a six-pack of their favorite brew. You provide piles of nachos, French bread pizzas and flavored popcorn. They’re inexpensive and tasty and go great with beer.
If you want to splurge on some festive paper plates, napkins and plastic “glasses,” don’t buy them at the grocery store. Hit the dollar store or other discount stores. But consider calling friends and family to ask if you can borrow dinnerware for the evening. Aunt Mary bought that 12-piece holiday-themed box of dishes a few years ago, and you remember seeing it still boxed and on a shelf in her basement. Or Mom and Dad haven’t used their wedding china in decades: Cozy up to them and ask if you can borrow it. A mixed stack of plates and bowls will only add to the festive spirit.
Check out places like Marshalls, TJ MaxX or Ross for fun and festive centerpieces. A row of inexpensive votive candles down the center of your buffet table adds a warm glow. Or arrange a dozen on a silver tray for a more dramatic effect. Place shiny tree ornaments or curls of ribbon around the table to fill any empty spaces and brighten up the whole table. Use solid color, non-holiday-themed accessories that can be reused for other parties.
Put on some music, but keep it low. People want to talk, not talk over, the Christmas carols. Cable networks and some streaming services have music stations that play holiday tunes complete with images. If you have a piano, invite guests who play to tickle the ivories a bit. Guests may even want to sing along. Or maybe you are friends with someone who plays the guitar or other instrument — invite them to bring it and perform a few holiday tunes. Lots of people like to show off their musical skills.
Don’t forget the tree
Decorate your holiday tree and have it up and ready for guests to admire. Or leave it bare, put out your boxes of ornaments and have guests decorate it for you. It will be done in no time and the activity gives introverts or new-to-the-group people something to do and talk about. Turn down the lights in the room and light up your Tannenbaum for a festive effect.
More ideas: Cut plain white paper or lacy doilies into snowflakes and hang them with transparent nylon thread from the chandelier over your dining room table. More candles placed around the room will soften the glow and the mood of your guests; just be sure they aren’t scented with something that will clash with your food.
Most importantly, do as much as you can in advance so you can enjoy your own party. If you say goodnight to your guests and all you feel is exhausted, then the party wasn’t such a bargain for you, was it?
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