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Didi’s Manners & Etiquette: Your Holiday Party

Wednesday, December 09, 2015


Six simple secrets for your successful holiday party

Q.  What are the key elements of hosting and pulling off a great party? We’ve been to some duds lately and we’re wondering how to ensure that our holiday party is a success.  –Anonymous, NYC

A.  Here are my six secrets to hosting a party. I’ve made some silly mistakes myself — sending someone a handwritten fill-in invitation with the wrong date, introducing a guest by the wrong name and forgetting to invite a good friend who definitely should have been invited.

1. Set the date: During the holidays, especially, try to get your ducks in a row three weeks  ahead of time. Find out if your three closest friends will be able to come that day and time. You want a strong core list: the friends you socialize with the most, people that you wish to pay back, new friends you would like to know better.

2. Invitation guest list: You know your besties can come and since they are your core, invite people that you want them meet. The secret to a great list is to have a good mix; in the holiday season — especially for New Year’s — invite twice as many guests as you want to attend, because a lot simply won’t show up. And be sure to have an assortment of people with different interests.

3. Invitation: Now you can create your invitation. The invitation should reflect the season, holiday and/or place, and celebrate an individual, couple, charity, or special day such as New Year’s. The invitations should include:
    •    Party venue: brunch, lunch, tea, cocktails, shower, reception, engagement party, holiday party.
    •    Party date and time: Be specific with a timeframe, especially with evening parties so guests can plan dinner, baby sitter, and attire.

Unless it is an open house over the course of three to four hours, you may want a narrower timeframe, ideally two hours when you’re not serving a meal. Asking some of the guests to stay for “leftovers,” you’ll scatter the time because those guests will arrive later and stay for supper afterward.

    •    Dress code: In general, when a dress code for an evening party is ‘Black Tie,’ or ‘Festive,’ is not specified, your guests will assume from the theme of the invitation that your dress code is ‘Suits and Dresses.’ Meaning jackets and possibly ties for the men and cocktail dresses or slacks and tunics for the women.
*Exceptions: When the invitation is for a Clambake, BBQ, picnic, tailgate, etc., the dress code is more about the quality of the clothing rather than the dressiness of the outfit. The occasion to wear your best jeans.
    •    R.S.V.P. (means reply please) on the invitation is asking guests to respond one way or an other. It’s important because you’ll need to know how many guests to plan for. The French phrase Répondez s’il vous plaît is literally “Reply if you please”or “Please reply.” So you wouldn’t use “RSVP please.”
    •    Cutoff date: The date added to the RSVP asking guests to reply is necessary when you’re going to need to provide seating at either a ceremony, buffet, banquet or plated-seated dinner, as well as food and drink. A caterer would need a headcount by a certain date:  RSVP by December 15th.(Personally, I think RSVP, without the periods is crisper.)
    •    Presents: When an invitation announces that it is a birthday, anniversary, or wedding, guests feel pressured to bring gifts.

By the way, a gift is never required of a guest; however, a thank-you in the form of a note, message, or call is recommended in order to sustain the relationship.

The best reciprocation for an invitation is a return invitation by the guest at another point in time; if the guest knows that isn’t possible, a small gift is a gesture of appreciation.

Guests of guests:

    •    Plus One: When you know a person is single and might want to bring an escort or partner, let him or her know that’s OK. But be cautious, think seriously about whether you want to add ‘Plus One’ on the envelope, and think about who they might bring with them. For instance their two-year-old or your ex.
    •    Children at Parties: Personally, I don’t believe anyone under the age of 21 should be invited to an adult party where alcohol is being served. If that isn’t possible, then put a responsible person in charge of smaller children and make sure there is an appropriate area where they can play away from the drinking.
    •    Paperlesspost evites is the way to go for a large cocktail party, but you may find that old email addresses not current bounce back or that the person has unsubscribed. In that case, be sure to have a box of fill-ins on hand to follow up on the bounced.

We particularly like the tracking tech on this site that acts like your own private secretary. Plus, you can opt for a reminder to be sent out two days before the party to let people know you’re expecting them; it also let’s you know who has accepted so you know how many to plan for.

    •    Fill-In invitations (where you fill in the information in your own handwriting) are useful to have on hand, but tedious to do when filling out more than 20, because it includes writing out the envelopes. Be sure your return address appears on the envelope, as well as on the invitation itself. When you’re using paperless post invites, you might need a box of fill-ins for those whose email address either bounces back or is unavailable.
    •    Printed invitations are a lovely alternative when you have a long lead time. Be sure to ask for a proof of the invitation in order to catch and correct any typos or mistakes. Have the invitations printed two weeks out before your send date, which during the holidays is four weeks out.
*With wedding invitations it is preferable to allow for two months from the day the order was placed to be printed to the actual day of the wedding.
    •    For cocktail party invitations, where you’re not serving a formal meal and don’t need to seat everyone at the same time, two to four weeks lead time is recommended. However, I personally send invitations six weeks out to a holiday party, whether it is New Year’s Eve or the Fourth of July, six weeks.

4. Plan your venue: food, bar, music and all that you’ll need to host your guests based on the number of acceptances you receive. Keep track of the numbers, so you have enough food and beverages on hand. Unopened and room temperature bottles can usually be returned.

The rule of thumb is that two-thirds of those whom you’ve invited to a holiday party will be a able to attend. If the party date is close to Christmas or on New Year’s, your acceptances reduce to half.

Should you find that only half of the guests can attend, you can always send out last minute invitations to anyone you had forgotten first time around.

Remember that if most of the invitations you’ve sent are to a couple (or family), you will need a separate count for those attending.

In sending out forty invitation envelopes, you may be inviting thirty couples and ten singles, which mean you’re actually inviting seventy people, if the single people don’t bring a date.

Again, guests bringing guests:

When a guest arrives with his own guest(s) that you hadn’t counted on, be gracious and welcome them warmly.

The exception would be if you didn’t have enough food or chairs and it was a seated dinner. In that case, you would invite them to come in for a drink “before we sit down for dinner.” Or turn the dinner into a buffet with guests eating off their laps.

When a guest arrives with someone you don’t want in your house, such as an ex, take the guest aside and tell him he is welcome to stay, but your ex must leave the premises.

5. Staff: If possible, engage and reserve the services of a bartender and servers , who will also tidy up and help with the cleanup (approximately $25-50 an hour per person, plus at least a 10% tip). If you’re not preparing the food yourself and the food is being catered, the caterer will need a head count a week out for a small party and ten days or more for a larger guest list.

Bartender: one bartender for every 50 guests
Server/waitstaff: two for every 50 guests

In general, each guest will imbibe two drinks in the first hour and one drink during each additional hour. For 50 guests you would serve eight to ten choices of hors d’oeuvres and expect guests to eat two to three.

Gauge the appetite of your guests, usually men eat and drink more than the women, and when the party goes into the dinner hour, people will eat more and drink less.

Remember, not all fifty guests will need attention at once. If you have fifty guests accepting a cocktail party, ten will come at the start and as the others arrive those who arrived first start leaving.

6. Your duties as the host are not only to be gracious to your guests and helpers, but to actively host your guests by welcoming and connecting them to other guests.

At all times someone should be a the door to meet and greet guests, welcoming them, telling them where to put their coats, boots, presents, briefcases or umbrellas, and where to find the bar. If you’re a couple or hosting with others, take turns “manning” the door.

Likewise, on the other hand, the host (or someone representing him) should be at the exit door to thank people for coming and telling them where to find whatever belongings they came with, and wish them a Happy New Year.

Guests should hear music in the background as they enter. If you have live music be sure you have canned music playing while they’re taking their breaks, because you always want background music at a party.

*Especially at the start when only the first few guests have arrived and before the din of the conversation has reached it’s crescendo, when you would then turn down the music.

Vary the music. A faster pace at the start and moodier toward the finish.

Introduce people by their first and last name, even if you’re not sure they’ve met before because it will help everyone remember the person’s full name. Just because it is a holiday party, you don’t have to just play Christmas music.

Offer some tidbit to help connect one person to another: you’re both golfers, you both work in finance, your children attend P.S. 41, etc.

Take care of yourself:  Everyone’s metabolize is different, so gauge yourself. As the host you want to be sober as a judge, funny as a comedian, and friendliest of hosts.

    •    Which may mean coating your stomach with protein ahead of time and monitoring your alcohol intake.
    •    Some hosts wait to have a glass of wine until midway through the party to assure that they have paid attention to all of their guests first.
    •    It goes without saying: don’t get caught in a conversation and neglect your hosting duties.
    •    Even if you suspect two people may know each other say,”You know Bill Jacklin, there is an exhibition of his paintings at the Marlborough Gallery going on right now.”
    •    To make every guest feel special, use those tags, handles, connectives to encourage conversation and then continue circulating. When the host isn’t checking on the food and beverages, he’s introducing and connecting whenever possible guest to guest.

For a party of between 35-60 guests, here is a suggested list of liquors and mixers for a full bar cocktail party, which is over the top, but it gives you an idea of the kinds of drinks people are accustomed to ordering at a full bar cocktail party.

    •    White wine: 8 bottles
    •    Red wine:  5 bottles
    •    Champagne: 6 bottles
    •    Vermouth dry: 2 bottles
    •    Vermouth red: 1 bottle
    •    Vodka:  3 bottles
    •    Rum:  2 bottles
    •    Gin:  2 bottles
    •    Scotch: 2 bottles
    •    Whiskey:  2 bottles
    •    Bourbon:  2 bottles
    •    Tequila:  2 bottles
    •    Brandy/cognac:  2 bottles
    •    Aperitif:  2 bottles
    •    Cordial:  2 bottles
    •    Beer:  24 bottles
    •    Ginger Beer:  six pack
    •    Club soda:  4 bottles
    •    Ginger ale:  2 bottles
    •    Coke:  3 bottles
    •    Diet Coke:  3 bottles
    •    Tonic:  3 bottles
    •    Cranberry juice:  3 bottles
    •    Grenadine:  1 bottle
    •    Angostura:  1 bottle
    •    Also needed: lemons, limes, olives, and cocktail onions

Note:  If it’s a young crowd under forty, increase the vodka, rum, and beer

Simple ideas for food that most people love to eat with cocktails:

    1.    Cheeses with crackers: order from Murray’s Cheese
    2.    Shrimp Cocktail with Cocktail Sauce: at your local fish store
    3.    Pates, foie gras, charcuterie: order from D’Artagnan
    4.    Ham (at Christmas):  order from Harrington’s
    5.    Cookies: order from Dancing Deer Baking Co

Didi Lorillard researches all matters of manners and etiquette at Didi's Manners. Ask Didi a question. The best of which appears here each week.


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