16 secrets of holiday entertaining

November 17, 2010

Last Thanksgiving, I was planning to serve turkey to eight people at my fully extended dining room table. At the last minute, my numbers swelled by two. No way could my table or dining room squeeze in any more. I needed a new plan. So, the annual feast was relocated to the largest room in my house, the living room. It wasn't what everyone expected, but it turned out to be quite magical. As dusk fell, a fire illuminated the crystal and silver on the table. There was lots of elbow room as we toasted our blessings. No one knew our little secret: Under the hand-painted Limoges plates and antique monogrammed linen tablecloth was a beat-up 8-foot-by-30-inch banquet table we had rented for $7.50. The secrets to successful entertaining are good planning and the courage to start new traditions. As the holidays unfold, making family and friends feel welcome in our homes is a joy as well as a challenge. Everyone could use some fresh ideas on how to get organized, invent centerpieces, compose eye-catching table settings and be a good guest. We called designers, retailers and tastemakers so we could share some of their holiday planning tips.

Make a list of jobs that family and friends can do to help.

Holiday houseguests are usually eager to pitch in. Be ready with a list of tasks that need to be done, says Susan Gage, chief executive of Susan Gage Caterers in Oxon Hill. Those might include peeling potatoes, polishing candlesticks or setting up a wine bar. Your guests can choose what they're good at. Save the list from year to year.

Find the perfect buffet plate and buy it in bulk.


A champagne bucket filled with evergreens. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

Pottery Barn Caterer's 12-piece dinnerware set (white, porcelain, 10.5-inch plates) costs $49 and comes packed in a sturdy storage box. You can easily stash it in a garage, pantry or closet. The Caterer's collection also includes wineglasses, flatware and a candle set of the votives, pillars and tapers you'll need to entertain.

Fill a champagne bucket with evergreens to create a fragrant and affordable centerpiece.

This can work in either a glass, silver or other metal bucket. Tracy Morris, a Bethesda-based interior designer, says this is one of her favorite holiday traditions. It can be displayed on a side table or mantel as well.

Bring a present for the pet.

Impress your hostess with your thoughtfulness. Bake homemade dog biscuits. Or keep a lookout for pet treats throughout the year, such as ceramic food bowls or houndstooth cat beds, two ideas for less than $20 from HomeGoods.

Add a treat to the bottle of wine that is the perennial hostess gift.

Washington designer Paul Corrie likes to wrap a pinot noir in a dishtowel from Dean & DeLuca and tie it with ribbon. Sometimes he adds another treat, such as measuring spoons. You could also put the bottle in a reusable burlap shopping bag.

Inject color onto your table by shopping discounters for extra tableware.

Crate and Barrel outlets in Alexandria and Leesburg are one place to look for pops of color on a budget. Barbara Franceski, an Alexandria interior designer, visits the Old Town location near her home throughout the year and has found purple and aquamarine champagne flutes as well as aubergine place mats.

Invite guests to Thanksgiving dinner with a stylish e-mail invitation.

Turkey Day invitations from Paperless Post arrive online in a personally addressed envelope, adding a special touch in the tradition of card-stock stationery. The service, which costs about five to 12 cents per invite, includes RSVP follow-up.

Host a holiday cocktail event with bite-size treats instead of a full-blown dinner.

Pier 1 Imports' Tasting Party collection of individual samplers, trays, bowls, spoons and mini-martini glasses makes it easy to organize and serve at home. Inspired by restaurant appetizer menus and amuse-bouche dining, the minis are sold individually or in sets for $1 to $30.

Toss in holiday nostalgia.

Anyone over 40 will remember the gray-and-white pilgrim candles their mom dragged out every year for the Thanksgiving table. They're back. Native Americans are also available, as well as Christmas choirboys and girls. Pilgrims are $7.35 for a set of six at www.wisteria.com .

Collect all the candlesticks you own and mass them in the center of the table.

A favorite holiday table trick of Anthropologie's Wendy Wurtzburger is to gather up all of the candlesticks around her house. They can be silver, crystal or pottery and both singles and pairs. She arranges them all down the center of the table, adds beeswax candles and lights them to create a warm glow.

Create a tempting dessert table with each offering labeled with a pretty place card.

More people have food allergies or follow a gluten-free or other diet. Designer Tracy Morris recently began avoiding gluten and is grateful for alternative choices. She finds seasonal place cards at Bethesda's Creative Parties and labels everything, such as "Gluten-Free Pumpkin Pie," so guests don't have to draw attention to their restrictions.

Get a mini holiday tree to use many ways during the season.

We like the David Stark twig topiary for West Elm ($39, in stores only), made of recycled newsprint and with bendable arms. The tree adds a spare, modern touch to the season of abundance. Use the branches to hang party favors, ornaments, little gifts or place cards, says Stark, a New York party planner.

Put everything away clean and pressed so it's ready to use next year.

Launder, starch and iron cloth napkins and tablecloths, and keep them stacked neatly in a drawer or shelf. Before storing, wash wineglasses and wipe away water spots. Remove wax drippings from candlesticks. Laurie Furber, Pottery Barn's senior vice president of merchandising, says knowing your stuff is ready to go is a great relief when the season comes around again.

Look for Thanksgiving bargains on Black Friday.

Everyone knows you have to buy your wrapping paper for next year on the day after Christmas, but don't forget the other big day to save on seasonal decorating. Washington interior designer Sarah Wessel has found that Williams-Sonoma and other stores often mark down the price of orange linen napkins, pumpkin soup tureens and turkey-shaped cranberry dishes while you are scouring your roasting pan.

Create a new tradition by serving dinner in your living room.

Rent a banquet table at a special events supplier, such as Allied Party Rentals in Bethesda. You can pick up your table the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and return it Saturday. The 8-feet-by-30-inch banquet table ($7.50) seats eight to 10. Use your own dining room table to arrange the buffet.

Present a new holiday playlist.

CDs, holiday and otherwise, were mentioned by several savvy hosts and guests we polled as good thank-you gift ideas. This gift idea works for both close friends and someone you don't know very well. You can find seasonal music half-price at the end of December. Buy a stack and squirrel them away with the holiday decorations to get a head start on shopping for 2011.

The home and design coverage of Jura Koncius has taken her inside hundreds of homes, from tiny studios in Penn Quarter to country castles in Warrenton. Jura also hosts the Home Front live chat, Thursdays at 11 a.m. ET.
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