Not even Scrooge could resist the sentimentality of this season. Sweet-faced tree-top angels, glittery lights, jolly old Santas, the evocative scent of pine needles -- they combine to make us go all gooey inside and reach out to share the season with beloved friends.
Ah, but wait. Someone has to put up the tree that the tree-top angel sits on, and string those glittery lights, and Santa needs help from the family shopper to fill the space beneath the tree. How can we do all this and entertain as well? Simply. As in a:
COOKIE SWAP, where everyone brings a dozen cookies for each person coming and gets to take a dozen back from each. It is easier to make five dozen shortbread cookies than it is to make a dozen shortbread, a dozen springerle, a dozen pfeffernuesse, etc. You save time, get a variety of Christmas cookies, and get to see your friends. Or you might give a gingerbread party, with the host/ess providing all the ingredients, cookie sheets, etc., and the guests rolling out and decorating their own gingerbread men, women and animals. Then make a house or a barn to put them in. Gingerbread houses work better as a group effort; when you raise high the walls, there is someone else to steady them.
HOLIDAY ORNAMENTS AND WREATH-MAKING PARTY. Hobby stores carry styrofoam balls and lots of glittery things to put on them which, with a bit of creative effort, you can turn into one-of-a-kind ornaments. Stick on sparklies with glue or cover a ball with red and gold sequins pinned into the styrofoam. Buy snips of lace, ribbon and braid from a fabric store, and cans of the kind of sparkle that punks use to decorate themselves. Have lots of bits and pieces and many more pins and glue than you think you ever could use.
Hobby stores also carry wire and styrofoam forms to shape the holiday wreath, and most Christmas-tree lots are generous with the branches trimmed from the bottom of the trees. (Well, maybe not that generous so be prepared to pay something.)
RUSSIAN WHITE-NIGHTS DINNER. Alaska may be just as snowy and just as representative of winter, but who wants to eat caribou jerky? Instead, evoke those long Slavic winters with a very simple and very expensive party (one can't have everything). On the longest night of the year, set up a white Christmas tree trimmed with silver icicles, put a white tablecloth on the table, along with white candles, white napkins and white flowers, and ask the women guests to dress all in white or silver. Serve iced vodka, white chocolate mousse, and, as a contrast to all that white, caviar set out oh-so-simply in shiny silver bowls.
INVITATION TO THE PAST. This is a very simple and very sentimental party. Invite close friends -- or people you've recently met who you'd like to make into close friends -- to a small dinner where everyone takes turns telling the story of their most memorable Christmas, and the reason it was so special.
SWITCH AND SWAP GIFT PARTY. This one needs about a dozen people and is more complicated to explain than to do. Each guest is asked to bring a gift costing no more than $1 (oh, all right, $5). The gift must be wrapped and all the gifts are stacked in the center of the room. Then the guests draw numbers. Holder of No. 1 chooses a gift and opens it. Holder of No. 2 can choose an unopened gift, or demand the gift which No. 1 just opened. When the latter happens, No. 1 gets to choose another unopened gift. A form of Christmas bumps-a-daisy, the gift swap gets more boisterous as more presents are opened. This beats the traditional sedate grab bag.
TOY REPAIR WORKSHIP. The elves can't do it all. Sometimes they need help. Locate a church or charitable group that can distribute the items, and then invite friends to bring the toys their children have outgrown. Mend and repaint where necessary. A new dress for an old doll, or shiny red lacquer for a chipped fire engine. Christmas is about giving.
MOVIETHON. Remember Kris Kringle on the witness stand, insisting that he was Santa Claus and the sacks and sacks of mail confirming it? Remember Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby trying to save the crusty old commander from taking a flyer on his Vermont inn? Line up "Miracle on 34th Street" or "White Christmas" and invite friends in to feel warm and weepy with you. Serve bowls of red and green popcorn (if the manufacturers can make it taste like chili and bubblegum, you can make it red and green).
AROUND THE GLOBE DINNER. With all our own traditions bumping into each other on The Big Day, we never get to sample others. Plan a pre-Christmas dinner based on some other country's celebrations -- Italian pasta followed by panettone, that rich, fruit-studded coffeecake baked in a cylindrical mold. Or have a Provenc,al Christmas Eve dinner, but hold it in mid-December. A meatless, garlicky meal is followed by the traditional 13 desserts, described by Mireille Johnston in her Cuisine of the Sun:
"Fresh fruits -- pale oranges from Nice, tangerines, wintermelon, pears, apples, pomegranates; Dried fruits -- grapes that have been hung since the autumn and are wrinkled and sweet, almost like honey, figs, dried first in the sun, then kept indoors on screens and then between peach-tree and bay leaves, hazelnuts, almonds, both the soft sweet kind and the hard-shelled bitter ones, walnuts, dates en branche, from Africa, candied on their branches; sweets, calissons d'Aix, made with candied fruits and almonds, fruit tourtes, black and white nougats, quince paste, candied fruits, pompes a l'huile, a sweet cake enriched with orange-blossom water and olive oil." Washington being Washington, you may have to substitute but you can at least pretend you're in Provence.
SHOPPERS' TEA. Shopping with friends is a very bad idea -- much oohing and ahhing and absolutely nothing accomplished. But meeting afterward for tea is fun -- a reward for having braved the Christmas mob and a chance to show off what you've bought. Give the tea yourself, or arrange to treat several friends at one of the many hotels which now are serving afternoon teas -- the Four Seasons, the Regent, the Hay-Adams and the Ritz-Carlton, among others.