As much as I enjoy entertaining, I almost always ask myself at some point during the preparation, "Why on earth did I say I'd do this?" In the end, however, I'm always glad I did it.
I've gathered lots of tips from hostesses while covering the social scene in Wichita for more than 25 years. And I've learned lots on my own, sometimes through trial and error.
Here are some of my favorite tips for a successful party:
First things first. Weddings aren't the only social gathering that can grow and grow. So have a plan right from the start: Will you have a sit-down dinner, a potluck buffet, an open house, a cocktail party, a wine-tasting?
Where will the party take place — in a formal dining room, gathered around a kitchen island, in the basement rec room? Decide on a guest list, as well as a budget. Stay within your means, of course, although it's only natural to crank it up a notch for the holidays.
Details, details, details. That's what will set your party apart. From the delightful invitation you mail to the little bouquet of flowers in the powder room, small details add up to a big impact.
Start with the invitation. If you're having a big party and send out invitations, make them count. Let the invitation set the tone for the party. Make sure all of the information is on the invitation. And just a fashion note here: "Creative holiday" is not a dress category. And "casual" doesn't necessarily mean to pull on your jeans. Pretend you're reading the invitation as a guest. Would you know what to wear? Would you want to attend?
Be prepared. The Boy Scouts have it right. Be prepared before the first guest arrives. Nothing is more unsettling than seeing a hostess running around stressed out. Do everything possible to be ready so you can enjoy the party, too.
It starts outside. Make sure guests have enough light to get to the front door safely. The addition of luminaries is a festive touch and lets everyone know they're in for something special. A chiminea burning pinon wood gives off a warm glow and great fragrance.
Make sure someone is at the front door to greet guests. It's awkward to show up for a party and have to let yourself in. However, before you go in, make sure you're at the right house. My husband and I managed to go to the wrong address one time and because no one was at the front door we ended up inside the house. We happened to know the people, but we were totally uninvited.
Think senses. Make sure the entry to your house is pretty, aromatic and well lighted to set the mood. This is easily achieved with a bit of holiday decor, some potpourri and unscrewing a lightbulb or two.
Music makes a big difference. It should be loud enough to be heard, but not so loud it disrupts conversation.
Make sure the temperature in your house is right for the majority of guests. You can't please everyone, but remember that a fireplace adds heat and a large number of people in a room also will heat it up.
Tried-and-true recipes and drinks will help reduce stress. Personally, I'm in the bad habit of trying a new recipe on guests. In most cases it has been fine, except for a lemon souffle that went in the oven thicker than when it came out. Ice cream, anyone?
Feel free to add a few new items to the menu, but test them out before the party.
A festive food table. Your table doesn't have to be filled with china and silver, but it should be attractive. Food, whether offered buffet-style or as part of a sit-down dinner, should be special to reflect the special time of year. Take a few extra minutes to make it look good with extra touches such as spiced apple rings, sprigs of thyme or rosemary, a fruit garnish.
As a wonderful hostess, the late Betty Minkler, told me: "If everything looks pretty your food doesn't have to be all that whippy."
They should leave smiling. A party favor brings out the kid in a person, regardless of their age. Put the favor at their place setting or give them something as simple as a candy cane as they leave.
Look each guest in the eye and tell them you were thrilled they could come. Don't turn out the lights until you know they are in their car and out of the drive.
It's over. You're happy. Your guests are happy.
And now it's time to clean it all up.