The ultimate holiday party planning guide

It’s that time of year when friends, families, and coworkers convene and connect, toasting to previous months and precious loved ones. Holiday parties are a tradition of sharing warmth and spreading happiness—both of which are needed now more than ever. But Christmas parties don’t just happen—they take careful planning, from the timing and holiday invitations to the refreshments and activities. Want to host a Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Year’s celebration sans stress? Ahead, we’ll walk through all the steps for planning and executing a fun, festive fete.

 

When should you host a Christmas party?

Before you can begin booking a venue or addressing envelopes, you’ll need to determine the date. Naturally, weekends make the most sense for non-work events, but there are only so many in the holiday season, so keep an open mind. Early December is typically more doable (especially for company celebrations), as the final weeks tend to be reserved for family time. Get the invitations out as early as possible—a month in advance is a good rule of thumb.

For parties with kids: If you want to throw a party that includes families and children (perhaps even your own), we recommend waiting until Saturday. Start the party in the early evening—say, 5 p.m.—to not interfere with bedtime. Plus, we’re betting the adult attendees will be equally thankful to be in bed by 10.

For grown-up gatherings: If you want to use your designated sitter night to hang with a crowd that’s more mature (at least in age), host your big holiday party on a Friday or Saturday night to make sure people have time to recover. Traditional party o’clock is 8 p.m., but starting later signals wildness over mildness.

holiday planning guide for cocktail parties

“Merry Shaker” Flyer by Paperless Post.

If you and your crew don’t have a weekend night to spare, you can easily throw something during the week—turn the literal and figurative volume down a notch. We find that Thursdays work well for either casual cocktails at home or nice drinks out on the town, but others swear by Tuesdays. Nobody looks forward to a Tuesday, so give your friends something to put on the agenda. Think “happy hour”—if not literally 6 p.m., then a time that allows your guests a commute from work and reasonable return home.

For daytime celebrations: A holiday party held outside peak party hours lacks a bit of the reckless abandon that makes a get-together really hop. But if you only have daytime free, have a holiday open house. Make (or order) some small bites and stock up on wine or pre-mix a few drinks, and let the party come to you. Sunday or Saturday afternoons are perfect for an open house—guests will appreciate the freedom to choose the hour, you’ll love the relaxed expectations, and if you’re feeling bold, you can go out after.

when to host a company holiday party

“Bottle Shock” by Kelly Wearstler; “Office Tree” by Paperless Post.

For company holiday parties: If you’re putting together a work function, you might already be wrestling with a big schedule and other forces out of your control. As we asked users and other successful office party planners, one time kept coming up: Thursday, an hour before closing time. It keeps your staff from sacrificing one of their precious weekend nights, and, if people are feeling worse for wear, a slow Friday is a great time to muddle through. If you must move it to another night in the week, offer a catered mini-breakfast the next day—or at least free aspirin.

 

Holiday party details

For a party to go well, you’ll need to think about a few things first. Depending on how the pandemic progresses in the fall and winter months, Covid-19 could complicate the usual plans. Make sure you stay up to date on the CDC’s recommendations and any restrictions in your area. In addition to the date, which we’ve already discussed, you’ll need to determine a few key things.

Where you’ll host and how many people you can accommodate. Granted, this part was easier to do pre-pandemic. Now, there’s a little more to consider for responsible revelry. Check with local health officials to pinpoint an appropriate number of attendees for your venue. Generally, you should try to account for 6 feet of space between each person. This means that even a small event could require a pretty large room. If your space feels to cramped consider a virtual party.

Use your judgment: Consider posting friendly reminders to discourage crowding, especially at exits and entrances or in bathrooms. Position sanitizing stations throughout the venue, and think of clever ways to incorporate decor: Confetti- or star-shaped decals, for example, are both fun and functional for marking floors or walls to help guests social distance. Masks make practical party favors. If at all possible, opt to celebrate outdoors, where ventilation is better and it is easier to spread out; rent or invest in heat lamps if you live in a cold climate.

 

Find your dream party theme

A theme sets the tone for the entire event. Whether “Winter Wonderland,” “Black and White,” or “Ugly Christmas Sweater,” try to settle on one prior to sending invitations so that guests know what to expect and how to dress. Looking for inspiration? Check out our guide to party ideas your guests will love. When you’re ready to send the invitations, Paperless Post has styles fit for any theme.

Who to invite to your holiday party

This year’s holiday parties may be more intimate than Christmases past. For smaller spaces, try to stick to those in your quarantine “pod” or people you trust. Larger venues or outdoor spaces may allow for a longer guest list. Based on your guest list, decide how casual or formal the party will be.

What do you do at a holiday party?

Often, with the right combination of music and drinks, corralling your nearest and dearest is entertainment enough. But it never hurts to have some methods for merry-making up your sequined sleeve, especially if they suit the night’s theme. Here are ways to keep friends and family having fun at your Christmas party.

  • Play games. Charades or board games (think Pictionary) are foolproof ways to energize and entertain your guests. Plan prizes for winners to sweeten the pot.
  • Exchange gifts. ‘Tis the season for giving, after all. Organize a Secret Santa, White Elephant, or Favorite Things gift exchange, so everyone leaves with a treasured trinket (or at least a laugh).gift swap invitations by Paperless Posst
“Gift Swap” by Paperless Post. 

Decorate or swap Christmas cookies. For a sweet take on a potluck, ask everyone to make a favorite confection such as fudge, toffee, or spritz cookies. Provide disposable trays so guests can collect treats to take home. Alternatively, bake a few batches of sugar cookies yourself and set up frosting and sprinkle stations for custom creations.

 

cookie swap invitation from Paperless Post

“Holiday Cookie Swap” by The Indigo Bunting.

Ugly sweater contest. It’s silly, it’s cheesy, and it’s a whole lot of fun. Don your worst holiday garb and vote on the very best worst look.

Watch holiday movies. A film viewing is usually best for groups of eight or fewer, but adjust based on your available seating. Make like a real-life theater and offer a popcorn and candy bar, and plan a trivia or drinking game to enhance the cinematic experience.

Decorate the tree. Cross this decorating task off of your party prep list! A tree-trimming theme is the perfect way to get everyone into the holiday spirit, particularly for a party set at the start of the season.

Pose at the photo booth. A striking backdrop, a tripod for a camera or smartphones, and some cute props are all you need for photographic fun. Use an instant film camera to send snaps home with your guests, or upload the camera reel into a shared album the next day.

Karaoke or carols. Christmas Carol-oke anyone? Capitalize on the familiarity of holiday tunes with a holly jolly singalong. Dibs on Mariah Carey!

 

What do you serve at a holiday party?

The holidays wouldn’t be the same without food, and it’s a good idea to offer a little something at your fête. Whether you serve light bites or a full meal, make a note on the invitation so that guests know whether or not to eat beforehand.

Your serving style will likely depend on the size of your celebration and your venue. Are you making everything yourself or hiring a caterer? Seated dinners are ideal for intimate parties, while passed hors d ‘oeuvres might be more appropriate for larger groups. Potlucks are a great way for a gathering of about 12 to sample and swap family recipes.

 

Holiday party appetizer ideas

We’re rebranding the KISS principle: Keep It Simple/Special. In other words, it’s better to have three to four great apps than a bunch of options. We love large platters that are easy to put together but look abundant and serve lots of people without much fuss. Beyond meat and cheese trays, think about foods that are easy to make in advance such as sliced savory tarts or warm dips. Fill out your spread with store-bought food like olives, pickled vegetables, nuts, and citrus, and a beautiful crusty baguette.

 

Holiday party dinner ideas

Go with food that can be cooked in advance and reheated. We love lasagna, short ribs, soup, chicken parm, or flatbread. Toss a salad for an easy and healthy side, and don’t forget dessert! You can’t go wrong with a few different pies, which you can top with whipped cream or ice cream. Or, ask everyone to bring something sweet for a collaborative dessert bar.

Holiday drinks to serve

A seasonal sipper or a bit of bubbly makes for tasty toasts to the holiday season, but you needn’t go overboard on the beverages. Again, a streamlined drink menu will take some of the planning pressure off—and make it easier for attendees to decide what to imbibe. Typically, guests will toss back two drinks in the first hour and then one for every additional hour, so you’ll need to do a little math to determine how much booze to buy.

Order a case of wine. Offer one white wine, one red wine, and one sparkling. All you’ll need to do is pop the corks—easy peasy.

Serve a signature drink. Stick to one or two cocktails in a large format like a large beverage dispenser, punch bowl, or pitcher. Avoid playing bartender with made-to-order drinks. Our favorites are warm classics like mulled wine and hot toddies (break out the slow cooker and set to low) and refreshing concoctions such as a vodka cranberry-ginger or even a pomegranate margarita.

Add easy upgrades. It’s all about the garnishes. Accessorize simple sippers with sprigs of rosemary, lemon twists, or cranberries. Make special ice cubes in spheres and offer festive swizzle sticks.

Have a hot cocoa bar. Set up a spread of toppings (marshmallows, candy canes, sprinkles, and spices) for revelers to make their hot chocolate. If it’s an adults-only event, add a selection of liqueurs for spiking.

what drinks to serve at a holiday party like hot chocolate or punch

“Holiday Mugshots” by Paperless Post. 

 

How do you decorate for a holiday party?

If you’re hosting at home and deck the halls anyway, your usual decor will likely do just fine, but you may want to adjust according to your theme. We always love herbs and evergreens—they smell great and work for the mantle, the tables, the doorways, and more. Stockings on the mantle or staircase railing never go out of style, and neither do twinkle lights and candles. Scatter baubles in your chosen color scheme along with a tablescape, or string up dried orange slices, popcorn, and cranberries for a traditional touch.

 

how to decorate for a holiday party using evergreens and citrus

Pre-holiday party prep 

  • Break up shopping trips. Gathering supplies is the biggest task, but it doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Categorize your list, so you get everything as early as possible and need to pick up things that need to be fresh a day or two beforehand.
  • Set aside time for yourself. As the host, you set the party’s tone, so build in enough time to get ready. It’s better to be fully dressed and completing a few tasks as guests arrive than get everything done and be MIA for the first half-hour.
  • Set the mood: Before people begin to arrive, light candles, dim the lights, and put on a playlist. Set up a coatrack, or designate a drop zone for outerwear.
  • Send guests home with leftovers. Stock up on compostable to-go containers in case you have an abundance of bites to divvy up.

 

Holiday party? Check! Ready to start your Christmas cards? We have all the guides you need including when to send holiday greetings, Christmas card design ideas, and how to write a holiday card