Everything About Holiday Entertaining, in a Thousand Words

It’s party season! Merrily delivers succinct, common sense advice for hosting holiday cocktail parties, dinner parties and massive family feasts.

When asked what advice he would give a young writer, Ernest Hemingway said, “if you see a line, cut it.” Because it’s the festive season and you don’t have time to be reading this, I’ve followed Papa’s lead. I’ve gone through 10 years of lines about holiday entertaining and cut them to 1,000 words. Read this and then set about planning your own seasonal shindig. I promise it will be terrific.

Be fearless

You don’t need a fat wallet or showplace home for your guests to have a five-star experience. Three often-overlooked but easily achievable components are abundant beverages, well-chosen music and romantic (read: low) lighting. These things, and a fearless, loving attitude will take you everywhere. For any party, arrange as much as possible in advance so your guests don’t see you huffing and puffing. That’s such a buzz-kill, darling. Pay a college kid a hundred bucks to mix drinks, replenish food and pick up glasses and plates. For a large gathering, call Party Personnel at 913-451-0218 and hire professional bartenders and servers.

Cocktail party 101

Hosting a holiday cocktail party is a lovely way to see everybody during the season and to connect old friends to new. You don’t have to know folks well to ask them for drinks. Invite people from varied circles; they will quickly find common ground.

The classic cocktail party invitation is for two hours. Don’t stretch it out for the entire evening; you won’t get that critical mass that makes a cocktail party fun. It’s better to over-invite than under-invite. If you think your house is too small, think again. You want it crowded. People like to walk into a party that looks oversold as long as the drinks are flowing. Consider moving furniture out. Few sit at a cocktail party.

Place the bar(s) where you want people to congregate, but make it easy for guests to get a drink the minute they arrive. Consider having someone greet them with a tray full of prepared drinks. Prosecco or champagne is lovely, or assemble a “combo platter” of vodka tonics, Pellegrino water with lime, and white wine. Or mix a special drink in quantity. Here’s a surefire holiday crowd-pleaser: one part cranberry juice, one part Fresca and one part vodka served over ice with a lime wedge.

Always have appealing options for the designated drivers. And never use plastic glasses, darling. Renting glassware is easy and inexpensive.

Don’t make your guests juggle plates, forks and drinks. It’s best to serve finger food. Email me for my favorite cocktail-food recipes.

A dinner party primer 

When someone says “I went to so-and-so’s for dinner last night,” my first question always is “who was there?” That’s because a great dinner party is about the people and the conversation. The menu is secondary.

Just because it’s a holiday dinner doesn’t mean you need to serve fancy cuisine. The chilly festive season is a perfect time to make a big pot of something hearty and simple. I like to make Shrimp Caneel from Beyond Parsley; it’s easily doubled or tripled. Or I’ll get out my slowcooker and make spaghetti and meatballs for a crowd. I use Scimeca’s meatballs and store-bought spaghetti sauce, then doctor it up to taste deliciously complex. Email me and I’ll send you these recipes.

If you are short on time, give yourself permission to serve take-out. Nobody will care if you didn’t make it yourself as long as it looks and tastes delicious. I went to a fabulous party recently where Smokehouse Barbecue delivered the food. It was abundant and wonderful.

Six is a fine number for an intimate dinner, and eight is best for conversation, but if you can comfortably fit more, why not leverage the opportunity to include extra friends? Consider the singletons in your life, especially during the holidays. You do not need an even number of guests.

It’s always civilized to have a drink or two before sitting down to dinner. Try to limit cocktail time to 60 or 75 minutes max. I like to use a bell to call my guests to the table. It’s so much more genteel than shrieking “dinner is served.”

There is nothing like dining by candlelight. I like to turn off my chandelier and scatter my table with flickering votives. Do you have Amazon Prime? If so, you can order nice, wax-filled votives, thirty-two bucks for a carton of twenty-four, and shipping is free.

Linen damask is best, but crisp new bedsheets make terrific tablecloths. Target and Kmart both offer an assortment of colors at great prices.

Serve dinner in courses so people can enjoy being at your pretty table. Then move them to another room for dessert, unless they fight you, which they might. Marcella Hazan’s A Farm Wife’s Pear Cake is the perfect winter dinner-party dessert. Email me and I will send you the recipe.

The collective family repast

Hosting a large, multi-generational dinner is not a job for the faint of heart. It takes steady nerves, stamina and flexibility. Give yourself credit for undertaking it, and remember it’s never going to be perfect. Expect a little dysfunctionality, and embrace it.

For Thanksgiving, plan to prepare one appetizer, the turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes and stuffing, and then assign dishes to your guests. Unless you want a fridge full of leftovers, ask people to prepare a serving amount equal to half the number of guests.

Decide whether you’re going to serve the meal as a buffet or family-style. Think through where you’ll set up the bar and where you’ll put the coats. Pull out your serving platters and bowls well in advance, decide what foods will go where, and tag them with Post-it notes. Assemble your linens, glassware and flatware, remembering everything does not have to match.

If you need to create extra table seating, one way is to use skinnier chairs. Consider renting chiavari chairs for $8 or $10 each.

Ask a couple of people to help you get dinner on the table, and keep everyone else out of the kitchen. Assign greeters, coat-takers, bartenders and appetizer-passers.

Most importantly, relax and have fun yourself. If you’re having a good time, everyone else will, too.

Irma Dona’s Classic Cheesecake


Irma Dona is my Kansas City mom. Her daughter is my bestie Bernie Ashcraft, whom I have written about many times. Bernie is a fabulous cook and hostess who learned much of what she knows from her mom. A standby recipe of Irma’s, always served to much acclaim, is this custard-like cheesecake. At family dinners, it upstages my famous coconut cake. That’s how good it is.


  • 2cups Stacy’s Cinnamon Pita Chips, crumbled in blender
  • 2tablespoons sugar
  • 1½teaspoons cinnamon
  • 6tablespoons melted butter


  • 3 8-ounce packages cream cheese
  • 1cup sugar
  • 3eggs, well beaten
  • ½teaspoon vanilla


  • 1 pint sour cream
  • 3tablespoons sugar
  • ½teaspoon vanilla
  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

To make crust: Combine ingredients and press into an eight-inch or ten-inch springform pan. To make filling: Soften cream cheese; blend in sugar. Mix in eggs and vanilla. Pour over crust; bake 20 minutes at 375 degrees. Remove from oven and increase heat to 500 degrees. To make topping: Whip sour cream; add sugar and vanilla. Pour on top of cheesecake; bake five minutes at 500 degrees. Refrigerate until serving time.

Note: the flavor of this cake is perfect on its own. Resist the urge to tacky it up with chocolate shavings or holiday garnishes. Add a sprig of mint and a few raspberries, just for color.