How to Throw an Awesome Holiday Party–Part I: Choosing a Party Theme

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 1, 2011 · 27 comments

in A Man's Life, On Etiquette

This post is part of a series brought to you by Heineken. What’s this?

While throwing parties is often seen as the responsibility of our female counterparts, men—particularly bachelors–have a long history of throwing memorable shindigs. The 1949 edition of Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts states: “Granting that you are a bachelor and not a hermit…you are going to entertain pretty regularly in the apartment and not spend all of your time prowling after a pair of nylon legs.” The book goes on to teach the reader how to cook an impressive meal, mix and serve drinks like a pro, and entertain guests with conversation, games, and even fortune telling.

Unfortunately, this kind of education in being the consummate host, along with the art of hospitality in general, is sorely lacking for the modern man.

So today we begin a four part series on how to host a great party. Since this is one of the most popular and best times of year to do so, we’ll be focusing on throwing a holiday party, but most of the tips will also apply to throwing a soiree any old time.

Today we’ll discuss the first step in the party hosting process: picking a party type or theme.

Traditional Party Types

The type of party you decide to throw will depend on how large or small you’d like the gathering to be, how formal or informal you want it, your budget, and the personality and interests of you and your friends.

Cocktail Party

A cocktail party is a semi-formal affair that takes place earlier in the evening, say between 5 and 7, or 6 and 8, and this party can serve as a get-together before another event later in the evening. Cocktails (obviously) and beer are served, and you might like to set yourself up as the charming home bartender to dispense these drinks. You’ll want to offer light snacks or hors d’oeuvres along with the beverages.

Open House/Buffet Supper

While a cocktail party typically has a two hour time span, an open house lasts longer, and guests can come and go whenever they’d like. The drinks are self-serve—beer and soda on ice, and a bowl of punch or egg nog.

The food and set-up are described well by 1953′s Esquire Etiquette:

“The food is generally laid out and the company invited to help themselves at a prescribed hour, as distinguished from the cocktail-party supper where the food is constantly available. The menu usually includes a choice of dishes, with a minimum one hot, one cold, one salad, one bread, one beverage, fruit and/or cheese and/or dessert. Nothing served should require a knife, impossible to manipulate on knee-balanced plate. Guests eat off knees or floor or trays or small tables set up for the purpose, as you like. They help themselves, with or without carving assistance from their host. They sit with whomever they choose; the host does not designate supper partners. The host watches for refill prospects and leads expeditions to second helpings or does auxiliary serving himself.”

An open house party is great for Christmas Eve. Family and friends can come and go, and stop by between their other planned activities.

The Sit-Down Dinner

A good option for those who want a classy, but more structured and intimate gathering. For a nice sit-down dinner, invite a group of friends to break bread with you, and serve them a multi-course meal—at least soup or salad, entrée, and dessert. Offer wine or beer before and during the meal, and coffee afterwards along with dessert.

Potluck Dinner

For younger gents and those on a budget, consider the potluck dinner. Assign everyone to bring one aspect of the meal, and enjoy tasting everyone’s creations. Casual and cozy.

Special Party Themes for the Holidays

You knew the weenie roast would make an appearance.

Outdoor Activity

The party starts with some kind of active outdoor activity: ice skating, sledding, hiking, snow-shoeing, etc. After the activity, everybody comes back to your place to warm up with hot chocolate and cider and to roast chestnuts, weenies, and marshmallows in the fireplace.

White Elephant Gift Exchange

Everybody brings a wrapped gift to the party (usually something cheap and/or funny). People then draw numbers (as many numbers as there are people). The person who gets number one, gets to choose the first gift and unwrap it. The next person can then choose to either “steal” the gift the first person opened or pick one of the wrapped gifts. This goes on with each consecutive person being able to choose from the things that have already been opened or from the unwrapped pile. If someone “steals” your gift, you can then choose to steal someone else’s (but you cannot steal back the gift that was just taken from you) or draw from the pile. And so on and so forth.

Christmas Lights Tour

Many companies charge big bucks to drive people around in a limo to look at the best lights in town. But you can save money by becoming your own tour guide instead. Borrow your friend’s old Suburban or rent a giant van and map out a route through town that will take you past the homes with the nicest light displays. Then have your friends over for a bite to eat, load them in the car, turn on some Christmas tunes, and become their personal tour guide to holiday wonderment.

To add another element of fun, try playing some Christmas Light Bingo. Make up some bingo cards with squares with things like:

  • Christmas tree seen through house window
  • Christmas tree in city park
  • Animatronic reindeer
  • Nativity scene
  • House in all blue lights
  • Santa

And so on. Provide your passengers with some bingo dabbers. The first person who gets bingo wins a prize.

Caroling

If you have friends who are outgoing and not afraid to do things less-sentimental folks consider “cheesy,” give a caroling get-together a try.  Meet at your place, and then go out to do some caroling around the neighborhood. If someone plays an instrument, tell them to bring it along. When you’re done caroling, have everyone come back to your house for some eggnog, hot chocolate, and cookies.

For a twist on the caroling tradition, try a caroling scavenger hunt. Divide your guests into teams and give them a list of places to carol: a hospital, old folks home, hotel lobby, shopping mall, restaurant, etc. Assign each location points based on hard it will be to get in there and carol. In each place the team goes to, they must sing 1-3 carols and have someone there sign off that they did it. The team that returns at a set time with the most points wins.

Movie Night

If you’re looking to do something very simple and casual, try hosting a holiday movie night. Invite people over, make some popcorn and hot chocolate, give everyone a blanket, and pop in a classic holiday film.

Tree Trimming

Invite your friends over to help you trim your Christmas tree. String the lights on the tree before they get there (putting on the lights is a real fun killer). When your friends arrive, put on some Christmas tunes and hang up the ornaments together. If you or one of your friends knows how to tickle the ivories, take time to gather around the piano and sing some carols. When you’re done decorating, provide people with grub and beverages for a job well done.

New Year’s Eve Campfire of Reflection

If you’re looking for a more reflective New Year’s Eve event than the usual rocking party, try a campfire. Earlier in the evening, have you friends come over to put together foil meals. Then head out to a campfire-legal park. Everyone is asked to bring a short reading or poem about winter, change, or the new year specifically, and each guest takes a turn reading their selection as the foil meals are cooked and eaten. Then as midnight approaches, each person silently writes down their regrets from the past year on a piece of paper. At the stroke of midnight, everyone throws their paper into the fire, toasts, smooches, and celebrates the fresh start before them.

New Year’s Eve Months of the Year Party

We found this gem of a New Year’s Eve party idea in 1905′s Bright Ideas for Entertaining:

“It should be a small party, not over twenty-four guests, and it will be the more enjoyable if informal and among those who are well acquainted with each other…confine the list to twelve young gentlemen and twelve young ladies. The hostess requests each couple to dress so as to represent a particular month, which she assigns them…it will take some ingenuity to devise an effect that will mark a particular month.

The guests should not assemble until nine o’clock. There should be a large clock conspicuously placed in the room, and if possible an open fireplace, with a bright fire on the hearth.

The first part of the time should be taken up in guessing the months, the company gathering before the open fire in a circle. As fast as one month is decided upon, the one who impersonates it rises, makes his or her bow to the company, and recites at least four original lines pertaining to that month. The more ridiculous or witty they are, the better they will be appreciated.

After this comes the supper, which may be as elaborate or as simple as desired, and then a promiscuous mixing of the months will cause some merriment.

Just as the clock is striking twelve, there is a knock at the door. Upon opening it, there is revealed a young man dressed as a baby, in a long white dress tied about with a sash on which is printed January 1, 19—. If properly planned, the appearance of this New Year baby will cause shouts of merriment.

Hand shakings and New Year’s greetings follow, and the party is over.”

Promiscuous mixing of months! Sounds wild!

New Year’s Eve Fortune Telling

A little not-so-serious fortune telling was a very popular amusement at parties throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly at a New Year’s Eve gathering.

There are a couple of traditional New Year’s Eve fortune telling methods. The first is to let the melting wax from a candle drop into a bowl of water while someone thinks of a question. You then interpret the shape the drippings take as having something to do with the person’s question. “It looks like the state of Texas! This means you should take the job in Dallas!” Or you can take some saucers and place a ring on some, a dollar on others, and nothing on the rest. You then blindfold your guests, mix up the order of the saucers, and have them each reach for one. If they get a saucer with a ring, they’ll be married within the year. If they get the dollar bill, wealth is coming their way. If they get the empty saucer, their circumstances will stay the same.

Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts recommends using cards, and hmmm-ing, and hawing over them to exert the “hypnotic influence” which “consists mainly in astounding the ‘subject’ through telling him or her that which is most apparently obvious concerning himself.” For those who “blush easily and are not a good liar” the handbook recommends trying “table-tipping.” For table-tipping, you and your friends gather around a small table, preferably one with one leg that is shorter than the others. Everyone places their hands on the table, with their thumbs and little fingers touching the thumbs and little fingers of the person next to them. The lights are dimmed, and one person sits in the corner as a scribe. You then talk to the spirits using a code: 1 tap for A, 2 taps for B, 3 for C, and so on.  Then-

“With your hands upon the small table and after about three minutes of expectant waiting you will now exert a small pressure upon the rickety table causing it to move an inch or two along the floor. You now exclaim, “There! Didn’t you feel something!? I felt something!” The “spirits” then rap out spooky messages, and “soon [they] will really open up and give you all some pretty wonderful advice. If this advice isn’t of the kind that will make that lovely blonde on the other side of the table sit up and resolve to make several important changes in her immediate date book, then you should not be head man at a table-tipping party.”

How to Throw an Awesome Holiday Party Series:
Choosing a Party Theme
Guest Lists, Invitations, and Planning
A Simple and Jolly Dinner Menu
A Primer on Being the Ultimate Host

What are your ideas for great holiday party themes? Share them with us in the comments!

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dan December 1, 2011 at 10:54 am

The past few years, we have thrown black tie new years eve parties. They’re really popular amongst my friends, for whom tuxedos and ball gowns are seen as a novelty.

2 Mark December 1, 2011 at 11:42 am

You left out Festivus! The holiday for the rest of us. Actually, a Festivus party allows for a ‘non’-theme, theme party. This will be our fourth annual party this year and keeping the guest list small is becoming the biggest problem.

3 Ben December 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm

The past five years we have thrown “tween” parties. “tween” being the holiday between Christmas and new years. We had too many friends with plans on Christmas and on new years to get together any kind of large party, so we decided to create on in the middle of the two big ones. We get a lot of folks who are in town that might not otherwise be, and they tend to be free as its not a holiday. We do an open house and encourage people to bring snacks (Christmas leftovers?) and we provide the drinks. The first year we had thirty friends and family stop into out 800sqft condo. Standing room only! The next year we moved it to my inlaws house and each year gets progressively bigger. Our last one was over 75 people. Young, old, friends from all walks of life, it’s a very interesting mix and a lot of fun.

4 Julie December 1, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Every year, on the first weekend after New Year’s, my boyfriend and I host a “break your resolutions early” chocolate fondue party. Over time, it’s evolved into a potluck: we provide the chocolate and our guests provide the dunkables. It’s a ton of fun, especially paired up with some board games after the mass consumption of chocolate.

5 Eric Granata December 1, 2011 at 1:16 pm

This past November we threw our second annual Cider and Pie party. It’s a good time. Everyone brings a pie or some sort of cider to share. They’re supposed to bring recipes too, but we don’t get many.

This year we had a few quiches and a shepherd’s pie show up which was a nice change.

6 Mike December 1, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Ugly holiday sweater party!

7 John December 1, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Love the illustraitions on this post. They have such whimsey and bring forth feelings of nostaglia I had not thought of for a long time. Great info on throwing the perfect holiday party.

8 Owen December 1, 2011 at 8:47 pm

@John – Agreed! The second illustration is my favorite. It has a great balance between realism and cartooning and wonderful brushwork.

@Ben – I’m stealing the ‘tween parties. That’s a great idea.

9 Shannon December 2, 2011 at 5:24 am

The more of these you send me, the more I think someone has lost the path. MEN don’t worry about this sort of thing, how to throw parties and what to do with turkey leftovers and a lot of other trivial things. What a load of NONSENSE. Grow up! The true MEN, the role models I aspire to are too busy 1) Working to provide opportunities for their family. 2) Making sure there friends and community are Okay. 3) Volunteering to help in things as trivial as working Bee’s at Daughters schools up to selflessly giving time at Rural Fire Brigades, coaching school football teams and the like. Not farting about wondering if they are wearing the right tie. AND they are doing it quietly without fanfare. These REAL men usually only own two pairs of shoes, one of them being work boots. When they want to have a ‘party’, it’s usually because they have dropped around to help a friend on Saturday afternoon, to put a gutter on, help fix something or help re-roof. Then the friends have a few beers and laughs.

Art of manliness my arse. Art of consumerist narcissism me thinks.

10 Scrooge December 2, 2011 at 8:35 am

Shannon:
Bah Humbug. Want to come over to me place, Shannon? Wear your fingerless Mr. T gloves if you are feeling a bit frisky/narcissistic. We can have a non-party about how celebrating during the holiday season is stupid and how realmen should work our arses off 24/7, get burnt out, and snap one day!
Non-Regards,
Ebenezer

11 Alex Devlin December 2, 2011 at 8:53 am

@Shannon – REAL men help everybody out and participate in parties with friends and family. REAL men are not afraid to show their loving and caring side to those close to them in the holiday seasons. REAL men take on many roles. That is how they gain the love and respect of the people around them. THAT is what makes a man a REAL man.

Happy Holidays! However you decide to celebrate them.

12 A. Man December 2, 2011 at 10:16 am

Having just moved into a wonderful new home, my wife and I are throwing our first holiday party this year. I would consider our party a Open House/Buffet Supper type affair.

An open question to anyone, would it be appropriate for me during the party to make short speech / announcement to my guests, thanking them for their friendship and companionship? I don’t want to come off as being cheesy or hurt the tone of an otherwise festive mood. Any advice or suggestions?

13 A. Man December 2, 2011 at 10:20 am

@Shannon

Not sure where you have been for the last 60 years or so, but the reason that a website such as this exists is because of the irrefutable fact that not many “real men” exist anymore. As a married man, I find that anything my wife cares about, I care about. We are partners in life and in all things, and she most certainly is concerned about having a beautiful holiday party to show our appreciation for all the great people we have in our life.

14 Samuel Granger December 2, 2011 at 1:40 pm

What? Where is the Ugly Sweater Kegger? That’s a favorite of mine.

15 Brett December 2, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Thank you, Shannon………..for a moment there, I thought I’d make it through an entire comment section on AoM without someone chiming in about how having fun is for sissies and real men should be taking a scotch shower and bookending their day with leadership studies.

16 Saint Vital December 2, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Regarding Shannon’s comments, I’m imagining what Ron Swanson would say about this. I am imagining it as much more succinct, immeasurably funnier and without all the ridiculous and needless capitalization. Ron Swanson in ’12!

17 Marco December 2, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Lol at the illustrations. They are full of old school magazine “subliminal” phalluses and the like. Esquire, no surprise. Now that crap is out in the open at the magazine du jour.

18 Hutch December 3, 2011 at 3:31 am

@ Shannon- YEAH! Because real men are just human mules made to do work all the time regardless of weather or not it’s their responsibility! Noob.
@ Brett- Nice article dude. I smiled the whole way through. I especially liked the 12 months thing.

19 Ron December 3, 2011 at 4:46 am

I want to know how much they payed that guy to show up dressed like a baby at midnight in the “months of the year” party.

20 Hill December 3, 2011 at 10:00 am

I am a female in her twenties, and I feel like AoM makes me a better woman. How that is possible, I don’t know. But I do know that there is quality content on here.

21 Rose December 3, 2011 at 12:03 pm

I like the blog too- it focuses on all kinds of practical things that in this day and age, women should know how to do too.

22 Rob December 3, 2011 at 3:59 pm

I recently put two ideas in one, namely inviting friends over for (1) a pong throwdown, admittedly easier if you have a table; and (2) chipping in for an unusually good bottle of whiskey. The sharing of good drinks kept the games fun instead of competitive. Throw in a bag of chips n’ salsa and yr golden.

23 Daniel December 3, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Okay, aside from Shannon, I think I speak for everyone in saying this is another great article. This website is a wealth of information. Keep it up, Brett and Kate, because we appreciate what you two and your peers are doing.

24 Kurt Smith December 3, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Living on the West Coast, we take advantage of every time zone and host a “New York New Year’s Eve” party – we ring in the New Year when the ball drops in New York, then at 10, 11, and “our” New Year’s Eve at midnight. Those who need to duck out early, but for those who stay, that’s when the party really takes off.

25 Eric December 8, 2011 at 3:20 pm

The New Year’s Eve campfire reflection party brought back memories. We used to go out to this old Indian Mound on New Years Eve, light a fire and everyone had to go around, talking about their best/worst memory of the year, resolutions, etc. Then we’d set off fireworks and try to get away before the police arrived. (Ironically, the campfire never alerted the authorities. It was always the fireworks…)

26 Matt December 8, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Of course the Tacky Christmas Sweater concept is hugely popular. I found some great sweater ideas at http://www.tackylighttour.com/interactive/tackychristmassweater.aspx

27 Matt (2) December 13, 2011 at 4:48 pm

I’m really enjoying this whole website. It’s such a relief to see that a.) I’m not the only one that thinks about stuff like this and b.) the site is populated by what seem to be very intellectual folks.
This article is just one part of what makes it great! Keep up the good work!

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