How to Throw an Awesome Holiday Party–Part II: Guest Lists, Invitations, and Planning

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 6, 2011 · 24 comments

in A Man's Life, On Etiquette

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

In the first post of our four-part series on throwing an awesome holiday party, we talked about picking a party type or theme. Once you’ve done that, it’s time to begin planning the event: drawing up a guest list, sending out invitations, and getting ready for the shindig.

The Guest List

How Many People Should You Invite?

Probably should have invited a few more people.

If you’re hosting a cocktail party, 1953’s Esquire Etiquette recommends that the crowd be “large enough so everybody stands, or small enough so everybody sits; an in-between number is awkward.”

If you’re throwing a large open house kind of party, the guest list is limited only by the number of people you think can comfortably fit in your abode—keeping in mind that not everyone will be there at the same time–and how much money you have set aside to fill their stomachs and wet their whistles.

The number of guests to invite to a dinner party is easy: no more than can sit comfortably at your dining room or kitchen table—with at the most one leaf put in. Any more than that and your guests will be smooshed together, and the folks at one part of the table will not be able to communicate with those on the other end, breaking the table into two separate circles of conversation.

Other types of parties have a self-limiting guest list—there are only so many of your friends that would enjoy a caroling night out, for example.

Who Should You Invite?

No matter what kind of party you throw, it’s never a bad idea to have the man in the red suit stop by.

Drawing up your guest list can be a tricky and confusing business. So we turn to Esquire Etiquette, which offers this very sound advice:

“To begin with, give yourself an even break on the company: invite people who will get along together. For a small party, where the guests have no escape from each other, it is vital that they have interests and sympathies in common (and their common acquaintance with you is not enough)…They should not be too alike—they want stimulation not mere affirmation—but they should complement each other, not antagonize or compete with each other. Your job is to figure out both ends of the exchange and be satisfied that they will be satisfied before you bring your friends together.

At a large party, where presumably a guest can pick and choose his talk-mates, you can take a little less care with the invitation list if you are prepared to take a little more care with on-the-spot matchings. That is, you can invite both the dogmatic Republican and the emotional leftist—if you see to it that they steer clear of each other. Still, you should be sure that there are two or three people whom each of them will enjoy—a  fellow-fisherman who won’t mind if Mr. GOP issues a few political edicts, an interrogative liberal who might want to find out how the left half thinks, a few attractive women who can be relied upon to bring the subject around to their specialty if the atmosphere gets charged.

A good rule to follow is to be sure that everyone you have invited knows (and likes) at least two other guests: you don’t want anyone to walk into a roomful of strangers, and you don’t want to leave anyone without an escape hatch should the strangers prove stultifying.

In addition, you’re stacking the cards your way if every guest has at least one talkable interest in common with every other guest.”

The Invitations

When to Send the Invitations

The holiday season is packed with parties, and people will get lots of invitations to different events. So you want to make sure you send out your invitations early in order to have your friends commit to your event first. The more formal an event, the earlier you send out the invites. If it’s a very casual get-together, one week previous to the party is acceptable, but typically two weeks before the event is a good rule of thumb if you expect replies. And during busy seasons or for large and formal parties, you want to send out your invitations about three weeks before the party. But not any earlier than that—as Esquire Etiquette puts it, “Except for a wedding, four weeks’ notice has all the visemarks of a bear trap.”

What Kind of Invitations to Send

Your guests will look to the type of invitations you use for clues on the formality and kind of party you’ll be throwing.

First, don’t call people to invite them. It’s awkward to put people on the spot like that, and they typically won’t be able to tell you if they can come before looking at their calendar and talking to their significant other. If you decide to host a casual get-together in a week’s time, just send out an email to let your friends know.

For a party that’s still casual but more put-together and pre-planned, there’s nothing wrong with using e-vites in my opinion, and they’re quite handy as regards sending them out and keeping track of who’s coming.

For an affair that’s a little more formal, mail out a standard invitation or use your calling cards. You do have a set of calling cards, don’t you?

If you’re having a super fancy pancy affair, then by all means mail out some fancy pancy invitations: engraved, letterpressed, and so on.

What to Include on the Invitation

People like to know exactly what they’re getting into when they commit to something, so make sure to include these details on the invitation:

  • The place
  • The date
  • The hour or span of hours
  • The kind of party it is (particularly whether or not you’re going to feed them—people will want to know if they should eat beforehand)
  • Whether or not kids are invited
  • If the guest needs to bring something (dish for potluck dinner, present for white elephant gift exchange, etc)
  • Appropriate dress (if it won’t be obvious from the type of party it is)
  • Request to RVSP with how many will be coming (are they going to bring a date?)

Planning Your Party

When you’re planning your party, checklists are your friend. Make shopping lists for food and drinks, alcohol, decorations, and miscellaneous supplies. And make a list of the things you need to do in the weeks and days leading up to the party, as well as a list of things you’ll need to do the day of. Here are some things to consider as you generate these lists:

Menu. What will you be serving? How much food do you need? The food you’re going to buy and prepare depends on the kind of party you’re going to throw. But whether you’re having a sit-down dinner or just snacks, allot for each person to eat 1.5 times what you think would be a normal serving for a person. It’s better to have extra food and leftovers than to run out.

Drinks. Are there spirits or garnishes you need to purchase? Eggnog is a given along with various spirits your friends enjoy. It’s fun not only to be the host but to play bartender as well and mix your friends up some special holiday cocktails. Also, be kind to your teetotaling friends, too. They get tired of only being offered water and soft drinks. So plan to make some hot apple cider and come up with a few cool holiday mocktails to serve them.

Supplies. Do you have enough dishes and glassware? You definitely don’t want to run out of clean glassware at a cocktail party. What about things like napkins? How do you plan to decorate? Do you have what you need on hand? Can you borrow any of the decorations? Do you plan to make any of the decorations yourself? Do you need any special supplies for your holiday-themed party? Bingo cards for Christmas Light Bingo? Poppers for exploding at midnight? A white dress and sash for the friend who volunteered to arrive as a giant New Year’s Eve man baby at midnight?

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

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John December 6, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Great advice on the invitations. I once worked with a lady who threw a Christmas party for our department. Instead of passing out the invitations or asking for RSVPs, she simply placed a stack of invitations in the breakroom and never said a word. I felt terrible for her because NO ONE came to her party. I only found out about the party the day after when every one was quiet around her.

2 Colonel December 6, 2011 at 10:54 pm

What is the polite way to state “No kids” on an invitation? I have a hard time thinking of a way to say that you would prefer an adults only party on an invitation without coming off as churlish.

3 Doyle December 7, 2011 at 8:25 am

You might find a way to say in the invitation that the party is a reward to yourself for some “parenting time off”.

4 Aaron December 7, 2011 at 9:47 am

It the party is adults only, please don’t hem and haw on the invitation or when discussing the party with guests. Just be upfront and straightforward, “Adults only please.” Nothing is worse than trying to figure out the host’s intentions when it comes to deciding whether or not to take the kids. There is no reason to try and apologize for planning a party where kids should not come. If my kids are welcome, great I’ll bring them and we’ll all have fun together. If it is going to be adults only with lots of booze and cussing, great I’ll still be there and my kids will be with a sitter.

5 Ted Pochmara December 7, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Great series of posts. We’ve got some parties in the works ourselves and there’s some good ideas here I hadn’t thought of.

Now I’m off to find something super tacky for the Bad Christmas Sweater Party this weekend…

6 Luke December 7, 2011 at 6:16 pm

surly being manly doesn’t mean ”planning” a party. being manly is just give the lads a text n meet at the local pub n see where the night takes you!!!!


7 Genevieve December 7, 2011 at 8:24 pm

“That is, you can invite both the dogmatic Republican and the emotional leftist—if you see to it that they steer clear of each other. Still, you should be sure that there are two or three people whom each of them will enjoy—a fellow-fisherman who won’t mind if Mr. GOP issues a few political edicts, an interrogative liberal who might want to find out how the left half thinks, a few attractive women who can be relied upon to bring the subject around to their specialty if the atmosphere gets charged.”

This sentence is sexist, plain and simple.

While I usually enjoy AoM articles, I am very disappointed that this phrase even needed to be added to that sentence.

Here are my problems with it:

1. You brought up women as a separate category, thereby implying that they are the add-ons and that they could not possibly be any of the people you had previously mentioned (dogmatic Republican, emotional leftist, fellow fisherman, interrogative liberal). The implication, conscious or no, is that women don’t have political opinions to voice.

2. Not only were women mentioned specifically by their gender, but they were also mentioned with the qualifier ‘attractive’, objectifying them and suggesting that they are there to be ornaments at your party which are pleasant to look at.

3. Their specialty? I’m not even sure what you’re going for here; my mind is running the gamut from stereotypical ladylike things such as lace doilies or whatever to a sexual innuendo (which I doubt you were going for).

4. Also, I don’t see why it’s the women who should have to moderate the discussion if it gets too heated; they should feel free to participate in it just as heatedly if they so desire, and everyone can take responsibility for moderating themselves (or others, if the need arises).

To avoid all of this, you could have simply left out the entire last part of the sentence about women, or if you really needed to emphasize that moderators needed to be involved somehow, you could have replaced that part with “a few mild-mannered people to change the subject if the atmosphere gets charged.

8 Michael December 7, 2011 at 8:27 pm

I certainly know who I wouldn’t invite to one of my parties…

9 Evan R December 8, 2011 at 3:42 am


I am sorry that you misinterpreted the statement. Surely Brett and Kate did not mean it this way…

1. When thinking of politically passionate people, I usually think of a man. Not because I am sexist, but because most of the women I know don’t care for politics, and the ones that do usually don’t like talking about them, and certainly not arguing about them.

2. When a man is passionate about a subject or task, there is little that can distract him or break his focus. With the exception of immediate physical dangers, an attractive woman is at the top of that list. The “attractive” part isn’t sexist, it’s just a fact of life. The more attractive a woman is, the quicker she can change a man’s focus.

3. To be clear, I’m not objectifying women, nor am I condoning it. However, I do feel that men and women alike should admire a woman for her beauty, just as they should admire a man for his strength.

10 Evan R December 8, 2011 at 3:52 am


Sorry, concerning #4;
Women don’t HAVE to moderate, but they may be better at it than a man in a party setting, and their help would be both welcome and appreciated. Men have a tendency to bring the hammer down and tell them to “Just drop it,” thereby ending an issue without resolving it leaving some tension in the air still. For a party, this is a downer. Women have a gift for changing the subject and making people feel better. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s awesome.

11 Genevieve December 8, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Thank you for taking the time to address my points. I meant to add at the bottom of my previous comment that I wasn’t assuming that Brett and Kate meant to say all of what I interpreted, but that the way it was phrased can alienate some people.

Your responses helped me to understand where people like you are coming from. I think a lot of it is we know very different people. For example, I know more men who are disinterested in politics, so for me, I’m more likely to come across a woman arguing about them (usually the group is not exclusively women, either). They can also become incredibly passionate to the point of forgetting everything else, and sometimes intervention (by anyone) is necessary.

I still do take issue with the idea that women should be admired for their beauty and men for their strength, but we’ll have to agree to disagree on that point.

As for the fourth point, you may be right in saying that women are more likely to be good at changing the subject than men, but a lot of that depends on how people were raised and whether the women were taught (probably not explicitly) as girls that they were expected to be able to smooth over social situations.

Again, thanks for responding to my comment in a constructive manner; I appreciate it.

12 Genevieve December 8, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Also, the rest of the advice in this article is really useful, especially making sure each person knows and likes at least two people, and has at least one person with common interests to talk about. This was the rule of thumb I used in planning my birthday party a few months ago, and it worked really well.

I would like to highlight the point that water and pop do indeed get really boring if one is trying to abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages or at least, only drink a moderate amount. It’s really frustrating when the only drinks have either alcohol or caffeine, especially in the evening, and juice or cider is very much appreciated.

I’m looking forward to the next installment of how to throw an awesome holiday party.

13 Clint December 8, 2011 at 8:52 pm

I’m a fan of AoM, and that isn’t changing because of this critique.

With that being clear, I think that Genevieve raised a valid issue with the language. While the website is geared toward men, I have always appreciated that the advice is often equally useful for both men and women. I have enjoyed that there is more care than in similar lifestyle websites to avoid essentializing gender, and I’ve never had a problem thinking that Kate may be giving certain advice on how to be a man.

As I see it, a site like this operates on the idea that you chose to be a man, and that what we all mean by that has far less to do with what is between our legs. I mean, if being a man was innate then I wouldn’t be here reading these articles and writing my two cents. Personally, I take a degree of pride in the idea that I’m working to be the best man that I can be, and that it is a conscious choice that I’m making. You may have been born with certain body parts, but if “manliness” was lost, then it isn’t inherent. I think that the readers here sign on to the idea that the (manly) virtues presented here are valuable. I don’t know why, but I have always appreciated that–with the exception of fashion advice–there is nothing keeping a strong, independent woman from gaining just as much from this website.

Now, gender aside–since the passage is already being discussed–I would like to point out another issue that I saw.

The adjectives “dogmatic” and “emotional” are not equivalent. I’m a Republican, but an intro. course in rhetoric (something covered on AoM) would show that this language paints Democrats in an unfavorable light by comparison.

Both qualities are undesirable but not to an equal degree. A dogmatic Republican has, by the nature of the word, principles. They may be inflexible in these principles, but they have them. It is even possible to imagine respecting that quality in the right situation. The emotional Democrat on the other hand is a description that undercuts the validity of that position. I recognize this is subtle. I may be taking up the time to write this over nothing, but it seems to make one party seem to have some reasoning behind their position and the other to be more childish or less intellectually rigorous about their political positions.

Now obviously, I don’t think that one phrase would do it, but I could see that if the same kind of language slips happened repeatedly it could create a sense of bias on your website.

I have had it out with many liberal friends, and I enjoy that I fundamentally disagree with their solutions but still understand what is in their heart. It often is the case that their logic is sound, but they are operating from a different ideological background.

I don’t always like to admit it, but I suspect that if either of us had our way completely that things wouldn’t be as good as when we are forced to compromise. My understanding of history indicates that this bares out and is part of what makes our country great.

I recognize the stereotypes that go in both directions, and I know that part of the writing style there was to play those stereotypes up a bit. Still, I value that in most AoM articles I never get the sense that one political persuasion is better suited to being a man. Yes, many of the historical figures that are discussed are Republican. Yes, many of the virtues described are associated in contemporary culture with conservatism. Yes, the website draws heavily on a sense of nostalgia for a “lost art” of manliness that previous men had, which is a conservative tendency (looking back to history to solve problems). Still, I like that I can recommend this site to my liberal friends and not feel that I am going to alienate them or leave them with the feeling that I am trying to indoctrinate them.

This was a good post. I know I’d never get through hosting a party without my wife, and I get nervous when I see certain, liberal friends talking with certain, fellow conservatives. Still, I’d appreciate it if you’ll at least consider what I’m saying with an open mind as you write future articles.

14 Kate McKay December 8, 2011 at 9:12 pm

My goodness gracious. That an excerpt from a 1953 etiquette book, that even at the time was meant to be cheeky, should be expected to be politically correct and should warrant a multi-paragraph analysis is truly bizarre. Truly.

AoM doesn’t advocate resurrecting the negative things from the past concerning women, but I don’t think it would hurt to bring back the ability to be a little less uptight, to not take things so seriously, and to be able to enjoy things in context.

15 Susan Hatch December 8, 2011 at 10:11 pm

I am a woman. I am a feminist. I was a political science major in college. And I love this site!

I don’t know if that’s weird or not. I am beautiful (or so men have told me) AND I like to talk about politics.

But I honestly don’t know what Genevieve and Clint are blathering on about it. I thought the passage from the book was wonderful and it didn’t offend me in the least. Just a nice bit of advice from way back when.

Actually, I’m not sure they realize it’s a quote, although that seemed clear enough to me in the the article. Were probably skimming and looking for something to react to, instead of really drinking it in!

16 Michael December 9, 2011 at 9:22 am

This is one of the only sites (possibly the only one) that I even bother reading the comments on because it is one of the very few where readers generally have open minds, senses of humor, and seem to be pretty level headed.

Genevieve: I am all about fee speech, but really?? That needed to be said? I am sure that you have better things to do than to get up-in-arms over a blog post about planning Christmas parties on a site that isn’t even the slightest bit sexist.

17 Clint December 9, 2011 at 11:29 am

I apologize. I did not notice the quotation marks, or see that all of the content was not original and was all taken from an earlier guide.

Nonetheless, I think calling your readers uptight and bizarre is a great way to make them feel heard and appreciated. Thank you.

18 Clint December 9, 2011 at 11:44 am


I think you could have left it at “I’m not sure they realize it’s a quote, although that seemed clear enough to me in the the article.” The addition of “probably skimming and looking for something to react to, instead of really drinking it in,” seems unneeded.

I enjoy the content of the site, I noticed an issue (but not quotation marks, as you noted), and (long time listener, first time caller) I thought I would give posting a response a try. I’ve followed the blog for some time, read the book, and listened to the podcasts, and I thought the potential dialogue could be interesting as (like Michael) I find the people who respond tend to be genuine.

19 Mike December 9, 2011 at 12:04 pm

I think it was fair to call your reactions “uptight”. Haven’t you ever been to a party where one harmless comment has sent someone on lengthy tirade? Nobody wants that person at the party.

20 Jackie December 9, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Great tips! I always feel like I have to invite so-and-so because they know such-and-such who is already coming…I definitely get a bit spazzy when it comes to hosting any party but I came across a pretty awesome party planning checklist >

You should definitely include this article in the list!

21 Steve Harrington December 9, 2011 at 10:33 pm

I am genuinely confused. Why should feedback that is entirely off the mark and based on a lazy reading of the article be “heard and appreciated?” Why not call a spade a spade? Whether or not the text was from the 1950s or the present day, a lengthy discourse on why being called emotional is worse than being called dogmatic, and somehow compromises this site’s political neutrality is the very definition of uptight and bizarre… [Edited by admin]

22 Zachariah December 9, 2011 at 11:51 pm

Yeah that large chunk should really be distinguished more as a block, or “The convention in English is to give opening quotation marks to the first and each subsequent paragraph, using closing quotation marks only for the final paragraph of the quotation”…

23 P.M.Lawrence December 14, 2011 at 2:09 am

Also, be kind to your teetotaling friends, too. They get tired of only being offered water and soft drinks. So plan to make some hot apple cider and come up with a few cool holiday mocktails to serve them.

Er… cider is alcoholic. It’s fermented apple juice. In fact, it’s often stronger than beer. Heating it can’t be relied on to drive off the alcohol. Maybe you should trying using unfermented apple juice (though that’s often too disgustingly sweet, as the juicing has concentrated the fruit’s sugars and there hasn’t been any fermentation to get rid of enough of them).

24 P.M.Lawrence December 14, 2011 at 2:09 am

Oops, finger trouble: that should have had “try using”.

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