It really is the most wonderful time of the year: check your guest list twice, deck your halls and prepare to celebrate straight through to the New Year.
Whatever your holiday traditions — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Las Posadas — it's the season for parties that many experts say are less about outdated "rules" and more about embracing your own personal style.
"My recipe for a great holiday party is ambience — it starts when you walk in," says Elle Ellinghaus of Elle Designs, whose Canton-based boutique firm planned the summer nuptials of Ravens player Torrey Smith and his bride.
"It doesn't have to be big and crazy and huge," notes Ellinghaus, who counts other NFL players, including Ray Rice, among her clients. "But a few good things will tie the theme together and make it fun."
Lisa Marie, who plans high-profile events in Baltimore and Washington, including the Hip-Hop Ball for both of President Barack Obama's inaugurations, agrees.
"Many times, people are inundated with the same mundane event — in a room with people they don't know," says Marie, owner of Baltimore-based Lisa Marie Events. She says hosts can set the tone with the right dress code.
"It doesn't matter whether they come in funny holiday sweaters, gowns or dapper black tie," she says. "The holiday season is a time for joy and happiness."
Jennifer Grove, president of Sky Blue Events, has produced weddings, dinner parties and other well-heeled affairs in Baltimore and New York. She encourages the holiday host or hostess to maximize mingling.
"Keep both the party's intrigue factor and the guests' interactivity level high," she says.
To kick off the entertaining season, we asked area event planners to come up with some perfect party themes. So send out the invites, pop the cork on the bubbly and get ready for a very, merry bash.
Christmas Open House
Linnyette Richardson-Hall, creative director, Premiere Event Management/The Diva's Kitchen in Baltimore.
Her credentials: Featured planner on the Style Network's "Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?"
Whom to invite: About 20-40 guests. "Have relatives and friends stop by on a Sunday after church," says Richardson-Hall.
Decor: Red, white, fuschia and silver color scheme. Jingle-bell tree, silver accessories, textured white tablecloths, shimmering glass ornaments, votive candleholders. "Aim for an ethereal look," she says.
Menu: Soup served from pretty crocks and shot glasses. Try roasted tomato soup with homemade herb croutons or creamy chicken bisque sprinkled with South African smoke seasoning. Add a fresh spinach salad and honey cornbread rounds with savory herb butter. Snickerdoodle cupcakes to finish. "I grew up in a Southern family, and one of our love languages is cooking from scratch. But you can cater and buy items, too."
Libations: Peach iced tea. For a great cocktail, whip up "BlushingDIVA" martinis: Ciroc vodka, Sprite and grenadine garnished with a maraschino cherry.
Tips: Make sure the house is immaculate. Pull out the good china. Label food and drinks with calligraphy on small tent cards. Enlarge the menu and showcase on an elegant easel.
Why this theme? "Being a gracious hostess is about sharing."
Filipino Christmas: Pascua de Navidad
Sonjie DeCaires, CEO, Sonjé Productions LLC, Baltimore
Her credentials: Clients include Ray Lewis Family Foundation, Carmelo Anthony, Under Armour, Greater Baltimore Urban League.
Theme: "To aid people in the Philippines devastated by Typhoon Haiyan," says DeCaires. "Guests will be asked to donate canned goods and money to the survivors through UNICEF."
Whom to invite: Philanthropic friends and loved ones. The guest list could also include local leaders of the Katipunan Filipino-American Association of Maryland.
Decor: Trees draped with lights to mimic the illuminating feel of decorations found in the city of Makati in the Philippines. Plan to include the traditional dance of the lanterns and children singing carols.
Menu: Filipino favorites such as roast suckling pig, rice cakes, steamed rice, fruit salad, plus American holiday fare and eggnog. Food items can be found at ethnic grocery stores.
Why this theme? "In the Philippines, they celebrate Christmas for four months — the longest in the world," says DeCaires. "Countless people are displaced, homeless and hungry this holiday season. This party will allow guests to feel like they played an active role in keeping Christmas special to the surviving families."
Candy Cane Lane
Drew Vanlandingham, owner of Vanlandingham Design Studio, Ellicott City
His credentials: The former TV host for Wedding 411 on Demand has also helped plan inauguration festivities in Washington.
Whom to invite: Co-workers, neighbors and friends.
Decor: "You want a wintry white feel with deep crimson touches," says Vanlandingham. Outside, have votive candles leading to your house. Inside, use patterned linens (i.e., candy cane stripes), white birch branches, faux snow, and white hydrangea and red roses. Candy canes can do double duty as accents. Tuck them into "a monogrammed gift bag with a pretty ribbon" as one of the trinkets guests take home. He suggests finding supplies at local craft stores like Michaels and Hobby Lobby.
Menu: A buffet assortment of savory/sweet bites including mini-turkey "sammies" and brie, pear halves, jams and crackers. Veggies arranged in a 'tower' make an unusual centerpiece. "Try to serve food that plays on the color scheme."
Libations: Sugar Cane Candy martini served in a red glass with candy cane swizzle stick.
Tip: "Music is important," says Vanlandingham, a trained opera singer with a master's degree from the Peabody Conservatory. He fancies the idea of booking a jazz combo. If that's not doable, he says, spin holiday jazz from Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald.
Why this theme? "For the holidays, I prefer a buffet instead of a seated dinner," says the Arkansas native. "People want to mingle, chat and have fun."
'All About Wines' holiday brunch
George Ray III, George Ray Agency
His credentials: Ray's independent and collaborative events include clients such as Crown Royal, Coca-Cola, Baltimore NAACP.
Whom to invite: Trendsetters, the fashionable and other VIPs in your circle.
Decor: "This isn't traditional red and green," says Ray, who favors jewel tones in purple, turquoise, and deep red for both the linens and tree. "You want colors that pop." According to Ray, a hot party trend is "the wine goblet that Olivia Pope uses on the TV show 'Scandal.' " The one-time bartender suggests Crate and Barrel — at least one fan website notes the chain's Camille 23-ounce red wine glass — or rent stemware from area party supply stores.
Menu: If possible, hire a caterer to set up omelet and carving stations. Make sure there are vegetarian options and "lavish" desserts. Or prepare brunch on your own. Try a baked egg white omelet or a frittata. "Or you can make eggs to order," says Ray. Artfully arrange platters with fresh fruit, croissants and pastries from your favorite bakery. Add smoked salmon, turkey bacon and gourmet chicken sausages.
Libations: Red and white varietals from different regions of the U.S., France and Italy, including sparkling wine and champagne. Another idea for those who can afford it: "Bring in a [sommelier] who can do a presentation for guests who aren't already wine connoisseurs." Have books on wine — like "The Wine Bible," by Karen MacNeil — displayed for guests to peruse. Hosts can also use online vintner resources and print out a wine glossary that can be prominently displayed.
Tips: Send guests a glitzy paper invitation plus an Evite reminder. "Getting an invite in the mail makes people feel special. Cap the guest list (15 people or so) to maximize interaction and conversation.
Why this theme?: "Anytime you entertain, you want guests to leave with a gift — like a bottle of wine — so they'll have a memory of the party to take away."
Help for the host
Martha Morningstar, director of catering at Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, says the perfect party is all about the details. "As a host, you want to customize the experience to reflect your personality," says Morningstar, a trained chef who previously worked with Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman of Charleston and other local restaurants. "The look and the feel of the event starts with the invitation and should be carried throughout the experience." Her tips:
Prepare a warm welcome the minute guests arrive at your home. "Here at the Four Seasons, a champagne or cocktail greet is one of our favorite ways to welcome guests. Make sure the menu is unique and memorable, too."
Decor should be consistent with the overall theme of the gathering. "A thoughtful way to end the evening is to send guests home with a small token of remembrance, i.e., a sweet treat."
Remember true hospitality transcends budget, decor, menu and even the number of guests invited. "Enjoying time with your friends and family is always the most important part of hosting an event."