8 surprising holiday party etiquette tips

Whether you’re the host or the guest, these pointers from hospitality pros will help you be merry, bright and polite this holiday season.

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Hosting a wonderful holiday party shouldn’t be about one-upping your neighbors with fancy catering, a hired band, and all the trimmings you can afford. It should be about creating a warm environment for friends, family, and maybe even a few folks you don’t know so well. And when you’re a guest at such parties, the aim should be to make sure everyone enjoys the evening, not just you.

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What matters most on either side is that you get into the spirit of the season and offer up a kindness to your friends: whether it’s in the form of your home, your time, or a tray of your favorite festive brownies. Say buh-bye to the holiday rat race and hello to generosity and fun this Christmas with these eight hospitable yuletide tips.

For hosts …

1. Plan well to pamper your guests

A good hostess doesn’t make her guests lift a finger (unless, of course, they’re your kids or family relatives who are taking up space in your house for a few days—by all means, ask for their help). Hospitality writer Cambria Bold of TheKitchn.com says the secret to making guests feel at ease is to plan well in advance. “True hospitality is subtle,” she writes. “You don’t realize you’re getting it until after you’re already comfortable.”

So how does one plan ahead to create comfort? Letting guests know what to anticipate (e.g., how formal is the party? What will they be doing?), setting up a clean house, putting on great music, refusing offers of help, and having plenty of food and drinks. Guests should never feel like they’re imposing; you’re overjoyed to have them there. Planning ahead also means anticipating their needs once they arrive: they won’t have to bother you about where to hang their coat or needing more soap if you’ve already thought of them and put them out. A few days before the party, make a list of all the small details you might otherwise forget, like easy spill cleanup supplies or toothpicks.

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Even if you’re hosting a potluck, for instance, entertain the possibility that guests won’t bring enough food and that food will run out. If you’re prepared, you’ll have an extra dish or two to bring out. Worst case scenario, there’s plenty to go around, and you’ll have leftovers for the next day.

2. Don’t skimp on the white wine

Though many of us think of wines seasonally (cold whites for hot days and room temperature reds for cold ones) some people still prefer a glass of white at holiday parties. What’s more: red wine may not always be the better choice to pair with winter foods like hearty pastas and cheese plates. According to a new study published in the Journal of Food Science, white wine is probably the smarter bet because red wines range so widely in taste. A Malbec might may go really well with some cheeses and go really not-so-well with others. There’s less to worry about with white wine because it’s milder with less punch, which lets the cheese flavors be dominant.

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“There’s no question in my mind that white wine goes better,” Ed Behr, editor of the Art of Eating newsletter, told NPR. “And more often than not, depending on the cheese, a little sweetness makes things even easier.” And if that’s not enough to sway you, think of some of your guests who choose to drink white because they prefer not to stain their smiles with red wine. (No one wants to leave a party to discover they’ve been flashing red-wine-teeth grins all night.)

3. There’s no need for expensive invites or decor

Of course we all want our homes to look festive for the holidays, but guests are welcomed by homey touches, not extravagant ones. In fact, for many people, the less a host “shows off” the more at home a guest will feel.

So don’t stress over party invitations and table settings; a clean home and a few candles is all most parties need. But if you’re crafty you can make them sparkle without spending much money at all. Martha Stewart has ton of ideas for recycling holiday cards to make paper ornaments, monogram labels, gift tags, and more.

For invites, pluck off rhinestones, foam cut-outs, and other add-ons from any holiday cards you’ve saved from over the years and glue them onto recycled card stock. (One bottle of Tacky glue really can go a long way.) Handwrite your message for a personal touch. You can even use old wrapping paper for your party invitations, too, or, if you have swaths of it, incorporate it into your party table décor. We love how Style Blueprint repurposed this old gift wrap into a merry table covering.

4. A good host sees the party through until the end

OK, this may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many hosts don’t plan ahead for an end-of-evening situation where a guest is too drunk to drive home. (Best case scenario: you have an unexpected pull-out couch guest, worst case scenario … we don’t need to tell you what that is.) As the host, that means making a get home safe plan before the party starts.

If you can afford the extra expense, Travel + Leisure suggests giving your guests the gift of Uber rides through its UberEVENTS service. With this platform, you can book rides in advance so your guests don’t have to hunt for available chauffeurs. You set your event details and give your guests their Uber passes and voilà! Uber arrives, picks them up, and takes them where they need to go.

Another solution is to simply ask ahead of time which guests plan on being designated driver(s) for the evening and can offer rides if needed. (Do this well in advance so there’s no last-minute bickering.) You want your holiday party to have a happy ending, full of good cheer and guests snug in their beds.

For guests …

1. Bring a low-maintenance, low-cost, shareable hostess gift

Remember what your mother used to say: Don’t show up empty-handed. Hosting a party takes care and effort; a hostess gives you the gift of a warm home, entertainment and a welcoming attitude. That takes a lot of time and effort (see the host list above). There’s no better way to reciprocate that care and kindness than with a little gift of your own.

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Of course, there’s no need to fret over buying something expensive or making something elaborate. It really is the thought that counts here. Does your host love coffee? Great! Bring a bag of good quality beans with a bow stuck on top that she can use to serve after dinner or for the morning after. (Ta da! The perfect $10 gift.)

Celebrity event planner Marcy Blum believes hostess gifts should be fuss-free and shareable. “Don’t bring something that can’t be either served or put out,” she told People. “If you’re bringing flowers, bring them in a vase. If you’re bringing a cake, then get a fabulous cake plate so they can put it out at the event rather than having to scurry through their closets to find something.”

2. Wrap that gift up in something that’s not new wrapping paper

Money, money, money! In our consumerist culture, sometimes it seems that the holiday spending will never end. You shell out for the perfect gift, and then you have to pay to wrap it festively, too. Or do you?

One way you can avoid getting caught up in the spending frenzy is by recycling. Be creative about reusing old holiday trimmings and wrapping paper from previous Christmases. Have your kids decorate a brown paper bag to put the gift in, or glitter the top of an old shoe or clothing box. If you’re willing to get just a little crafty and inventive, you can make whatever gift you bring just as festive as that $12 roll of polar bear wrapping paper. Your host will see that it comes from the heart.

For hosts and guests …

1. Some conversations are better left for another time

It’s common knowledge not to discuss politics at the dinner table, but not everyone remembers to play by these rules (especially during an election November). Even if you’re with close friends and family who normally appreciate having these conversations, you can all agree to save them for another occasion. So do your best not to engage in topics you know will rile you up, and try to steer the conversation back to the pumpkin muffins on the table, or compliment a friend’s dress.

The Chicago Business Tribune also advises against saying Grinch-y things like, “Decorating is a waste of money,” or seemingly innocent remarks that could trigger alcoholics and people watching their holiday weight gain (“A little drink can’t hurt” or “Forget the diet! It’s the holidays.”) It’s also insensitive to brag about bonuses and extravagant vacations or to complain about in-laws, other people’s children, and the flurry of charity letters you’ve recently received in the mail.

2. Honor food allergies & dietary restrictions (this goes both ways)

Not everybody can partake of Christmas dinner classics. A person may have allergies or medical, personal, or religious dietary restrictions; it might be the host or it might be the guest. All you have to do is ask in advance if there’s anything your guests can’t eat, and if you’re a guest, note your dietary restrictions as soon as possible. The easiest time to do both of these things is during the invitation and RSVP phase of the party. That way you both know well in advance who can’t eat what. It’s less stressful all around.

Since cheese and nuts are no-nos for many guests, Hattiesburg American writer Rebecca Turner suggests broadening your appetizers ever so slightly. She writes, “Add a few allergy-friendly options like rice crackers, hummus or a corn and black bean salsa (which both are naturally gluten- and dairy-free), a bowl of olives and roasted red bell peppers, and sunflower seed butter for a spread. The addition of fresh and dried fruits, figs and toasted pumpkin seeds to your trays will provide safe nibbles for most guests.” Turner adds that most people are not allergic to vegetables, but in order to keep sides vegetarian/vegan friendly, don’t add butter, ham, or bacon. You can always have two versions of a veggie dish if you wish.

No matter how many holiday parties you host and attend this season, if you keep these little tips in mind, they’re sure to go smoothly—which means more time to enjoy the good company. And that’s what really makes those parties so merry.

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