How to Plan a Holiday Open House Party—and Why It's the Best Way to Host, According to Entertaining Experts
The holiday season is filled with cheer, good food, and quality time with loved ones. But if you're often the person hosting, it can also be a season filled with stress. One way to alleviate the pressure of planning a structured food and drink menu, setting a formal dinner table, and organizing a seating arrangement? Hosting a holiday open house instead.
The casual style of entertaining allows friends and family to come and go at their leisure, rather than adhere to a strict arrival time. This gives your attendees the freedom to hit multiple holiday festivities in the same day—or scoot out early to pick up a last-minute gift or two. It also means you have more time to mingle with everyone you love.
What Is a Holiday Open House?
If you typically opt for a formal holiday dinner, an open house may be foreign to you—but the concept is very straightforward. "A holiday open house is an open invitation for friends and family to drop by during the holidays and spend time together in a more casual, almost spontaneous setting," says Amber Mayfield, founder of To Be Hosted. Rather than scheduling a set-in-stone time for your guests to arrive, there is a loose window when people can come and go as they please.
Why You Should Plan a Holiday Open House
Even if you love to entertain, you likely don't enjoy the stress that comes with it. "The open house is a great format for a couple of different reasons," Mayfield says. "It takes the pressure off of planning a fancy, home-cooked dinner for a large group." An open house's flow also allows you to mingle a little at a time—instead of rushing to greet everyone all at once.
For many of us, the holiday season is the busiest time of year. That's another reason you might opt for an open house, since it works well with people's hectic schedules. "With myriad other holiday parties happening in the period of a few weeks, an open house offers the chance for your guests to attend multiple parties on the same day," says Liz Curtis, an entertaining expert and founder of the first rent-the-table service, Table + Teaspoon.
When to Host a Holiday Open House
Consider your guests' schedules when planning the date and time of your party. "An afternoon into evening open house is ideal so that you can capture as many people as possible before dinner time," Curtis says. "You can let the party linger late into the evening so that guests may come by after other events."
Plan for your event to prelude the busiest time of December—when Christmas present shopping and decorating are in full swing. "Host your open house as early as possible, before your loved ones are fatigued from the onslaught of holiday parties," Curtis says. Late November or early December are ideal—but just make sure the soirée happens at least one week ahead of Christmas.
The first step to planning a successful holiday open house is sending invitations. Since an open house is casual, consider emailing your invites instead of mailing letters—it's an eco-conscious choice, too. "Sending a Paperless Post is always a chic way to deliver information, while still being environmentally friendly," Curtis says.
The card can be as simple or elaborate as you wish, but if your crowd is unfamiliar with open house events, it's helpful to put a description on the invite. "You can get creative with the language: Try 'Come as you are and come when you like,'" Mayfield says.
Holiday Open House Menu
Since you don't know when guests will arrive, you can skip planning a complete sit-down dinner menu with starters, an entrée, side dishes, and dessert. But it's still considerate to provide guests with food and beverages to enjoy as they mingle with other attendees.
Convenience is key when serving food at a holiday open house. Guests will want grab-and-go bites that allow them to move around while they eat—and you'll want something that doesn't keep you in the kitchen all day. "Chilled and room temperature options will be best so you can pop platters in and out of the fridge as needed," Mayfield says.
Batch cocktails make it easy for guests to help themselves, and you won't have to stress over who does and doesn't have a full glass. "I love a batch of hot mulled cider or wine for a holiday open house," says Sarah Spiegel, a designer and entertaining expert.
Cold drinks can go in a punch bowl or juice dispensers with labels. Keep warm beverages in a large Dutch oven on the stove or in a slow cooker with a ladle so guests can serve themselves. "In addition, I usually like to have an ice tub filled with a variety of local beers—and a red and white wine option," Spiegel says. "During the day, Prosecco or Champagne are nice."
Be sure you serve options for people who don't consume alcohol; try a mocktail in a pitcher or make a big batch of hot chocolate. "Keep the hot chocolate warm throughout the day and offer different toppings—and alcoholic pairings—to those who want them," Mayfield says.
Pies are king during the holiday season, but they're not the most practical option during an open house format. Instead, reimagine them as small bites by making hand pies. "For dessert I would stick to cookies or anything bite-sized that doesn't require a fork," says Spiegel. If you're going with cookies, be sure to include a few seasonal favorite; sugar, gingerbread, and biscotti all work.
While you don't need to set a formal table for this style of hosting, you'll still need to leave out the essentials for guests. "Set your grazing table the evening before with small plates, cocktail napkins, flatware needed for your fare, and appropriate servingware," says Curtis. "This method eliminates stress on the day of your event."
Control crowd flow with strategic placement of your grazing table and bar station. "To streamline the flow of guests, I would make sure to spread out your offerings to different parts of the house," Spiegel says. "Put the food somewhere different from the drinks."
Avoid bottlenecks by keeping the tables near the center of the room rather than in a corner and, if possible, position the buffet and the bar so that people can approach from both sides. Place small bowls of snacks and cookies near other gathering spots, such as next to the couch, on the bar, and on the coffee table.
Set the tone for guests before they even step across your threshold by hanging a wreath and other holiday décor at your entrance—or burn an inviting candle prior to your first visitor's arrival. "Choose a warm signature scent—something festive and nostalgic—and let the candle run all day," Mayfield says. Complete the cheerful vibe with an upbeat playlist.
Keeping kids entertained will ensure they have fun, which means Mom and Dad will, too. "If children will be attending the party, you'll want to have some activities set up for them, like a little coloring area with holiday-themed coloring books and crayons or markers," Spiegel says. "For babies or toddlers, you could set up a blanketed area with holiday-inspired books and toys."