An open house is one way to fit in seeing family and friends during the hectic holiday season. Veteran hosts and Long Island caterers offer six creative ways to do it: a cookie exchange; a wreath-making party, a mid-December potluck, a Christmas Eve open house, a Sunday or New Year’s Day brunch, and a Saturday afternoon cocktail party in January.
A cookie exchange
For 43 years, Donna Drake of Huntington Station has participated in a cookie-exchange open house on the first Sunday in December — a tradition begun by her mother in 1975 in Missouri.
Drake, 53, who hosts a WLNY Channel 10 TV show called “Live It Up! With Donna Drake,” turns the inside of her finished two-car garage into what she called “The Bakery.” She lines the perimeter with tables and each guest brings seven dozen homemade cookies. “There are no slice-and-bake cookies allowed, there are no bakery cookies allowed,” she says.
Dozens of family and friends drop in anytime between 2:30 and 6 p.m. They hang their coats in the closet that Drake has emptied and filled with alternating red and white hangers, like a candy cane. Then they put their cookies in The Bakery and mingle and dine.
Drake issues nametags, but she sets the tone of the afternoon by drawing the line at guests exchanging business cards, she says. “After the party, I’ll introduce anybody who wants to do business together. But no talking about work. It’s about who you are at the core of your being,” she says. “There’s a lot of laughter and craziness that happens. My godmother is driving all the way from Wisconsin to be here with my cookie exchange.”
Several rounds of cookie selection take place throughout the afternoon, and prizes are awarded for the most creative cookie, the cookie that uses the fewest ingredients and more. When the cookie exchange coincides with Hanukkah, as it does this year, a menorah is lighted. Guests sing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" complete with signs to help them remember the verses. And they go home equipped with all the cookies they’ll need for the coming weeks.
A mid-December potluck
“My boyfriend and I do a potluck,” says Christine Lopez, 47, a creative and marketing recruiter from Massapequa who co-hosts a grownups-only, nighttime open house in mid-December with her boyfriend, Jon Prendamano, 45, an auditor. They create a Facebook Events invitation through which they and their guests can communicate.
They encourage guests to contribute foods that are easy to eat while standing and mingling. “We don’t do a sit-down,” Lopez says. “It’s appetizers, finger foods, dessert and cocktails — or mocktails depending on what the person prefers.”
The couple also asks guests their preferences for the party’s musical playlist. “It’s everyone’s party, and we provide the venue," says Lopez. "This is meant to be very easy, very laid back.” The couple moves extraneous furniture out of the living room to create a dance floor. “We clear my living room, except for the tree,” Lopez says. “I put it in my children’s rooms and shut the doors so nobody can see it. We had people dancing up until midnight last year.”
A Christmas Eve open house
Jane Groene of Greenlawn has also been doing a Christmas Eve open house for four decades, from 4 p.m. until midnight Mass. Groene, 66, who owns a manufacturing company, asks guests to RSVP so she knows how much food she will need. “Otherwise, you could get cut short,” she says. “Once I stopped counting at 60 people.”
Groene says she likes to prepare all the food herself. Because she’s Italian, she focuses on that theme for the food. “The freezer is your best friend. Assemble, cover and freeze,” Groene says of putting together baked ziti, lasagna and eggplant Parmesan she’ll pop in the oven on the day of the gathering.
When Groene is expecting children, she’ll place toys in the family room of her ranch to keep children entertained. And Groene asks one of the guests to sneak out and ensure Santa makes a surprise appearance. “Each child gets a little something from Santa,” Groene says.
When hosting a party so focused on one holiday, caterer Andrea Correale, president of Elegant Affairs in Glen Cove, suggests thinking about themed lighting and music. “You could decorate everything in red. Red is very Christmas-y,” Correale says. In addition to red tablecloths and accessories, hosts could replace some light bulbs with red lights. And Pandora, for instance, offers Christmas music playlists, she says.
A wreath-making party
Janeen Barnes of Miller Place, chief executive of Events by Parties N’All, says she likes the idea of adding a craft to an open house — she has hosted several open houses during which friends and family create a homemade holiday wreath.
She usually begins the open house at 7:30 p.m. Guests can arrive whenever they wish. She’ll set out greens that she’s cut from the woodsy area where she lives and offers wire and embellishments such as pine cones and dried flowers. “The smell is so beautiful,” Barnes says. “I’m hoping they hang it on their front door or give it as a gift.”
She suggests setting a certain time during the event when you will instruct guests, so those who need more help can plan to be present at that time. “Not everybody is as crafty as I am,” she says. “I’ll show an example.”
This year, Barnes hired someone to come to her open house at a specific time to teach everyone to make burlap wreaths. “I feel like every time I teach some type of craft, I never get to enjoy it,” she says. With someone else leading the instruction, she can learn something, too, she says.
A Sunday — or New Year’s Day — brunch
People think they have to do a holiday party at night, but an afternoon Sunday or New Year’s Day brunch open house can be a more cost-effective option, and it won’t be competing with everyone’s evening events, caterer Correale says. “It’s a smart thing to do,” she says.
Hosts can serve bagels, muffins, croissants and quiches, all of which can sit out for an extended period of time. “People don’t drink as much at brunch,” Correale says, which cuts down on alcohol costs. She suggests serving a signature Champagne cocktail, for instance.
Flow is important during any party, open houses included, Correale says. “One of the mistakes people make is they put the bar and the food in the same place,” she says. She recommends placing them at opposite ends of the rooms.
A post-holiday cocktail party
Why should December have all the fun? Consider throwing your open house on a Saturday afternoon in January, after all the holiday-hoopla has subsided, suggests caterer Alexandra Troy, owner of Culinary Architect Catering in Greenvale. “People are obligated to so many different invitations this time of year,” she says. Good things can come to hosts who wait, she says.
She suggests an open house between 2 and 5 p.m. featuring a variety of hors d’oeuvres with an international theme. “That’s what’s so wonderful about hors d’oeuvres — you can do a little bit of this, a little bit of that,” she says. She says she would do a menu including such items as miniature Chinese dumplings, Mexican corn tortillas with grilled chicken and black bean salsa, a tray of Japanese sushi, and miniature French crepes, among other things. “It depends on how elaborate you want to get and how much time you have,” she says. “We soak a prune in Cognac and stuff it with pate, and we call it a French kiss.”