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Expert tips: Throwing a holiday party

A couple toasts to the holidays.

A couple toasts to the holidays. Credit: fotostock

With Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza and New Year's Eve, December is arguably the busiest party month of the year. There's nothing people love more than celebrating the season with family and friends by their side. But if your party is starting to losing its sparkle after all these years,  Laura Mastriano, owner of event planning company L.A. Productions in Stony Brook, is here to help. Known for her wedding and event planning expertise, Mastriano has been featured on the Style Network and has been honored by We asked Newsday readers to send in their party planning questions, and she is here with answers.

What are the best table gifts for your guests? I like to give one thing per person on their plate as a little trinket. — Marisa Coletti Paladino

A great table gift is an ornament! This personal gift can be reflective of your guests' personalities and likes, a special memory that you may have shared together, or just a memento of sharing this holiday season. Whether it is homemade or store-bought, it is a thoughtful gift that will be appreciated. You can also add the ornament to your napkin, utilizing it as a napkin ring. Just make sure to point out to your guests that these are for them to take home, and not just part of your table decor!

Hi Laura, any "new" finger foods to serve at holiday parties this year? — Elaine Lainee Longo Hesse

Comfort food appetizers are all the rage right now. Offering your guests a bite-sized taste of something familiar, served in a fun, fabulous way, will make a lasting impression. Here are some ideas to try: Single-serve portions of mac and cheese in a cocktail glass, zucchini fries in paper cones, mini sandwich bites (such as: grilled cheese, patty melts, pastrami, etc.)

How many hors d'oeuvre choices are appropriate for a cocktail/hors d'oeuvres party? — Kimberly Siemasko Somers

The general rule for smaller gatherings is that three types of  hors d’oeuvres/appetizers are appropriate for eight to 10 guests; four  or five varieties for 10 to 15 guests. If the guest list has fewer than 40 guests, you should plan on using about six appetizers; for more than 40 guests, offer eight assortments. Having an equal number of hot and cold foods is also advantageous; while one cold appetizer is circulating, another one can be heating in the oven. This is a great way to keep your guests mingling, nibbling and enjoying your party.

What can I do to make my Jewish friends feel at home during my Christmas party? I want it to remain a Christmas theme but want to tie in some tastful Hanukkah decorations in my table set up. I always give a little parting gift that I make, any suggestions? — Jennifer Martin Riedman

For a simple centerpiece, try to combine both holidays with two of their most visual symbols: a menorah and a Christmas tree. Simply place a menorah in the center of your table, center it, and place two mini Christmas trees on either side. Another suggestion is to try and work with a few shades of each holiday’s colors, using them as your decorating inspiration. Using all the colors would be hard on the eyes, but taking just a few of them, like green, blue, and silver, and mixing them together could work nicely. As for a parting gift, a combination of traditional candies of chocolate gilt and candy canes would be a sweet send-off!

Would it be appropriate to put a time to leave on our holiday party invitation? Like cocktails 7 to 11 so people know they have to leave by 11 and not stay all night? Or is that rude?  — Caterina Larsen

There's nothing rude about specifying an end time to your party on the invitation. This clearly shows guests you have a start time and an end time, and that showing up “fashionably late” may not work well here, as they’ll just be missing out on the fun.

Looking to have a Candy Lane area. Aside from the obvious candy canes, what else can you suggest for display/consumption?  — Elaine Lainee Longo Hesse

A candy buffet in coordinated holiday colors is a fun, festive and fab crowd pleaser! Select candies in holiday-themed colors and stage them in glass jars of all different shapes and sizes. Add personalized candy bags or boxes for your guests to fill up as a parting gift. If you are crafty, you could also make topiary candy trees as centerpieces. Another nice touch is to place white branches in tall cylinder vases and hang candy off the branches as ornaments. 

Any unique twists you can suggest for a work party? Having it at the office and food is provided by vendors. Would like to liven it up a little.  — Camille Cal-New

Having a work party at the office may not feel like a big escape, but there are still ways to make things merry and bright! Here are a couple of ideas that could help to liven things up:

1. Ho Ho Ho, Who Do You Know!” Game: In this fun holiday party ice breaker, each employee is given a sheet with a list of holiday items such as “Born in December,” “Still Believes in Santa,”  and “Just Mailed a Letter to the North Pole.” Players then go around the office trying to find a player to sign their name next to each item. A great way to get the group talking!

2. Santa Hat Game: Supply a Santa hat for each employee attending the party. You will need everyone to be wearing a hat. The object is not to be the last person left with a Santa hat on. The only rule is that no one can take off the hat until the host has. Once the host has taken off his or her hat, everyone should take off their hats. The last player to take the hat off has lost the round, and must take a penalty. They can sing a Christmas carol, act out their favorite Christmas movie scene or do something special like go around and serve each person their requested Christmas drink or candy treat. The game continues now, with this last player starting a “new round.”

I am going to serve smoked salmon at my in-laws Christmas party  — is it OK to serve it throughout the day? I want to serve it for breakfast, i.e. bagels and lox and then have it as an appetizer later in the day  —  is that too much?  — Blaine Phelps

According to the Acme Smoked Fish Corporation, “When serving smoked fish, do not allow it to remain at room temperature (for example, as part of a buffet) for more than three hours.”  When in doubt, play it safe and have two servings, one that you can put out with breakfast and a fresh batch that you should keep refrigerated until you are ready to serve it as your appetizer later on. 

The star on our Christmas tree is an antique that needs a face lift. It's metal and Lucite. I'd love it to be glass, and it could use re-wiring too. Where? Who could take on this type of project?  — Kimberly Picco Henry

Great question! You will need to bring this antique Christmas decoration to a professional. Most antique refurbishing companies will require a photo of the item to give an accurate estimate. I would look for one that specializes in architectural or metal working. While I haven't used the following vendors, I think these would be a good place to start, as they are local:

Tony's Touch-Up, Bohemia

Eagle Brass-Metal Restorations, Bohemia

Metal Man Restoration, Mount Vernon


We just hosted a red theme holiday cocktail party and it was awesome. Every year is a different theme and the guests (around 30) really get into it!  — Jill Aichroth Mosser

What are some other holiday party theme ideas?

Holiday theme parties can be loads of fun, especially if your guests enjoy getting extra merry by participating. Besides planning a “Victorian-era” themed party or even a “Charlie Brown Christmas” party, here are some other great theme ideas to consider for future planning:

The Ugly Sweater Party: No need to dress to impress at this holiday event. This hilarious party invites and encourages your guests to wear their most hideous holiday sweater. The tackier, the uglier, the better! A prize can be awarded to your guest with the ugliest sweater. Loads of fun, and the pictures of your guests will be priceless and humorous keepsakes.

Christmas Around the World: This holiday season, let your guests travel the world with a bash that brings together holiday traditions, music, and food from around the globe. You can also choose to just pick one nation to highlight as your theme. For example, host a Mexican-inspired holiday party complete with margaritas, a chalupa bar, and even a piñata loaded with adult-friendly treats like: scratch-off lottery tickets, gift cards and candy too!

Movie-Themed Christmas Party: Base a party on any famous Christmas movie that you like. Some examples would be "A Christmas Story," "Elf," or "It's a Wonderful Life." Study the movie to find out what clothing or costumes your guests should wear. Decorate in the style of the movie, play the film's soundtrack, and try to serve food and beverages from the era the movie is based on. 

As I've seen from your previous events, what suggestions do you have for totally transforming the venue, be it your home, or elsewhere into such amazing holiday scenes? It's like walking right into a holiday movie. — Steven Tyler Hesse

Once you have established the theme you want to work with and budget, the sky’s the limit. One great transformation to try is a “Winter Wonderland” cocktail party theme. If room allows, hide your existing walls by lining them with the use of pipe and drape in a white organza material around the perimeter of your room. Enhance the walls with white string lights of varied lengths — hang these strands vertically straight down ceiling to floor for a wall of twinkle lights. It will be sparkly and festive.

To help with spacing, and to encourage mingling, bring in high-top cocktail tables. Drape all of your tables with linens of white or silver, and decorate with clear cylinder vases filled with white branches (spray paint them if you have to). Use crystals to hang from the branches, as well as clear snowflake ornaments, for a nice decorative touch. Also, if you have room above, hanging white lanterns, clear icicles or snowflakes from the ceiling makes a dramatic statement.

Set up an all-white candy and dessert buffet, and ask all of  your guests to come dressed in  winter whites. They will serve as your main décor, the lights and other simple touches you made will be a soft, simple statement, but will truly make your guests feel the magic of the season. If there is room in the budget, an ice bar could be a fun extra.

Whatever you decide, taking the time to plan it all out is key. Make sure that everything you want to do could be done in your home or venue. While you can certainly do this on your own, consulting with an event coordinator really may be key in helping to point out some of the hidden issues like insurance and making sure items are properly set-up before your event. Have a safe, fun and magical time!


Hosting a small party. Any ideas for the best holiday cocktail?  — Samantha Drew Interiors, Stony Brook.

Small parties are the best place to serve a signature cocktail drink. Take a chance and offer something that will be inviting in appearance as well as to your guests' tastebuds. A drink that is not only festive in title but decorative and delicious is a Candy Cane Cocktail. 


1 part lemon-lime soda
1 part half-and-half cream
3/4 ounce creme de cacao
1/4 ounce grenadine 
3/4 ounce peppermint schnapps


Mix together all ingredients with crushed ice. Rim a martini glass with crushed candy canes. Strain into the rimmed martini glass. Add a small candy cane to hang over the edge of the glass for an extra decorative, and tasty touch. 

How would you make a perfect Champagne cocktail?  — Jane Graham MacCary

Here’s a simple recipe that should do the trick:


6 ounces Champagne

1 sugar cube

dash of bitters


Soak the sugar cube in the bitters for a few seconds. Put the cube into the bottom of a champagne glass, then pour the Champagne over it. Garnish with a lemon twist.

I am the shot girl for the holiday events that I attend. Do you have any good shot recipes for Christmas? — Caterina Larsen

How about something different? Often created as a cookie, a “Gingerbread Man” shot may be just what your elves ordered! Here’s the shot recipe that your responsible guests will fa-la-la over.


1/4 ounce butterscotch schnapps

1/4 ounce cinnamon schnapps

1/4 ounce Irish cream

1/4 ounce vodka

Any suggestions for really tasty hor d'ouerves that aren't fattening? — Gary Licker

There are some really amazing and tasty treats that you can eat this holiday season guilt-free. One great recipe featured in Men’s Health Magazine is quick and easy to prepare: Turkey-Bacon Asparagus Wraps. After being rolled in a piece of turkey bacon, a few pieces of asparagus are then sprinkled with olive oil, rolled in sesame seeds and then drizzled in soy sauce before being broiled for seven minutes, or until the bacon is crispy.


  24 spears asparagus

8 slices low-fat turkey bacon

3 tablespoons sesame seeds, lightly toasted

Olive oil in spritzer

1 tablespoon soy sauce


1. Preheat the broiler.

2. Wrap three spears of asparagus around the middle with a strip of bacon. Secure with a wooden pick. Repeat to use the remaining asparagus and bacon.

3. Place the sesame seeds in a shallow dish. Spritz the asparagus wraps with olive oil and roll in the sesame seeds. Place on a baking sheet. Drizzle with soy sauce.

4. Broil on the top rack for seven minutes or until the bacon is cooked and the asparagus is tender-crips and light green.

This recipe can be spiced up with the addition of red pepper flakes, ginger  or orange juice and zest for alternate flavors.


How do you keep tween children entertained at holiday parties?  — Linda Giambalvo Waring

When you have any children at a party, providing them with activities is something that you should really try to factor in. If they are having fun, chances are they will leave you alone, so that you too can enjoy yourself and the party. Here are some activities to consider planning for your tweens and teens:

1. Arrange a bunch of games like charades — make all the clue words associated with the holidays.

2. Find fun inspirations from the TV Show “Minute To Win It” — One example: “Face the Cookie,” using a Christmas cookie like a gingerbread man, have the contestant sit down and lean their head back. Place the cookie on their forehead and move it to their mouth using only the muscles in their face. They can’t touch the cookie with their hands. Some of these games are so great, you may even find the adults want to jump in and play too!

3. Create a scavenger hunt

4. Holiday movie trivia

5. Caroling karaoke 

What is a new tradition I can start with my family at our Christmas eve dinner or during this holiday season? — Ann Argentieri Marks

Special Deliveries: Do something sweet for someone who has to work! Deliver cookies or another sweet treat to your local police or firefighters, or employees at the hospital. It’s a small gesture that will make them feel appreciated, and will warm your heart.

I find it hard to plan a kids birthday party this time of year. Any suggestions?  — Debra OBrien Ortiz

There are loads of winter-themed birthday ideas from ice skating, to parties in movie theaters, museums, and aquariums  to themed cooking parties. Many local sports teams offer birthday packages. For example, you can host a party at a New York Islanders game. A variety of packages are available where the birthday child can get a ride on the Zamboni and a visit from the team mascot, Sparky.

Another fun birthday party idea is a cooking party. This hands-on class is a lot of fun, messy and yummy. Some classes offered include a pizza-making party or even a “Wizards Cooking Class party.” This new class featured at Stonebridge Country Club in Smithtown is based on the "Harry Potter" series, where the kids are shown how to create chocolate frogs, edible wands, and butterbeer along with some other magical treats!  

Do you have any suggestions for fun holiday ideas for kids?  — Clipper Koupon

There are loads of great things to do with the kids this holiday season. From creating gingerbread houses, to baking cookies and other fun activities like making their own ornaments and even snow globes. You can also play holiday movie bingo. Create a bingo game to play while watching a holiday movie. Just make sure to add characters or props that will be seen in the movie, and they will be entertained for sure. Also for an added bonus, set-up a hot chocolate station, complete with marshmallows and enjoy the show!

What are some less expensive things to do with the kids during winter recess in Suffolk?  — Kimberly Picco Henry

Staying home with the kids this winter recess from school? Looking for some creative ideas on what to do with them, so they are not glued to the TV for a week? Here are some activities you can do together that can be fun and memorable:

1. Make popcorn the old fashioned way and watch a movie. Don’t take the easy way out using the microwave; go old school and show the kids how it used to be done. Make this snack using kernels, oil and a saucepan. Put on a movie and enjoy!

2. Plan a picnic indoors.

3. Plan an indoor campout.

4. Have a backwards day. From the minute the kids wake up, instruct them to wear their clothes backwards (shoes will be the exception to the rule), say their names backwards, and refer to them with this “new name” for the entire day, read a bedtime story, eat dessert, then, dinner, then lunch, then breakfast. And just have nuf! I mean, fun!

5. Restaurant at home: Have the kids prepare an entire meal with you (under your guidance/direction) from the appetizer and salad to the main course and dessert. You can ask them to invite some family or friends over to taste their creations. Let the kids create a menu, set the table, greet/seat the guests, take orders and serve them too.

To contact Laura with your wedding or event planning needs, visit

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