How to: Plan and Host a (Fabulous) Holiday Cocktail Party

In case you couldn't already tell, I'm a huge fan of the holidays. In fact, my own personal holiday season begins on the ride home from my aunt's house on Thanksgiving night as, to Shaun's dismay, I blare Christmas music and, even worse, proceed to sing along. In honor of our love for the holidays beyond Christmas music, this past weekend Shaun and I hosted a holiday cocktail party at our humble Jersey City abode. It was my first large scale party hosting (and by large, I mean there were 12 of us), and like many, my biggest concern was...where to start? Before we begin, I just want to add the disclaimer that I prefer to think of myself as detail-oriented, not controlling; meticulous, not psycho. As one of my favorite quotes puts it, "I like things the way that I like them, but I mean, who doesn't?" (Bonus points for naming that one) So with that in mind, here's my holiday hostess survival guide.

Step One: Figure out who's attending
You can't really plan much past this point until you know who you're inviting (and who's actually going to show up). Will it be friends? Family? Both? Couples only? Around holiday time, many people are booked early, so at a minimum plan for (at least in our case) half of the invited guests to attend.

Step Two: Plan the menu
For me, this is the most fun part. Scouring recipe collections from Martha Stewart, Food Network, Real Simple, and my mom's own personal collection can seem daunting but the world is your oyster, so to speak, and what can be more exciting than that? For a cocktail party, you'll likely be starting later in the evening (8:30 or later), which means hors d'oeuvres, cocktails, and dessert, all in an informal fashion (and by informal, I mean put out on a table buffet style or scattered among various side and coffee tables).  Here's my food breakdown:
For drinks, we stocked the bar with sparkling white wine and pomegranate juice for a pom-spritzer (a huge hit with the ladies), orange Stoli & Sprite Zero, Pinot Noir, and a fridge full of Stella Artois. I think that in the drinking situation, less is definitely more. Focus in on what you want to offer and stock your bar on a dime by limiting options. I promise, your guests will be happy drinking what you have to offer, especially if it's a special, signature cocktail or decent bottled beer.
For the food, I tried to keep it simple and seasonal. Here's a sneak peek at the menu:

Spiced sweet potato wedges
Pigs in a blanket
Pizza dip
Spinach dip
Spiced walnuts
Brie & raspberry bites
Blue cheese dip with potato chips
So perhaps it wasn't the most healthy menu of all time, but what better time to splurge on the caloric intake than for a relaxed holiday cocktail party with your closest friends? Exactly...there isn't one.

Step Three: Get all fancy on it
If you're having a theme party, your location should reflect this. Shaun and I had our Christmas tree up and ready for all of the oooh-ing and aahhh-ing that our guests were sure to dish out. It's not necessary to spend a fortune on holiday decor. By repurposing some of last year's ornaments, cake plates, and candy, I whipped up some fun, DIY decor on a dime.
By adding holiday M&M's to a Pilsner glass, I spruced up the bar area. Add a 99 cent box of candy canes in a $1 Target planter, and your bar is set for a festive evening.

Next, I raided my china cabinet for a chic cake plate and candy bowl. Add some festive, sparkly ornaments (which were purchased last year for the tree) and you've got two punchy pieces for your table.

And let's face it, nothing quite says POP like a truly gorgeous red poinsettia (snapped up for a mere $5.99 a piece) on a classic white table cloth.

Since the poinsettias were so beautiful, I picked up two and placed one on this amazing glass platter (ok, this one was a wedding gift, purchased at Tiffany, so not exactly an item you may have lying around...but isn't it a beauty?)

Lastly, another candy bowl placed on a silver platter, filled with already-owned ornaments. Ta da!

Step Four: Plot your attack plan
Just like tackling any To Do list, it's vital for keeping your sanity to make an attack plan. I used Google documents to plan my menu ideas, make my shopping list, and plot out when to do each task on the list. Trust me on may seem a bit intense (see disclaimer above), but I've found it's the only way to stay focused and on track while allowing yourself time to enjoy the party. My biggest tip? Do as much in advance as humanly possible and recruit your boyfriend or husband for all of the things you can pass my case it was vacuuming, tidying the living room, and running out to the grocery store on a whim while I was chained to my tiny kitchen doing food prep.

Step Five: Leave yourself time to enjoy the party!
You've done the work, now it's time to reap the rewards. As mentioned before, prep as much in advance as possible. Clean the toilets, vacuum, tidy up, decorate and dust the night before. Prep any dips in advance that can be popped in the oven at the last minute. Leave only the items that will suffer quality-wise if not made the day of (like my sweet potato wedges...this is not something that should be reheated, despite what the recipe recommends). After all, once your friends and family arrive, you'll want to relax and enjoy the night with them, not slave in the kitchen!

So there it is. A simple, chic and fun cocktail party with friends without going bananas trying to prep for the event. Are you hosting the holidays this year? If so, what's your plan of attack? Any fun recipes to share? How do you stay sane as a host or hostess?