Hosting often sounds like a great idea until the day of the party, when you inevitably find yourself turning your house upside down to find those decadent dinner plates, organising the manic oven rota to ensure dinner is cooked to perfection and sorting the seating plan to avoid any potential personality-clashing. However, hosting your nearest and dearest for a festive soirée should not be a stressful affair. After all, you’ve invited your favourite people to a party to remember, right? To ensure it’s memorable for the right reasons – think impeccable etiquette, easy but fancy food and perfectly-paired wines – read on for our expert guide on how to host a Christmas party this year and beyond.
How to host a Christmas party – and be the perfect guest
Laura Windsor – etiquette expert and founder of The Laura Windsor Etiquette Academy – helps both hosts and guests become socially savvy with a range of tips designed to help you excel at parties. “At any gathering, a host should be ready to meet and greet guests as they arrive, take coats, and offer drinks. When introducing guests for the first time, they should provide appropriate introductory information to ensure the conversation gets underway,” she explains. “Many hosts forget that if they are hosting a dinner, the main attraction is not the food, but the company and the conversation. That’s why putting together a guest list is one of the most challenging aspects, so at a seated dinner, divide guests by personalities. For example, don’t put talkative people on one end of the table and the shy ones on the other.”
Other simple tips include ensuring the bar and food table are in separate areas to avoid queueing and, if you’re hosting a buffet-style spread, avoid the common mistake of putting cutlery and napkins next to the plates. “This makes it difficult for guests to hold everything and serve themselves at the same time. Place cutlery at the other end of the table so guests can then pick up their utensils at the end,” says Windsor. Naturally, you don’t want hungry guests so always replenish plates when a third of the food is left.
“It’s the guest’s responsibility to leave at an appropriate hour: if an end time was written on the invitation, honour it”Laura Windsor
If you’re more interested in how to be the perfect guest, répondez s’il vous plaît (RSVP, translating as respond if you please) within 24 hours of receiving an invitation – even if it’s an email or a text – and notify the host if you have an allergy or any dietary requirements.
Guests should not arrive early to an event. If you turn up early, the host may not yet be dressed or may want to take a 10-minute breather after last-minute preparations – so it’s recommended to arrive around 10-15 minutes after the time stated on the invitation. It is also bad form to turn up to anyone’s house empty-handed. A gift does not have to be extravagant, just thoughtful; make sure it’s something the hosts would like to receive.
“Finally, as a guest, you can offer to help but don’t insist or hover,” adds Windsor. “Your job is to mingle, and help make the party a success.” While we’re sure you won’t want the night to end, watch out for clues that the host wishes for things to come to a close. “It’s the guest’s responsibility to leave at an appropriate hour, and if an end time was written on the invitation, honour it. One way of making sure you don’t overstay your welcome is to leave when most people are on their way out.”
Festive food hacks from London chefs
A key to flawless hosting is not sweating the small stuff – and there are plenty of minor foodie jobs you can do in advance to ensure dinner runs as smoothly as possible. For those catering a Christmas dinner for their party, Neil Campbell, head chef at Fitzrovia restaurant Rovi, thinks of his freezer as his sous chef (less backchat too, he says). For him, preparation is all in the veg: for example, roast your cabbage in duck fat a week in advance at a really low temperature to allow the flavours to infuse before freezing, so you don’t need to worry about making it from scratch at the last minute.
Often, however, the key to a decadent dinner is simplicity – which can be easily achieved by serving one centrepiece. Toklas restaurant head chef Chris Shaw suggests opting for porchetta if you don’t want turkey as the butcher can often stuff it for you, or go for chicken if you’re on a budget. When it comes to the battle for fridge space, Ollie Templeton – head chef and co-owner of multi-cuisine restaurant Carousel – insists on clearing as much as possible and writing a to-do list so you’re not taking dishes out of the fridge too early, or too late.
For dessert, Verena Lochmuller at Ottolenghi Test Kitchen likes keeping a couple of tubs of fresh, shop-bought custard in the fridge. Take it up a notch by adding some double cream, extra vanilla or almond extract and a splash of alcohol – rum, brandy, Amaretto, and Drambuie all work a dream, according to Lochmuller – which is perfect drizzled over warm mince pies, traditional Christmas pudding or as a dip for toasted panettone cut into soldiers.
How to transform Christmas leftovers into delicious dishes
Hosting on Boxing Day? Not a problem. Make the most of the leftovers to create delicious Christmas dishes with a twist. Rishi Anand from Dishoom recommends making a stuffed leftover turkey paratha: chop your turkey, mix any leftover vegetables with some spices (he recommends red chilli powder, garam masala, turmeric, and cumin powder), and cheese before stuffing it into a wholewheat dough (made with wholewheat flour, salt, and water). Roll the dough out and cook both sides on a griddle in butter. You could also use the same mix to stuff into naan bread, or to make a Christmassy toastie.
Ravinder Bhogal – chef-owner of Marylebone’s Asian-inspired Jikoni – loves using up panettone, which is often gifted en masse at Christmas, in an unexpected savoury way. Melt butter with sage and garlic before pouring over panettone pieces on a lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with black pepper and finely grated parmesan and bake until golden, before adding to salads, roasted vegetables or brussel sprouts – an easy way to bring a sweet and festive flavour to the party.
How to pick the perfect Christmas party tipples
According to Emily Acha Derrington, head of wine at Italian-inspired Manteca, it’s best to kick off your party with a spritz. “[I love] a Lambrusco spritz, a twist on the Aperol cocktail, which is a wonderfully Christmassy-looking drink and works with all festive party snacks like salumi, pigs in blankets, sausage rolls and the crisps and dips that you often end up indulging in,” explains Acha Derrington. “The Manteca Lambrusco Spritz is made with red Lambrusco, Amaro Montenegro and a splash of grapefruit soda, for a touch of fruitiness. Garnish with a slice of pink grapefruit.”
No party is complete without a toast – and it would be rude not to raise a glass of fizz once your guests are seated for dinner. Honey Spencer, co-founder of newly-opened Sune, suggests Pét Nat to get guests in the perfect party mood. “Derived from the French Pétillant Naturel (naturally sparkling), these good-natured wines ferment once and are bottled while doing so, and therefore capture a natural fizz,” she explains. “For your guests that aren’t drinking, my go-to non-alcoholic staple is Bottivo, which I love to mix with soda in a tall glass and a big wedge of grapefruit.”
Elsewhere, use your table wine as a conversation starter, says Amber Gardner, buyer at French wine subscription service Bobo Wines. “What we bring to the table to drink can have a surprising effect on the whole atmosphere of the day, acting as a conversation starter, a mood lifter and perhaps even as an olive branch.” She suggests that instead of thinking of your Christmas wine in the traditional sense of food pairing, consider the ambience it may be able to muster. Her top picks include Bobo’s medium-bodied cabernet franc and the new Famille Fabre Corbières Orange, which will likely be a talking point for wine aficionados.
In terms of preparing your wine, Giacomo Recchia, head of wine at champagne-on-tap restaurant Bob Bob Ricard, recommends decanting your wines approximately 20 minutes before serving to allow it time to breathe and release its full potential. He suggests decanting red wines with complex tannins – like cabernet sauvignon or bordeaux – to achieve a smoother taste while light-bodied red wines, like pinot noir, are best enjoyed straight from the bottle. Happy hosting!
Read more: The best foodie gifts for Christmas 2023