It’s the holiday season, and you’re throwing a party. Whether you’re planning a small, intimate gathering or an absolute rager with all your friends, family, and neighbors, this holiday party checklist will help you cover all your bases. The trick is: The basics are pretty universal. The venue, food, entertainment, music, guest list... these are all things you have to think about no matter how big or small your event.
First things first: What’s the theme? It’s not necessary to choose one but locking down a holiday party theme can make the planning process infinitely easier, especially the decorating portion. If a theme feels like too much, try to identify the vibe you’re going for. Will it be relaxed and loungey or a dance-a-thon? Will it be family fun or grown-ups only?
A dress code is also helpful to relay in advance, and actually a really considerate move — it’s hard to confidently walk into a party if you have no idea how others will be dressed. Do your guests a solid and take the guesswork out of what to wear. Heads-up: We chose to work with a glam party (so prepare thine eyes for an explosion of pretty, sparkly things below), but you can apply these lists to any theme, scale, and level of formality.
Keep reading for checklist ideas, supplies to buy, and contingencies to consider. Want to be decked out in head-to-toe glitter? We know just the thing. Need some ideas on how to keep little ones busy? There are solid options below. And a word to the wise: If a lot of young children will be attending and your budget allows, consider hiring sitters to help keep the children safe, happy, and... contained. That way the parents will go home feeling more happy than exhausted.
The Planning Stage
These are the decisions you need to make during the early stages of party planning. Sure, you can always do some things on the fly, but the earlier you make these decisions and figure out who is responsible for completing each task (whether it’s you, your partner, or a third party), the better.
- Lock down the basics (date, time, location — basically any info you want to include in the invite)
- Pick a theme and dress code
- Narrow down the guest list
- Send out invitations (at least a save-the-date if you’re not ready to fire off the official invite yet). An email or Paperless Post is just fine.
- Plan the menu (figure out what kind of food and drink situation will be happening: sit-down, passed hors d’oeuvres, potluck, etc.)
- Make a list of vendors you want to hire (DJ, photographer, caterer, etc.)
- Set deadlines to accomplish each task
Shop party planning essentials to keep you organized:
One way to break down your shopping list for decorations is by zone: Which areas of your home will need a little holiday flair? Do you want a candle or nice-smelling hand soap in the bathroom? Need some extra pre-lit (read: low-fuss) trees sprinkled throughout the house? Will you zhuzh up the lawn?
Lighting is often an afterthought, but it makes a huge difference. Maybe visit your favorite lounge or restaurant and try to emulate their vibe. From there you can figure out if you already have what you need or should pick up pre-lit garlands and trees.
Below, a list of areas to consider jazzing up:
- Mantel: garland, lights, candles, ornaments, props to create a festive vignette
- Porch/foyer: a tree, wreath, lanterns, lights, mistletoe, holiday doormat
- Main living area: decorated tree, candles (artificial is safest)
- Dining room: tablecloth, runner, table setting pieces, centerpiece
- Food/drink area: Most people will be focused on the edible offerings, but you could opt for festive serving pieces, a garland, holiday lights, unscented candles (artificial might be safest here).
- Kitchen: flower arrangement, garland, wreath
- Bathroom: holiday candle, festive hand towel, hand soap
- Doorframes and banisters: tinsel, lit garland
- Music: not a visual element, but crucial to the vibe
Here’s a flower-arranging tip: “One of the easiest ways to make a bouquet look more designer this holiday season is to use the ‘chop and drop’ technique to create an asymmetrical shape. Stagger the stems in your hand to avoid a roundy moundy look, then give them a quick trim at the bottom. Drop them in a vase and voila,” says Christina Stembel, founder and CEO of Farmgirl Flowers.
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Food, Drinks, & Serving Pieces
It’s your party and you can serve strictly apps if you want to. (Or a potluck or a sit-down — you choose.) When you are planning the menu, make sure you have enough serving pieces (like a big pitcher/bowl for punch, plates or platters for charcuterie boards, etc.), and the ladles and serving tools to go with them.
- Appetizers/finger food
- Main dishes (or heavy apps, if that’s your food theme)
- Drinks for adults and children (punches or batch cocktails are a great idea if you don’t want an elaborate bar setup)
- Serving pieces (platters, bowls, serving spoons, cake stands, etc.)
- Plates, cups, cutlery
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Activities & Entertainment
Not everyone feels like they are in their element at a holiday party, no matter how many servings of mulled wine they’ve had. A few activities to keep guests of all ages occupied and distracted between interactions can help people feel more at ease. A professional photo booth with props isn’t necessary, but people do love cute photo ops.
Children are the guests you absolutely have to plan for. Set up little DIY stations for them to get absorbed in: a game station (with puzzles and classic board games), a DIY sweets spread (to build their own gingerbread houses or decorate their own cookies or cupcakes), and have a rotation of family-friendly holiday movies playing on a screen away from the main event.
- Photo booth
- Holiday printables and magic markers
- Gingerbread house making station
- Cookie or cupcake decorating station
- Scavenger hunt
- Classic games for kids or adults to dabble in (board games, cards, a chessboard, etc.)
- Movies on a projector or TV (preferably away from the main event)
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The Outfit: Clothes & Accessories
Now for the fun part: getting ready.
When you think of a holiday glam outfit, these might be the textures and materials that first come to mind: shimmery silk, metallic sequins, jewel-toned velvet. All of these glamorous looks feel festive during the holidays, but versatile to work for almost any event, from weddings to birthday parties. No one-and-done options here.
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The right accessories can really level up your outfit. This batch of glitzy shoes, purses, and jewelry options cater to the minimalists, maximalists, and everyone in between.
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Makeup & Skin Care
There is something so fun about getting ready for an event during the holiday season. Christmas parties, New Year’s Eve celebrations, Tuesdays… there are countless reasons to be extra, well, extra this time of year. Incorporate these high-recommend products into your getting-ready routine: a mask to prep your skin, a true red to make your lips pop, and plenty of pretty, glittery makeup options to layer on the sparkle.
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There’s no avoiding it — even the best nights must end. And if the event was at your house, you’re going to have quite a mess to deal with. Even if it wasn’t, your closet and vanity are probably not in their best shape. If you can, get some help with the cleanup, whether that’s in the form of hiring an outside crew or inviting your besties over for brunch the next day to help return your home to (better than) its normal state while you gossip and nurse your hangovers. Stock up on microfiber cloths and trash bags in advance.
- Clean up
- Reach out to guests to make sure they got home safely (you’ll know if specific names come to mind)
- Send out thank you cards (an above-and-beyond gesture, but thoughtful if anyone brought you a hostess gift)
- Create a digital album (ask guests to send you photos from the event or add them to an existing album, and circulate the link to the album along with a “thank you for showing up” message and link to add more pics)
Remember, leaving yourself as little as possible to do on the day of the event is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. Of course, it’s inevitable you’ll be running around the day of the party, no matter how flawless your planning and execution skills are, but set a hard time when you will take off your event planner hat and allow yourself to just enjoy the festivities. No one is going to notice that there’s only one punch option instead of the five you intended to serve (they’re all so different!) or that the holiday hand towels hanging in the powder room feature the Santa pattern from last year, and not the reindeer — those are probably still in the dryer.