Holiday Open-House Party Checklist

A candy cane-to-nuts schedule for a free-flowing get-together that leaves you plenty of time to enjoy your guests.

Illustration of a Christmas tree, snowflakes, a stocking, and presents

One Month Before

  • Send the invitations.

    Make it clear whether children are welcome. Include a definite ending time—4 p.m. to 7 p.m. is ideal—so guests don't arrive while you're mopping up.

  • Plan a stress-free menu.

    Serve foods that can be prepared ahead of time. Limiting beverages to sparkling water, juices, and red and white wine should satisfy everyone and makes a bartender unnecessary. Create a schedule of when each dish can be made, as well as a shopping list.

  • Reserve any needed rental items.

    The rule of thumb is two plates, forks, and glasses per guest. (Rental glasses—tumblers are more worry-free than stemware—are a time-saver, since you just rinse and return them.) Alternatively, approach friends about borrowing items.

  • Book any needed help.

    Hiring a kitchen, serving, or bartending assistant—a professional or a neighborhood teen—can free you up if you're expecting a big crowd. (It's also okay to ask guests to help pass drinks and nibbles, which encourages them to mingle.)

Three Weeks Before

  • Order the greenery.

    Whether ordering locally or online (for example, from, request that garlands, wreaths, and flowers be delivered about five days before the party.

  • Buy any other needed decorations, or order them online.

    Order any specialty foods, locally or online, as well.

  • Decide whether you'll be giving a parting gift and what it will be.

    It's nice to send people home with something like your own cookies (preferably freezable so you can make them way ahead) or paperwhite narcissus bulbs.

Two Weeks Before

  • Clean any crystal, china, and silverware you'll be using.

    And launder and iron linens.

  • Do a big shopping run.

    Buy all the nonperishable ingredients you'll need for your menu, and all beverages. Generally, calculate three bottles of wine for every four people (or, if you are serving cocktails, three to four drinks per guest for a two- to three-hour party).

  • Prepare any freezable dishes on the menu.

One Week Before

  • Decide on the serving dishes.

    Figure out which you'll use for each menu item, label each dish with a Post-it note, and borrow or buy extras if you don't have enough.

  • Clean the house thoroughly.

Two Days Before

  • Buy the perishable food items.

    Pick up the breads, produce, dairy products, and ice (one pound per person).

  • Start setting up the party area.

    Set up the buffet table—preferably one accessible from all sides—with flatware, plates, platters, serving utensils, and napkins. Make a bar station away from the table and a coffee-and-dessert station if needed. Tuck away anything that will be in the way, precious items that might get broken (or even be taken), and any clutter.

  • Decorate.

    Arrange greenery, candles, etc. Need some inspiration? Find holiday decorating ideas here.

  • Designate a place for coats.

    Make space in a closet and fill it with hangers. You could also choose a bed for coats (make sure the room is especially tidy and free of valuables, so you won't need to worry about them), or purchase an inexpensive portable garment rack.

One Day Before

  • Do the cooking.

    Only warming and assembling should be needed on party day.

  • Give your house a once-over.

    Do whatever touch-ups are needed.

Morning of the Party

  • Finish setting up.

    Push furniture against the walls, and put out any rental chairs.

Two Hours Before

  • Arrange any cheeses on platters.

    Label each (name, origin, flavor characteristics).

One Hour Before

  • Toss the salad, if serving one.

    And arrange the breads on platters.

  • Set out appetizers and snacks that won't spoil.

    Wrap them tightly to ensure freshness; tear off the wrap when the first guest rings the doorbell.

Half-Hour Before

  • Finish setting out food.

    Then have a glass of wine, breathe, and enjoy.

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