November 29, 2011

Holiday Open House Countdown: Part One

I used to adore Christmas. I was the one who got up before all my siblings, going down the stairs on my tippy toes to scope out the presents piled high beneath the tree, checking to see if the milk and cookies were gone, biting down a squeal of delight if there was magical snow on the ground. My older, wiser sisters slept more peacefully, knowing that the thrill of anticipation is best cultivated by waiting, waiting, a little bit longer for gratification.

The obligatory beauty shot with the Christmas tree, pre-Santa visit

Invariably a gift or two was forgotten. There would be a wayward box tucked high in the closet, perhaps with new pyjamas, or maybe, if I was especially lucky, a new doll. New dolls being a rarity in a house with two older sisters and frugal, hand-me-down parents. My mother would suddenly slip away, coming back with the errant package, hastily wrapped and “forgotten” by Santa. Even when I was old enough to catch on, these last minute random gifts seemed somehow special, apart from the rest, and those pyjamas, that doll, treasured all the more for almost having been missed.

Those Christmases of a lifetime ago seem almost as mythical as Dickens. Nowadays, Christmas is a very different affair. My parents are both gone. My sisters and I, although still very close, live many miles and lives apart. And, as hard as we’ve tried, we just can’t seem to interest our cat in either new pyjamas or dolls (although a brand new catnip toy does garner more than passing interest). Time for new traditions, new ways of celebrating and sharing a spirit of joy during the Christmas season.

And thus was born our annual Holiday Open House. An iron-clad tradition, it started as a modest affair with 30 friends and family popping by to nibble on hors d’oeuvres and share a convivial hour or two. Sixteen years and three kitchens later, it is the bellwether for us that the season of giving has truly arrived, and with it, a chance to reconnect, relax, share and celebrate all that is good about Christmas.

With more than 80 people now regularly in attendance, and all of the food prepared by us, I modestly think we’ve become somewhat expert at throwing a ‘do. One that we know is as eagerly anticipated by all who come as it is by us who plan it.

As we begin the four week countdown to the big day – December 18 this year – I thought I would take you along on the journey, sharing tips, tricks, recipes and survival tactics for how to throw a party with aplomb, verve, passion and enthusiasm. Because I do firmly believe that even the most disastrous of events can be salvaged with a bit of verve and a lot of enthusiasm.

Five Tips for a Memorable Holiday Gathering

1. Send proper invitations. By that I mean in the mail. You remember mail, right? When it was exciting to receive a beautiful silver envelope amongst all of the junk and the bills? People still get excited by personal invitations and for the little bit more time and effort, it makes a wonderful impact. Yes, I know I know; you can’t keep track of RSVPs electronically; you can’t automatically send reminders; you won’t know who FOR SURE is coming and with whom – but do you ever really anyway? For years we even made our invites by hand but time and common sense in the form of my husband prevailed. Do what we do and look for beautiful invitations on sale after Christmas. Plan ahead for the next year (but remember where you put them!).

From the complex to the silly: handmade invites of Open Houses past

2. Hire help.  For goodness sake, don’t be a martyr. Hire people to help you serve/clean/clear/take coats. Even if the gathering is small, hire a local college student (or pay your older kids) to pitch in and help. Even better – if there’s a local culinary or hospitality school, post your party there. You’ll get someone who’s enthusiastic about food. You’ll be more relaxed and more importantly you’ll be able to spend time with your guests. For our annual do, we hire five wait staff: two to do last minute prep for food, and three to do the rest.

3. Simplify your food choices. Finger foods are fun easy to prepare and many can be made and frozen in advance. I also stick with all savoury. Introducing sweets means coffee, tea, etc etc.

Pastry cirlces for mini meat pies that can be baked, frozen, and pre-heated as needed

4. Remember it’s the season of giving. Amidst all of the bounty, we try to remember those who have less than us. Every year we accept donations to our Daily Bread Food Bank. With the abundance on the table, it makes us feel great to collect those boxes and boxes of food.

The generosity of our guests in full evidence

5. Give everyone a little something special to take home. Every year we make each guest a personalised gingerbread cookie. It’s probably the most laborious thing we do, but perhaps the most satisfying. I love seeing the look on the kids’ faces when they’re handed a cookie with their name on it. And nothing beats the smell of gingerbread baking.

Stay tuned for more as we gear up and count down. This is truly one of our favourite things – perhaps it will become one for you too.


  1. What a lovely tradition -- 80 people WoW that is inspiration in itself! Love your heart and sentiments. Great post and looking forward to the next installment.

  2. I love those gingerbread favors! What a great idea! Love how you collect for the local food bank, too. Thanks for sharing.

  3. You are amazing!!

  4. What a pleasant way to spend Sunday morning; up earlier than usual, time to leisurely read and I open your blog only find your beautiful picture facing me (btw I still have that dress tucked away somewhere in my house)! It's as if something was beckoning me to check out your post, something I reqret to say I haven't done in quite some time. Oh what wonderful memories of Christmases past! From someone who has had the pleasure of attending your open house I must say it is one annual event not to be missed. Each morsel of food is so carefully planned, prepared, cooked and exectued! I applaud your verve and abundant enthusiasm. Happy cooking as the countdown continues.

  5. What a lovely post, so beautifully written, Elizabeth! I want to hug you! I love when you write about your memories of childhood and so perfect rolling into your newfound tradition. This party sounds perfect and wouldn't I be the lucky one to live close enough to receive that stunning invitation in the mail! xoxo

  6. Thanks for all the nice comments, guys! Paula, I almost used a photo that had the three of us in it, but it was a wee bit too blurry. Hope you can make it down this year... Jamie, you are welcome here anytime :-)

    E xo

  7. What a great post! Fancy the tips! I just love the personalised cookies.people do love to feel special. I'm baking for the people in my department and this post has given me encouragemnt. Won't do the names because My handwriting is bad, but will use the royal icing tip on them - the cookies i mean. What a cute little picture of you by the tree.