Health Team

How to Have a Holiday Open House

Posted November 12, 2007
Updated November 13, 2007

— We do a holiday open house each year because our house simply couldn't accommodate our friends and family if they all arrived and left at the same time.

It's a problem we faced as a childless couple crammed into a Manhattan apartment, and it's a problem we still face in our spacious saltbox colonial as a suburban family with two kids, especially now that many of our friends and relatives have kids too.

So during a four-hour window on a Sunday afternoon during December, we invite people to have a glass of wine, snack on what I'd like to think is my now-famous cheese tart and watch scores of children generally run amok.

Our house always feels full but not overcrowded. Those with younger kids tend to come right at noon, getting their cheer in before naptime. Those with older kids arrive later, probably after a hockey game or the dress rehearsal for a local production of "The Nutcracker."

An open house, which apparently originated as a New Year's tradition in Europe and has been held in the U.S. since George Washington was president, also has a low-key vibe compared to a "party."

People don't have to dress up, but they can if they want to. They don't have to bring a dish, but they can if they want to. Honestly, they don't even have to RSVP, but it's nice when they do.

This season will mark our ninth open house and we've learned some dos and don'ts along the way:

-Don't waste a lot of time and effort on passed hors d'oeuvres.

Since we're serving food over a period of time that goes from brunch to early dinner and to a group of rotating guests - some had a meal before they came and some didn't - spreading out the food on the dining room table allows people to eat at their leisure.

We've also taken to serving some foods in our slow cooker: It keeps mini meatballs and brisket warm without burning them or overcooking them. There also are a fair amount of foods, such as asparagus in vinaigrette, a fall salad with bacon, pears and blue cheese, fried chicken and a full filet mignon, that taste good whether they're warm, room temperature or even cold.

(The USDA recommends leaving room-temperature food out for two hours. We do swap out a new filet halfway through our open house.)

As for dessert, think finger foods like brownies and cookies. Cakes and pies don't hold up their appearances for a long period of time once the first slice or two are cut.

-Don't waste money on top-shelf alcohol, especially on an afternoon open house.

Most people seem to either drink a mixed drink such as a Bloody Mary or a screwdriver, or wine. My husband, a certified sommelier, has scouted some decent boxed wines, which, for presentation's sake, we'll put into carafes.

Warm apple cider or red wine with mulling spices do wonders for making a house smell like the holidays. These drinks also can go in a slow cooker.

-Plan a craft for the kids.

Because people are constantly coming and going, it's hard to get a game going. But children also aren't as entertained by chatting and nibbling as their parents. An art activity - last year's was a reindeer ornament from Oriental Trading Co. that cost us less than $1 each, even with the special foam glue - can be done in shifts.

It's also important to serve food that children like, but that doesn't necessarily mean "kid food." Homemade macaroni and cheese or chicken fingers dredged in a mustard mixture before breading seem to be crowd pleasers for multiple generations.

And you'd be surprised how many children end up reaching for an item in a crudite.

-There's no need to take a post at the front door and be a formal greeter.

An open door goes with an open house. People walk in and out without an escort - it just adds to the casual, friendly feeling.

Of course, we do try to get to our guests within the first few minutes, but there are two of us and 80 or so of them. By leaving the door ever-so-slightly ajar, guests walk in, find a place to stash their coats and even pour themselves a drink.

That's just what we want our house to be: An open house for our friends and family to take just a few moments to enjoy the holidays.


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