If Christmas or Chanukah is your responsibility this year, you may be feeling daunted by the idea of entertaining a gaggle of guests in a space-starved New York City home. But throwing a holiday party in an apartment—and on a limited budget (or even a generous one at that)—doesn't have to end with you tearing your hair out in frustration.
We enlisted the help of Vinessa Milando, who knows a lot about making guests comfortable: She's the owner of Ivy Terrace, a Midtown East bed-and-breakfast that features six elegant studio apartments, so she's perpetually playing hostess. Milando gave us some expert tips on how to make your cocktail party or dinner a memorable event.
Spruce up your space in advance
"When you don't have a lot of space, and there won't be several rooms where people can meander in and out, quality is important," Milando says. A dingy apartment will feel even more so with guests crowded in, so give yourself enough time before your gathering to get your space spotlessly clean.
If you have the budget, it may even be worthwhile to hire a cleaning service for a one-time deep scrubbing. Check out our list of our favorite cleaners in the city. And for the progressive-minded, look into a new service called Up & Go, which will connect you with local, women-owned, eco-friendly cleaning companies,
Make a strong first impression with the invitations
Sure, it's easy to invite your guests via a Facebook event or Evite. But going old-fashioned and sending invitations through the mail sets an ever-so-slightly formal tone that will make your gathering stand out. "It doesn't have to be expensive, but it will impress people," Milando says. "No one gets anything in the mail anymore."
You can order ready-made holiday invitation cards, or custom design your own, through services like Shutterfly.
Set an inviting atmosphere with lighting and fragrance
Particularly if you live in a cramped space, it's important to soften the ambiance of your apartment with the right lighting. "If you have nothing but brash overhead lights, think about getting a lamp or two, so you have softer light," Milando advises. "You can set a mood without any kind of food involved."
Scent goes a long way, too, to creating a graceful atmosphere (and offsetting any claustrophobia or distractions from street noise.) "People are very sensitive to smell," Milando observes, and suggests lighting one or two candles for fragrance—but remember to light them an hour or two in advance for the aroma to really permeate.
Alternatively, she says, you can opt for scented pinecones, which double as seasonally appropriate decor when placed in glass bowls and used as table centerpieces. Or, for something small and out of the way, try the reed diffusers we found at the Grand Central Holiday Fair.
Go natural with decorations
Go seasonal not only with food and drink, but with the decor you choose for your holiday gathering. For something unusual, Milando suggests bringing the outdoors inside, and using real greenery to brighten up your space.
"No one in NYC gets enough of the outdoors, and live plants and greenery can be festive, inexpensive, and very warm," Milando says. Take holly, natural branches, pinecones, and even Christmas tree trimmings, and arrange them on the table.
Milando says she has even used plants to create place settings, by writing her guests' names with gold or silver markers on poinsettia leaves.
And if you don't want the headache of sweeping up pine needles for the next few days, one alternative is to fill a punch bowl with Christmas tree ornaments for a centerpiece that offers a pop of color; another major benefit is that this type of decoration can be reused for future holiday get-togethers.
Don't spend the whole party in the kitchen
If you choose carefully when it comes to what kind of food and drink you serve, you won't have to run back and forth to the kitchen the entire evening—and you won't have to spend a fortune, either.
"I like to do punch for drinks," Milando says. "It's economical, and you're not constantly making individual drinks." She adds that champagne in particular goes a long way, and champagne punch with fresh fruit is especially popular. (This Martha Stewart recipe uses pomegranate juice and fresh cranberries for that Christmas color.)
If you're throwing a cocktail party, Milando notes that you can keep your food budget relatively low, as long as you make presentation a priority. "Provide some hors d'oeuvres, and even if they're frozen and you just heat them up, put them on serving trays," she says. "You can borrow them from a friend or relative if you don't want to buy, but when you're serving food on shiny silver platters, everyone thinks it's a special party."
Another subtle touch that goes a long way is using real cloth napkins, rather than paper ones. Even if you're sans dishwasher, break out the real dishes, glasses, and flatware for your gathering, too—they'll go a long way toward making your occasion feel special.
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