30 invitations have gone out. With couples, that should come to around 45, plus young children. There’s been more of those recently. And then the sons’ friends who once stayed in the basement but who are now in their twenties and thirties and mingle with the adults. So call it 60 people who, beginning at 6 p.m. on December 19, will take part in the 40th year of the Finan/Willard Christmas party.
Yes, this is a you’re dreaming kind of fantasy, yet 40 years have etched upon me certain habits that the Friday after Thanksgiving I had to remind myself not to begin figuring out a menu by raking through cookbooks, old issues of The Pleasure of Cooking and whatever ragged pieces of newspaper and magazine recipes collected through the years. Each contestant is considered for taste, variety and difficulty then the finalist listed on a pad: four to five hors d’oeuvres; one vegetarian, one stew or something similar, along with a couple of side dishes/salads for the main course; eight or 10 desserts, carefully calibrated to be a mix of cakes, pies and puddings.
Next, it is furthered broken down to account for all necessary ingredients:
And finally into the master shopping list:
After that the cupboards and refrigerator are inspected for what is already on-hand. Also the weather report checked out since I don’t have a freezer and rely on several coolers and dry ice. The wine/liquor and beer will be bought. Most people bring a bottle of wine so the quantity is about 10 bottles, four large, three excellent (lucky early arrivals), and three mid-shelf. Three cases generally do–one expressly for the sons’ friends. More people have hit the hard stuff in the last years. Besides gin/vodka/Jameson there is bourbon, rye and sweet vermouth for guests who recently discovered Manhattans. One friend has gotten into distilling whiskey; an old co-worker experiments with various alcoholic elixirs; and a dear friend is finally dating an incredible person who happens to craft his own bitters. They bring samples and are proving to be popular bartenders.
The list is broken down again the following week to form a war plans for each cooking wave. The first hits Saturday, ramps up to Thursday and consumes Friday. A timeline for the party night is also outlined.
If all goes well, if I am truly lucky, at 5:30 on Saturday I will be in my party clothes. If I’m truly blessed, my brother Joe and sister Sue has driven all the way from Philadelphia and my sister is mixing calming pre-party jitter cocktails. I whine, “why in the hell do we do this every year?,” while the husband, old Mr. Fizziwig personified, fiddles with his playlist on the stereo. Hors d’oeuvres are spread through the house and candles lit, dinner heats gently in the oven, desserts crowd the kitchen table.
And then a half-hour later, the door bell rings, the dog barks: our first guests arrive. Adrenaline kicks in. Soon the house fills with friends, friends of friends and strangers. For the next five hours there will be hugs and kisses, feasting and drinking. I will be barefoot, moving too fast to worry about slippery heels. The husband–and one of the most important reasons we’re still married–mingles about, ensuring everyone is laughing. The sons’ friends add an extra jovial kick to the festivities, no tiny child has been accidently stepped on and the dog efficiently vacuums the floors and cushions of crumbs. The last stragglers get gently pushed out the door by 11:30 p.m. It will be close to 1 a.m. when most of the debris is gathered, dishwasher jammed, the pots and pans scrubbed or soaking. The rest of the house is in some semblance of order.
The husband and I pull ourselves up stairs to collapse our aching bodies into bed. Too keyed-up to fall asleep, we exchange favorite moments in the dark. Wasn’t that fun, we’ll exclaim and finally kiss goodnight. The holidays have arrived and all is right with the world.
Of course, the 40th Christmas party is postponed until next year (God willing). For now, I’m trying to come up with some little token to send to our friends as a tiny party in an envelope.
Tips for surviving a huge party
Plan WAY in advance. I didn’t do this when the party was young because we were young and lived by improvisational decisions. The list started ten years later when babies limited time and puny salaries called for stringent budgeting.
Finances are more secure but a party this size still runs into the hundreds of dollars. Consider these cost-minded measure:
• Make at least one vegetarian dish and in bigger proportion than a meat entrée.
• If you do want meat, buy whole cheap cuts such as shoulders, chuck, briskets and chicken. Cut them up to serving sizes yourself.
• Lean on vegetables and fruits for appetizers and desserts
• Have lots of bread, rolls and salad on hand
• This goes without saying but buy in bulk whenever you see a sale.
• Homemade is always more economical than anything store bought. This is why you’re preparing some foods days and even weeks before.
• A punch bowl goes a long way to reducing the liquor bill.
All cooking mistakes can be rectify. Float a chunk of potato for 30 minutes in a too spicy dish. Make more rice or noodles if stew meat shreds. If a cake falls, slice it in half and slather it with icing or a good quality jam. Break up unsatisfactory pies or cakes into a bowl–you now have a gala-worthy trifle or parfait.
Designate a greeter to work a room if you are as shy and socially uncomfortable as I am. See above for why I value the husband.
Also, have a few snappy greetings in your pocket to comfortably greet your guests.
Accept all the assistance offered to you. I find this to be the hardest advice to follow because I’m saddled with Mom’s ‘who do you think you are!’ edict. I better get over this because we’re aging fast.
Keep a large bowl of soapy water in the sink for quick washing, lots ofpaper towels and bottles of seltzer for spills.
Do not despair if a guest(s) breaks a piece of furniture as has happened the last two years. For chairs, rope an off-spring and his friends to quickly cart it away and then throw some pillows on the floor. For a couch, prop the splintered leg up with books.
Keep a large glass of ice water for yourself and remember to drink it through the night. Also eat even a little–I always forget.
Never wear heels or a tight dress. You know you’ll slip or split a seam. Another dress tip is to snap up a few fancy vintage aprons to cover the eventual spills.
Finally, resist the temptation to immediately start in with the cleaning. Instead, collapse down into your most comfortable spot, perhaps with a plate of leftovers and a small glass of port or a cup of herbal tea, and savor the delight of your considerable accomplishment in creating a moment when all your friends have come together and made so merry that they can’t wait for next year’s party!