Take a look at our newest twists on decorating, stress-free strategies, and delicious recipes as you plan your holidays.
Wouldn't it be nice to wake up one morning and discover your home decorated in its finest party-ready garb? Our Southern Living Foods, Homes, Gardens, and Photography teams took on one of our most interesting challenges: to transform an entire house from everyday to holiday in just one week. Our goal was to experience the blitz of decorating, cooking, and hosting guests-just like you do every year. Once the last bit of tinsel was on the tree, we gathered our 12 best ideas plus other reminders and practical hints we couldn't resist sharing with you. Think of these pages as our gift to you, to be unwrapped room by room. Our quick tips and inspiring photos will guide you to the most memorable holiday season ever.
1. Smart Planning
Involve your family in the fun of preparing for a party. For big gatherings, shop two weeks before the event for nonperishable and frozen items. Keep ingredients all together in bags in one area of your pantry or freezer, instead of storing them with your everyday items. Shop three to five days ahead for perishables, and try to keep the day-before-the-party shopping list to fewer than 10 items.
2. Making Christmas Magic
Use metallic versions of your room's colors for decorations and for gift wrap. Add soft pillows in shades of red and green, and display candles, gifts, and ornaments on your coffee table and several smaller tables. A beautiful tree, plenty of natural greenery, and the surprise of a few African violets set the stage for inspired entertaining.
3. A Stunning Mantel in No Time
Trim the mantelpiece with a length of garland purchased at a tree lot, or cover it with pieces of cedar or fir. Check the greenery weekly, and replace it when it dries out. Use poinsettias to fill the fireplace when it's not in use, and don't forget the stockings.
Create an elegant look by weaving strands of intricate beads-such as those used on your tree-through lengths of the evergreen garland. Tuck in gold leaves in the same direction as the greenery. When draping garland, don't try to be too perfect-layers of uneven swags offer more drama and can hide tired foliage.
Pretty on a Pedestal
Make an empty tabletop holiday ready by clustering some of your favorite ornaments on a tiered server or cake stand. Complete your creation with a touch of greenery, a few gold leaves, and a candle.
4. Lights, Ribbon, Action!
For a tree that seems to shine from the center, concentrate several strands of large globe-shaped tree lights near the trunk. Then run plenty of strands of twinkle lights close to branch tips.
To fill openings in tree, crumple 3-foot-long pieces of wide raffia ribbon, and insert them between branches. Arrange shiny ornaments to bask in the glow of the lights. For added color, trim your tree with beaded garland, stems of gold leaves, and small bunches of painted twigs.
Decorate With Gorgeous Gifts
Who can resist trying to guess what lies inside lovely gifts such as these? For a well-coordinated look (especially when gifts are arrayed beneath the tree), choose wrapping paper and ribbon that complement the colors used in your rooms. Incorporate a range of solid colors and glitzy patterns. For added flair, double up on ribbons-two different kinds for each box.
5. Ornaments in Full Bloom
For a refreshing and unique touch, display mini African violets among the tree branches. Insert the plants in golden cone ornaments to make jewel-like accents, and keep them happy by watering twice a week. For continuity, display these exquisite blooms in other rooms during the holidays.
6. A Chandelier That Outshines
This year, accent your light fixture by hanging ornaments from it. It took just an hour to hang these transparent glass ornaments with pieces of narrow ribbon. Other tricks to try: Suspend little glass vases filled with flowers from gold cording; wrap tiny party favors, and hang them from the chandelier. After the event, cut the ribbons, and present a favor to each guest.
Secrets to Casual Entertaining Provide inviting spots for dining. Hosting a party is almost effortless when guests serve themselves. Have well-set tables ready for friends to enjoy your scrumptious menu along with the good company. Here, the kitchen flows into the breakfast room that seats eight. If you need extra seating, set up a few small tables in the family room and place a small decoration on each table. Also, remember the little ones: They love to have their own table. Go with melamine, plastic, or paper dishes, and tuck a violet in a basket for a mini-version of the grown-ups' centerpiece.
Keep your table settings stress-free. Start with tableware that you have on hand, including everyday dishes and glasses, simple place mats, and colorful napkins. Use these elements in unexpected ways. Turn place mats lengthwise, allowing them to hang over the edge of the table. Tuck the other end slightly under the table runner so the place mats don't detract from the centerpiece. Mix patterns, stripes, and solids to achieve a high-end look.
Keep cool until the last plate is washed. Rather than stack used dishes in the sink, find another convenient place to put them. Partially fill a large cooler with soap and water, and carefully slide the dishes in (no sharp knives, please). Close the lid, and dirty dishes are out of sight and out of mind until after guests leave.
7. Easy Look, Fancy Payoff
In no time you can put together a centerpiece for your dining table that will earn a big "wow" factor. Fill basic glass cylinder vases with glass beads and jewel-like berries, and settle an African violet into each one. Relax the look with pomegranates that you've cut in half and placed in the center of square silver trays. (Insert a chef's knife just into the top of the pomegranate, and rock the knife until the fruit splits open.) Fill in the trays with vivid clusters of kumquats, limes, and lemons, and then scatter votive candles throughout the centerpiece for added glow.
8. Greet your guests with a signature drink.
Cranberry-rosemary stir sticks are fun garnishes for Frozen Cranberry Margaritos, iced tea, or water. Choose hearty 6-inch-long rosemary sprigs; remove leaves from bottom 4 inches, and use for cooking. Thread cranberries on the rosemary stem. Offer tie-on gift tags as wine charms to mark each person's glass.
9. Start the Party With Style
Don't eat Ham-and-Cheese Skewers a piece at a time. Enjoy all the pieces at once to fully experience the smoky-sweet flavor and creamy-crisp texture of these appetizers. Ask a guest or two to serve, or place on a coffee or sofa table.
Stash a few recipes of Hot Roast Beef Party Sandwiches in the freezer for tree-trimming nibbles, unexpected guests, or an open house. Max freezing time is one month, so stock the freezer early in November for Thanksgiving entertaining and early in December for Christmas and New Year's parties.
Southern Shrimp Cocktails are perfect to kick off a dinner party or to serve in the living room at an open house. Allow two or three cocktails per guest.
10. Gather for Sweets
When you pick one theme, it's easy to entertain. In our dining room, we whipped up a dessert party with cookies, dip, and fruit. That's right-no silverware required. If your table looks a little lonely once the chairs are pulled away, just slide a few back in place. Fill space under the table with a large poinsettia.
It Only Takes Five Minutes
A rich swirl of quick and divine Brandy-Vanilla Cheesecake Dip tips the end of a purchased pirouette cookie.
11. Merriment on the Windowsill
March small potted poinsettias across your windowsill. The impact is big for the price you pay-about $3 each. If yours is a south- or west-facing window, take note: Tender bracts may burn if the sun's rays are strong. Instead, suspend snowflake ornaments at your window, and arrange treelike cones on a nearby table or surface.
12. Bubbly on a Budget
Take time to toast the season. Good quality sparkling wines are available for less than $15. Executive Editor and wine expert Scott Jones recommends the following.
•Blanc de Blancs, Domaine Ste. Michelle, Washington
• Brut, Reserva,Cava Jaume Serra, Spain
• Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, Mionetto,Italy