Do the words "holiday entertaining" summon up thoughts of (( carefree fun and relaxation, partying with all your friends and gobbling heaps of fabulous food?
Yes? Well, kid, this story isn't for you. Hand this section over to Mom or Dad, OK? And hang onto your youth as long as you can.
Now then, grown-ups, did your nerves begin to jangle like sleigh bells when you read those fateful words? It needn't be that way. You can once again look at the subject with a kid's starry eyes and unbounded enthusiasm, if you avoid two of the main traps of adult party-giving: doing too much, and doing the same-old same-old.
If the old holiday-party cliches make your eyes glaze over, freshen them up with new themes and new foods. But forget glitz and eschew perfectionism; serving trendy status liquors and making 75 different types of canapes won't enhance your social status, it will make you broke and drive you nuts.
True '90s entertaining respects old traditions but isn't afraid to create new ones. It borrows '80s-style creativity and glamour, but turns its back on that decade's competitive frenzy and overcomplicated eats. Au courant hosts opt for a relaxed balance between the comfortably familiar and the tantalizingly new. They create flexible buffet menus that can expand or contract with the budget and the guest list, and that concentrate on finger foods to minimize plate-juggling and dish-washing. And they aren't afraid to delegate party duties -- not only to family members, but to caterers, gourmet shops, craft shops, and all the other handy local businesses whose job it is to make our holiday tasks easier.
Season-spanning parties that combine tradition with style might include:
THANKSGIVING ITH A TWIST
Family traditions are wonderful, but how many of us really want the kind of Thanksgiving portrayed in the film "Avalon," where the same people sit around the same table year after year, telling the same anecdotes? Thanksgiving is probably our most hidebound holiday, and could use a little shaking up. Unless you have the kind of family who would holler "heresy" at any changes, this might be the year to think up a few new ways to pay tribute to personal blessings and the earth's bounty.
Filling your place with friends and providing a bounteous buffet is one possibility, especially for people who, like so many of us, live in non-traditional households. (Three generations gathered around a turkey is great, but this scenario doesn't suit everybody.) Such a gathering could honor the ethnic and personal traditions of the participants, who would share dishes from their heritages, much as the Pilgrims and their hosts shared their native dishes.
If you have something a bit more classic in mind, by all means keep the turkey and cranberries, but take them out West, and treat them to updated preparations inspired by the nouvelle and spa cuisine of California and the tempting spiciness of the Southwest.
WILLIAMSBURG HOLIDAY TEA
Our Colonial forefathers and foremothers were not, truth to tell, mad for Christmas, due to the Puritan tradition that forbade the feasting and frolicking on the great day. But our tolerant modern age has taken liberties with history, and created a "best parts" version of the Colonial era, complete with such pagan frivolities as rooms decked with holly and mistletoe, and doors laden with wreaths made of glossy boxwood or a profusion of fresh fruit.
A Williamsburg tea is one of the simplest, prettiest parties you can give, because it offers such evocative effects without much money or effort. As soft baroque music plays in the background -- courtesy of a string quartet or tapes -- your guests will nibble a variety of desserts with a period flavor, chock-full of fruits and nuts and fragrant with spices. Drinks include tea, of course, and an 18th century wine- and brandy-fortified spiced punch that Tom Jefferson might have quaffed.
The decline of the traditional "12 days of Christmas" is a sad aspect of the season for people who love parties. In old England, and parts of early America, Twelfth Night was "Old Christmas," celebrated with feasts and games. It still seems to us a fine way to both bid farewell to the season just past, and to bring the holiday cheer into the cold new year. And as hardly anyone gives Twelfth Night parties any more, you won't have to compete for space on your friends' social calendars.
Twelfth Night -- the 6th of January, although you can hold it on the most convenient weekend day after New Year's -- should be festive but laid-back. In old times, "proper" behavior was relaxed under the benevolent reign of a "Lord of Misrule," and people indulged in generally goofy antics. A Twelfth Night party might be a brunch or a cocktail soiree featuring updates on the old-fashioned "good luck" New Year's foods. It should be lighthearted and anything but stuffy. Encourage people to put on their party clothes one last time, but to tie tinsel in their hair and dust their beards with glitter.