November 24, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Everybody loves a party; we just need a little advice on giving one. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa, this is such a busy time of year that the idea of entertaining can be a little daunting. What would help is a primer, with tips from A to Z for dealing with unexpected guests, preparing a holiday dinner or throwing a cocktail party for 50.

The A is easy: Amaryllis are a gorgeous and dramatic alternative to poinsettias for holiday decorating. Or apples: Layer thin slices of tart apples on top of a mincemeat pie for Thanksgiving.

Z is harder. Zap. Zeal. Zipper bags. Zucchini.

How about Q? Quinine water. Quicksand. (As in "entertaining can be...") Quality. Quantity. (Both of which every party should have.) Quid pro quo. Quench. Quince.

X: Xanadu, Xmas, X-rated (not a good idea this time of year), xylophone.

Y: Yorkshire pudding. Yule log.

See, it isn't as difficult as you might have thought. So here, without further ado, are tips to make holiday entertaining easier and more festive, courtesy of everyone from my next-door neighbor to a nationally known interior decorator.

A is for accessories. For a personal touch, involve your favorite accessories in your party decorating. "I arrange my Staffordshire dogs with magnolia leaves, ribbons and balls." -- Local designer Kim Coale.

B is for buffet. Set the table so guests pick up napkins and silverware after they fill their plates; that way there's less juggling involved. Avoid food that needs carving or otherwise slows up the line.

C is for crowds. If you're having a large party, have a large party. Invite more people than you think will fit in your space. Nothing is less festive than a large cocktail party with too few guests.

C is for caterer. The best recommendation is word of mouth (or attending a party he or she has catered). If you're considering caterers not known to you personally, interview several and taste their food.

C is for centerpiece. "Arrange a mix of pillar candles with clear crystal vases holding a single flower each. You can use different flowers." -- Interior designer Joe Bowers, Rita St. Clair Associates

D is for disasters. Never admit anything went wrong. Chances are your guests won't notice. And even if they don't believe you meant to serve blackened turkey, it won't make them feel any better if you're apologetic.

D is for dessert. As an alternative to cocktails or dinner, have a dessert party. Buy or make (or do both!) a wonderful selection of cakes, fruit tarts, chocolate temptations, poached and fresh fruits, cookies, and cheese and crackers. Offer a choice of gourmet coffees and a few teas and, if you wish, a dessert wine or liqueurs. Invite your guests for 9 p.m.

E is for an eclectic guest list, with people of different interests, ages and backgrounds. "If you invite guests who are all the same, there won't be room for something interesting to happen." -- Terri Mandell, author of "When Good People Throw Bad Parties" (First House)

E is for 800 number, or, in this case, (888)-4-PARTY TIPS -- but it's still free. This is Cracker Barrel Cheese's entertaining-tips line. Party experts Marlene Sorosky, Barbara Smith and Lou Pappas have recorded the messages, which change periodically. (Hint: You don't have to dial the last three letters, but it's OK if you do.)

F is for fun. Have some. Even if you are the host or hostess.

F is for the Four Cookie Rule, my own invention and a very useful one during party season. It goes like this: You can eat four Christmas cookies (or four deliciously greasy hors d'oeuvres or four chocolate nonpareils) but not one more.

Four may seem like a lot, but it's better than eating all of them.

G is for guests. And being generous. Include your unattached friends, who may be particularly lonely this time of year, and the children of your married friends. Invite someone to Thanksgiving dinner who might not have anywhere else to go.

G is for gilded leaves or twigs. Dipped in metallic paint, they make beautiful decorations. Hold bay, galax, lemon or other leaves with chopsticks, dip into silver or gold paint. Dry on a cake rack. -- Martha Stewart's "Holidays" (Crown)

H is for hungry. Don't serve cheese and other high-protein or high-fat munchies with drinks before dinner. That's assuming you want your guests hungry for the main event.

H is for help. How much help do you need for a cocktail party? The ideal ratio is one server for every 10 guests. If you can't afford to hire a bartender or a waitress to pass hors d'oeuvres, responsible teen-agers could lend a hand. (Don't have underage kids mixing drinks).

H is for hors d'oeuvres. How many types do you need? For fewer than eight people, one or two kinds. For more, four -- one from each category: cheese, fish or shellfish, vegetables and meat. Plan on six to eight pieces per person per hour. They should be bite-sized. -- Chef Daniel Boulud in the November issue of Food & Wine.

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