Party planning: Picking a holiday theme

retro-themed-holiday-partyImage from She Knows

Planning a holiday party, whether it’s for the office, family, or friends, is all about the theme.  And while “the holidays” is already a theme in itself, there are a variety of ways to approach it.  Will it be casual or sophisticated?  Old fashioned or modern?  Once you make this decision, the food, decorations, and activities will fall into place.  I decided to turn to my friends for inspiration, asking each of them to suggest a theme. Here’s what we came up with.

You inner child – Ryan Weston

super mario christmas Image from el mundo tech 

The holidays are often most powerful for children, largely because it’s when we still believe in magic. Revive that feeling with a party that brings out your inner child.  Activities might include board games, a personalized version of pin the tail on the donkey, pinatas, goody bags, a bubble machine, Light Bright, spin art, or a contest corner for playing  classic video games like Mario Brothers.  For a laugh, create funny, personal Mad Libs that relate specifically to the guests and then fill them out as a group.   Tap into the spirit of the season by picking a children’s charity, asking everyone to bring a toy and then delivering the donation the next day. But don’t forget about the wonderful volunteers who run the charity office. Create an oversize thank you card for them (and add an artsy, creative feel to the party!) by hanging up a huge poster board and providing markers, paints and crayons so that guests can add their drawings and messages of appreciation throughout the night.  As for food, find the sweet spot between childhood comfort foods and grownup preferences as far as dairy free, gluten free, or vegan delectables. Options to accommodate these needs can include vegan cupcakes, chicken or hot dogs with gluten free buns. And don’t forget the endless varieties of flavored popcorn available this time of year.

A teenage dream – Harriet Smith

xmas photo booth    Image from PhotoBoothProp, Etsy

Being a teenager is all about figuring out your identity, being brave enough to step out of your comfort zone, and of course, showing off just a bit as you begin to gain confidence.  Activities that give guests a chance to perform work perfectly for this type of party. Suggestions include  karaoke, a dance contest, DDR, and Guitar Hero. Despite all the awkwardness of adolescence, we all stil have a fair amount of nostalgia for even the cringe-worthy moments. Tap into that by creating photo booth corner with fabric and a digital camera, or have a bin full of disposable cameras where you encourage people to take funny photos all night without having to pull out their phones or remember to email them to everyone later.  Plus, there’s no chance to delete those embarrassing shots! Instead of a Secret Santa try a new twist on changing the world. Being on the brink of adulthood is also about your hopes and dreams for the future, which is something we should never grow out of. Have everyone fill out a slip of paper with a wish for their personal future and a wish for the future of the world.  Put them all in a bowl and have everyone choose a slip. They must now buy two gifts: one gift intended for the person they picked that should help or encourage them with their private goal, and one gift for a charity in their name that will help with their wish for the world. Set a money limit to keep things reasonable for everyone.  A make-your-own pizza station with pre-made individual crusts and a variety of available toppings taps right in to teenage fun, yet still allows the adult to have exactly what they want.

Classic and kitschy – Annie Weston

DIY_ugly_xmas_sweaterImage from Mr. Kate 

Warm. Comforting. A sweet sense of humor.  Start with an “ugly holiday sweater” dress code with a contest for worst or funniest.  Create an ornament decorating station next to the tree and at the end of the night each person picks someones else’s creation to take home as a party favor.  For the meal, do a potluck and request that each guest bring a traditional holiday dish from their own childhood. Continue to create this sense of shared history and participation by having everyone bring a piece of decoration from their own background or culture so the room will be an eclectic mix that reminds guests that the world is our family.  Keep the creativity going with a hot cocoa bar with a variety of flavored syrups, and additions like whipped cream, chocolate chips, caramels or candy canes. In the name of giving, have everyone bring canned goods and food donations to be donated to a shelter.  Any musicians in the house?  Whether it’s piano, guitar or ukulele, start a jam session leading everyone in holiday song. End the night by taking funny group “family holiday card” photos. Have everyone come up with the most ridiculous holiday card poses (or the goofiest poses they secretly wish their family would do!). For ideas try checking out the  AFP hall of fame.  The best gift is laughing at yourself, and it’s sure to be an inspiration!

Sophisticated holiday spirit – Emma Woodhouse

winter_wonderlandImage from Dolce Designs

Begin with an elegant, seasonal theme like “Winter Wonderland.”  To set the tone, drape white fabric to suggest snow, use lots of sparkling glass and crystal, and light holiday scented candles.   Place glass vases filled with white fairy lights and glittering ornament balls throughout the room, and play sweeping classical music in the background.   This type of event calls for gourmet finger foods and snacks laid out on trays throughout the night and the ultimate crowd pleaser: a chocolate fountain. Along with eggnog and hot buttered rum, have a variety of holiday themed cocktails like the candy cane and the grinch.  Better than regular ice cubes, and a little less elaborate than an ice sculpture, make ice cubes shaped like icicles which can also be used to stir.  Instead of writing letters to Santa, create a wishing well and have people toss coins all night with their hopes for the New Year.  At the end of the night the money collected will be donated to charity.  You can even sell small bags full of one dollar coins just for the wishing. People who throw or attend black tie events tend to be ambitious, so for a twist on the traditional white elephant gift exchange, why not organize a scavenger hunt? Each guest brings a gift, which will be collected at the start of the evening.  Then as each person completes the scavenger hunt they will be given a number. The first to finish gets first pick from the present pile. For elegant, memorable holiday photos, have guests stand by a wall and take a digital picture. Then run it through an oil painting filter on the computer, print out the their masterpiece on photo paper, and put it into a frame for them to take home.  A classy memento from a night to remember.

Why does there have to be a theme? – Alex Knightley


My friend and business partner did not understand the point of the question.  He wondered why anyone has to go to so much trouble and expense to spend time with the people in their lives.  Although we disagree – I feel like any opportunity to celebrate should be made as special as possible – he does have one point.  As long as you spend the holidays celebrating with the people you respect and care about, then that’s what truly matters.