Whether you're hosting a Thanksgiving feast or a Christmas cocktail party, early planning not only smooths the way but also elevates your game. It enables you to better enjoy the adventure of holiday entertaining while adding memorable touches that make your guests feel extra special. It can help you stay calm, stick closer to budget, try out new decorating ideas and get the kids involved in the planning such as crafting those always-adorable place cards for the Thanksgiving table.
Before we get to the fun ideas, we must first share some potential mishaps. For starters, we must nag you to not neglect your oven. Could it use some attention from a professional repairman? Could it use a good cleaning? Take the time now to tend to its needs before you trust it to your turkey.
Second, decide upon and then, if necessary, wash and press your table linens ahead of time - not the night before 16 people are arriving and you're in such a hurry you're likely to scorch the cloth. Or skip the ironing altogether. You may even want to consider professional laundering. Either way, the sooner the better.
Third, vow to never, ever, stuff parsley, potato peels and other clog-causing scraps down your garbage disposal the night or hours before guests arrive. You know better all the other days of the year. Why do it Thanksgiving Eve? Besides, do you really want to add a professional plumber to your guest list?
The dinner table is likely the main feature at your holiday gathering, whether you go for a tried-and-true traditional setup or are looking for something new. Local interior designer Mark Taylor sees a continued interest in simple presentations - especially for Thanksgiving - using natural fabrics and elements such as pine cones, hydrangeas and branches gathered from the backyard.
A few ideas:
Centerpiece: Thanksgiving centerpieces can be tricky, since they eat up tabletop space when there are so many side dishes to serve. Many people set the table with the centerpiece and then remove it when the meal is served. Looking for an alternative? HGTV suggests hanging fall leaf "streamers" from the chandelier. It adds a touch of fall without touching the table. You can make your own with silk or natural leaves and fishing line. (Learn how at http://www.hgtv.com/design/make-and-celebrate/handmade/dress-up-your-autumn-table-with-fall-leaves).
Another idea for using silk leaves comes from local professional organizer Linda A. Birkinbine, who often hosts holidays: "I've seen silk leaves available at craft stores scattered on the table or even used to create a quasi-runner down the center," said Birkinbine, whose business is called Keep It Organized.
Candles: Flameless candles are a smart option when you want a festive feel on the dining table and other areas without the worry of an open flame - especially when passing food. Pottery Barn sells battery-operated pillars in various styles, sizes and colors - blue, gray and amber among them - and suggests standing them on their own or illuminating a glass hurricane or cloche with them. Many other retailers offer them, too.
Dinnerware: For Thanksgiving, Taylor likes the simplicity of his white ironstone dinnerware set against a linen-colored tablecloth. "Then I bring in the autumnal colors with gourds and pumpkins. If there's anything left in the garden, I'll use that and then supplement it with things from a local florist or farmer's market. I'll also probably dig up my rosemary, put it in pots and place it around the dining room so it smells good."
"Christmas rolls around and we pull out all the stops. That's when we use all the fancy stuff. I like color - not the usual red and green. I like chartreuse and a different shade of red. Then I tend to do more elaborate table settings. I have a whole set of ruby redware. And gold is coming back with a vengeance."
Linens: Take a look at make-it-yourself tablecloths and runners on Pinterest or other sources for tabletop design inspiration and you'll find them made from everything from burlap to plaid blankets (preferably not fuzzy) to Kraft paper personalized with hand-lettering. Even if you prefer to use the beautiful cloth you inherited from your grandmother - always a good choice - you can also tap into your creative side and get fancy with cloth napkins. Admit it; haven't you ever wanted to master a fancy napkin fold or two? The internet is packed with options and some are quite simple - including instructions for folding napkins into cutlery wraps.
Serving: Michelle Peller White does not have a large formal dining room so for holidays she always serves buffet style from a 13-foot island in the center of her kitchen. With about 20 to 22 people to feed, including grandchildren, it works. One tradition that has become a hit: a mashed potato bar, with a variety of toppings such as cheese and bacon.
"Years ago I bought plastic martini goblets from Pier 1 in purple, green, burgundy - all different jewel tones - and I use those. I decorate them with ribbon to make them look even more festive," said White, owner of Chochkeys and president of the Interior Design Association of Western New York.
Handmade crafts: This is the chance to get kids involved, whether it's making place cards for the table or creating a wreath of thanks for the wall. BHG.com, the Better Homes and Gardens website, is just one of many that offers craft suggestions for kids.
Get-togethers: From day-after-Thanksgiving leftovers gatherings to ornament exchange parties, there are many memorable ways to get people together.
Some families with out-of-town kids home from college or elsewhere over Thanksgiving or winter break like to host gatherings that bring together people they may not see around the holiday dinner table.
Birkinbine and her husband, who have two daughters - one of whom celebrates a birthday in late November - will host a casual open house Thanksgiving weekend for neighbors, family friends, their daughter's friends and their families.
"It's a nice time to reconnect," Birkinbine said. On the menu: cold hors d'oeuvre that can be made ahead of time - and a delivery of pizza at two different times during the open house, which will run from 7 to 11 p.m.
"With people stopping by throughout the evening, I don't want to be messing with the oven," she said.