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Holiday entertaining made easy

Expert helps simplify parties, put focus on guests

The goal of a holiday party, said Palo Alto party planner Nicole Macuil, is "getting to talk" and socialize.

Connecting is more important than fussy, fancy decorations, she said. So, Macuil has some tips for decorating for a holiday party to make your home look great and give yourself time to enjoy your guests.

First of all, simplify the food by making your party a potluck. Macuil invites school parents over for an annual holiday party. Every year, she asks them to bring appetizers or dessert. She provides drinks and lasagna, in case someone needs more food.

Don't worry about those Spode china holiday plates. It's easier just to get gold or silver paper plates in large and small sizes, Macuil said. Buy lots of cocktail napkins and don't bother with dinner napkins; buy some with an appropriate pattern, or a simple saying or quote.

For the table, which Macuil pushes against the wall in her dining room, use a fabric table runner, perhaps in a metallic or solid color. If you want to decorate, scatter pine cones (you can spray-paint them white, cover them with glitter or leave them plain). You also can use extra tree ornaments here.

Macuil, whose party-throwing company Wishes and Wows creates spectacular events using flowers, balloons and a wide range of other decor, said the expectations of her peers can be high.

"Everybody knows what I do, so they expect a lot," she said, but she keeps things manageable without being dull.

For the front porch or front door, hang a simple wreath and place two poinsettia plants on either side of the door. Assuming some holiday lights are up outside, that's all you'll need. Macuil said party stores also have sets of gold or silver balloons that spell phrases like "Be Merry" or "Ho Ho Ho" that can be hung outside from a porch or on a door, or over a table.

She generally doesn't buy flowers, assuming at least one of her guests might bring some. She does use red or gold candles, often with a holiday scent, to add to the atmosphere.

Macuil doesn't rent extra seating. "If you provide seating, it constrains people. I try to not add a million seats. People tend to walk around more and mingle."

One of her special touches is a 4-foot-long bar cart.

"I put all the drinks and a bunch of (shatterproof) wine glasses (on it), as well as some wine markers for guests to keep tabs on their glasses," she said.

A banner above the food table with simple words like "Fa La La" or "Ho Ho Ho" "reminds people that we're celebrating," she added. Another easy and simple decoration is to hang about a half dozen circular paper fans in holiday colors on the wall above the table.

For the guest bathroom, Macuil puts up a "Christmassy" towel and puts out seasonal-scented soap and lotion, as well as a snowflake night light to tie the decorations all together.

For the living room mantel, she hangs her family's stockings, which are personalized with their names. On top of the mantel, she creates a village with little houses and a nativity set in the middle and covers it with fake fluffy snow and puts lights underneath to light it up.

One centerpiece Macuil splurges on is decorating her tree. "Every year I do a theme tree," she said, ranging from 3D butterflies to sea creatures.

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