Easy entertaining tips for your holiday gatherings

Remember it should be fun and festive, not overwhelming

A string of pretty lights adds a festive glow to the holiday table.

For most of us, the holiday season is the busiest and most demanding time of the year. If you are planning a dinner or party this year, remember that inviting friends and family into your home should be fun and festive, not overwhelming. Take time to plan and follow these simple tips for a special gathering that you, as well as your guests, will enjoy.

Set the mood

For the table, linen napkins and tablecloths can create a festive and welcoming experience. If table linens are packed away, wash or iron them ahead of time. No one wants to see lipstick or food stains as they sit down for dinner.

A table centerpiece for a sit-down dinner at the table should not be so tall or wide that guests can't see each other across the table. Either use a low centerpiece or only use one, tall, thin item such as a candle for the table's center. Turn to your kitchen for creative ideas. Put a medium-sized white candle on a plate or inside a glass bowl, and then surround it with fresh red cranberries and sprigs of fresh greenery. Or group golden-yellow pears, red apples and purple kale in a wooden bowl. Scented arrangements can include filling a low bowl with boxwood, rough juniper, pinecones and white hyacinth, or arranging pomegranates, cloves, and oranges on a small tray. Make living arrangements ahead of time and store them in the refrigerator. Or for a super-easy, festive touch, gather shiny Christmas ball ornaments and arrange them in a bowl or seasonal basket.

Serve good food and drinks

Expect guests to be thirsty and hungry when they arrive. You can't beat warm beverages such as hot chocolate, cider or buttered rum to help guests relax. If you are serving cocktails be sure to have non-alcoholic "mocktails" also, or simply have cranberry, apple and other fruit juices or sparkling sodas on hand for those who don't wish to imbibe.

Whether passing snacks or having a sit-down meal, prepare enough food to keep everyone happy and full. Snack ideas include setting out separate plates of sweet pickles, herbed olives, peppered cheese and mini-bread slices such as cocktail rye. Or wrap thinly sliced prosciutto around small chunks of melon and figs or dates, then set with toothpicks. For a different take on the usual party cheese ball, spread jam over a block of cream cheese and then stud it with chopped pecans. Serve with crackers and more jam nearby. (The light variety of cream cheese works fine for this.)

Warm up by the fire

If you have a fireplace, lighting it during gatherings provides an intimate and cozy glow. If you have not used the fireplace in a while, make sure to open the flue and leave it open for 10 minutes or so before lighting the fire. Plan to light the fire 15–20 minutes before guests arrive. For wood fires, someone will need to occasionally stoke it with more wood. Or consider using artificial firelogs, which burn more cleanly and provide a steady fire for two to three hours.

Arrange a festive soundtrack

Music is an essential component of a successful holiday party. Organize CDs ahead of time or make a digital playlist on your mp3 player so you're ready to push play when your guests arrive.

Freshen up after the revelry

After your party, sprinkle baking soda over carpets, let sit for 15 minutes, then vacuum up. Baking soda will help neutralize any lingering odors. For more cleaning solutions, visit www.armandhammer.com.

—Family Features.com

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