Intimate Holiday Gatherings

The more the merrier, but when it’s just a few, it can be delightful too!

Cozy, intimate gatherings can be some of the most memorable ones because you can dedicate more time to connecting with the ones you love. They’re also the perfect opportunity to (finally!) incorporate all those special details you’ve been pinning on Pinterest for years but have never had the time or patience to make happen for a whole crowd. So, whether you’re celebrating at home or going away for your family holiday, here are some tips to make it terrific.

Setting the Scene

Choosing a theme for your holiday can help narrow your focus when it comes to decorating, details and maybe even the food. You can choose a theme for the décor such as a specific color like winter white or crystal blue. Maybe a simple “winter” motif such as snow (snowflakes and snowpeople) or winter lodge (wood and pine cuttings with checked or flannel ribbons) works for your family. And, of course, there are religious holiday themes you may settle on based on your personal beliefs. These themes can also blend together seamlessly for a perfectly “you” holiday.

Once your theme and/or color palette is set, dress up your home, second home or Airbnb for the holidays by thinking in terms of vignettes. Create little pockets of holiday décor here and there. The mantel is, of course, an obvious spot. “Entryway tables are a great place for themed decorations,” says Michelle Moriarity, interior designer, marketing director and buyer for Carla’s A Classic Design. “I always tell my clients to keep their collections grouped together for greater impact. For instance, keep your nutcrackers all together and add in some sparkly trees and a festive table runner.” In addition, Moriarity says to use cocktail tables to play off the décor design on the mantel and create a holidayscape on the dining room buffet.

Maybe you want to include outdoor space in your plans. If it’s cold, this can present some challenges but nothing you can’t handle. A fire pit is a great place to gather, sing carols or Ma’oz Tzur and enjoy hot chocolate with toasted marshmallows. Don’t forget the mulled wine or spiked spiced cider for the adults! Bring outdoor heaters to supplement the fire to ensure everyone stays toasty all evening long. “I always encourage my clients to embrace the outdoors for winter parties,” says Denver event planner, Jaala Sheldon of Jaala and Co. Her top tips for making it enjoyable: cover seating with a faux fur, lambskin or even electric blankets for extra warmth and, in addition to a fire and outdoor heaters, candles help set the tone as well as create a greater sense of warmth. “Just let guests know the event will be outdoors and ask them to dress accordingly,” she says. “We’re Coloradans; we know how to dress in layers.”

And don’t forget to bring some décor outside where you plan to gather as well as the front of the home. Even if you’re not having many—or any—guests, a decorated front entry is well worth it simply for your personal welcoming home each day.

Food for Thought

Hot chocolate. Check. Toasted marshmallows. Check. Now what about the real meals? Take a cue from your theme or go with your favorite traditional meal. But, since your party is small, kick it up a notch. If you normally roast a turkey, consider a traditional Christmas goose this year. Up level to a horseradish-encrusted beef tenderloin. Add a vegetarian side such as a roasted garlic polenta mash. Observe traditions other than your own: latkes and matzo ball soup, mince pie, tamales or catfish and collard greens. The sky is really the limit when you don’t have to worry about pleasing everyone’s palate and you can just focus on immediate family and/or friends.

Don’t forget to set a table to remember. Layer your linens, top beautiful chargers with fine china or your favorite holiday dinnerware. Pull out (or buy new) napkin rings. “I always choose quality over quantity,” Sheldon says. “A fabulous way to show your guests that you’ve really put thought and planning into the dinner is to use handwritten place cards—it’s a really special touch.” And create a gorgeous tablescape with candles, fresh flowers and herbs, ribbons, evergreen sprigs, Christmas balls … whatever fits your theme or color palette. The key to a terrific looking table is lots of layering and centerpiece items of varied heights (but don’t let them impede conversation). 

Darling Details

Now it’s time for some real fun! The details make all the difference. Don’t forget to match your gift wrap to your décor! Gather special past-holiday photos and frame them in matching frames to add to your décor throughout the home. Have small kids? Make sure Elf on the Shelf is nearby. Enjoy family game night. Even if you love to bake cookies with the kids, consider having some custom cookies made to commemorate the special holiday from a local bakery. If you can dream it, Denver’s Sweet Fabula can put it on a cookie. And be sure to pick up gingerbread house kits from Gateaux Bakery for an entire evening worth of fun. Make special cookie or baked clay decorations with the kids to use around the house or to give as gifts. Carla’s A Classic Design helps clients make intimate gathering memorable with gift bags. “We create special bags with a small candle, a festive holiday item and candies that can be placed at each place setting on the dinner table,” says Moriarity.

The most important part of an intimate holiday gathering is the quality time with those you love. Hire a photographer to join in your festivities and capture the special moments that you can frame for next year’s holiday décor.