Dave Lastovskiy via Unsplash

As kids, the holidays were about one thing: presents, preferably lots of them. However, as we age and mature, visions of sugarplums and toys dancing in our heads are likely to turn into daydreams of hosting a flawless holiday bash. You know, that one magical night that nobody can stop talking about, that earns you a reputation as the king or queen of holiday festivities.

Whether you’re already a seasoned host or your last party involved red SOLO cups and a few bags of chips, these holiday party tips will help you put on a fabulous party that will have all your guests raving. Read on to get the scoop on all the best decorating, menu-planning, and hosting tips to make your soiree a night to remember.

1. Send your invitations

If you want to have an unforgettable party, your work actually starts well before the night of the bash. Sending invitations out, and not just on Facebook, will make your guests feel special. Plus, if you can get a semi-accurate RSVP count, you’ll be better prepared when you need to shop for food and drinks. Remember, there’s a lot going on during the holidays, so your guest count may keep changing, even on the day of your party.

You don’t have to shell out a ton of cash to put together a stunning invitation. Even if you have the design skills of a 4-year-old, you can use a free site like Canva to make a beautiful and professional-looking invitation. If your guest list is more traditional, print and mail your invitations with a self-addressed stamped envelope for their RSVPs. If you’re inviting a more tech-savvy crowd, free sites like Evite can help you manage your guest list.

2. Choose a venue

If you have a bigger budget for your bash, you might want to consider hosting it somewhere outside of your home or office. A local hotel or restaurant can be a great place to host an event, and they generally have food and drink packages that take some of the pressure of event-planning off your shoulders.

Feel free to think outside the box, too, as long as you think your guests would be happy with an unconventional venue. You might find a roller-skating rink, art gallery, warehouse, or museum could be the perfect place for your big night.

3. Pick a theme

Ugly sweater parties can be fun, but at this point, they’re so expected. Make your party stand out from the pack with a theme that’s still super festive but just a little bit different. While you can’t go wrong with “Classy Christmas,” your group might love a holiday-themed pajama party, casino night, or a Mexican fiesta.

When you’re choosing your theme, think about your guests. If you’re inviting mostly close friends and family, then something more casual is great! For business associates or coworkers, it’s best to err on the side of caution and stick to something more traditional.

4. Make it pretty

Now that you’ve got your theme and your venue, it’s time to get decorating. Something that the best hosts do when they’re decorating is start outside the venue. Making the entrance to your party just as spectacular as the inside sets the mood before guests even walk inside. Whether this means a tinsel-covered archway or dozens of balloons is up to you!

Another note: You can’t go wrong with twinkle lights. Keep the venue lights down low and put up as many twinkle lights as the electrical system will allow. These little lights feel magical and festive and automatically put everyone in the holiday spirit.

Dress up your tables with cuttings from evergreen trees. You can get these at a Christmas tree lot and they add the scent of the holiday season to the air. Also, be sure to set up a photo wall. Cover it with tinsel or another fun texture and hang a banner with a hashtag for your party. This will encourage guests to tag their photos so it’s easier to find everyone’s best pics later.

5. Choose a signature drink

As a bartender, I love making classic cocktails with a twist, and this just happens to be a great strategy for coming up with your own holiday specialty drink. Beginning mixologists can try serving up mimosas with cranberry juice instead of orange or a classic boozy eggnog sprinkled with fresh-grated cinnamon.

If you have a little more bar confidence, try mixing up my favorite rosemary-infused bourbon smash. First, get a bottle of bourbon (I like Bulleit) and add a handful of fresh rosemary sprigs to it. You might need to transfer it to a larger bottle or decanter for this step. Let the bourbon infuse for about a week, or until you can taste the rosemary when you try a sip.

Once you’re ready to make a drink, muddle three or four blackberries. Add 1 ½ ounces of your infused bourbon, ¾ ounces of simple syrup, and ¾ ounces of fresh lemon juice. Shake with ice, strain, and serve in a rocks glass with ice. Garnish with a sprig of fresh rosemary, and enjoy!

6. Set up your spread

OK, now we’re into one of the most crucial elements of holiday party planning: the food. While cheese, crackers, hummus, and fruit all make great snacks, trying something a little different is sure to make your party more memorable.

I personally love setting up a taco bar for my guests. Fact: Everyone loves tacos. Plus, setting the fixings out and letting each guest make their own plate ensures that everyone gets what they really want. A great taco bar should include carnitas or roasted chicken, black beans, shredded cheese, salsa, guacamole, sour cream, lettuce, diced tomatoes, olives, jalapeños, and plenty of warm tortillas.

Oh, and don’t forget dessert. Christmas cookies and cakes are always great, but for something a little different, I like to go to a fancy local doughnut shop and pick up an assortment of fun and fresh flavors. My favorite shop has a churro doughnut that’s a perfect follow-up to a taco bar, and you can try making your own with this recipe.

7. Make room for activities

Some of the most memorable holiday parties center around a fun and festive activity. My best friend’s family throws a cookie-baking party every year that keeps all of our dentists in business. Another friend has a long-running and hilarious white elephant gift exchange that people look forward to all year long.

You might also try renting a karaoke machine, scheduling a snowball war, or something as simple as decorating a tree together. The most important thing is choosing an activity that can serve as an icebreaker and get people talking.

Finally, don’t forget to enjoy your party too! Lots of hosts get so worked up over making every little thing perfect that they don’t even get to have a good time at their party. Trust that you have planned well with your guests in mind and go with the flow. Like wild animals, your guests can smell your fear and it bums them out if they can sense that you’re worrying. If you lead the way by having fun yourself, your people will want to follow you.

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

Freaking out about what to get your Christmas party guests this year? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered!

You don’t need to go into debt throwing your holiday soiree! Follow these tips to save your money.

When you’re inevitably cornered by a nosy family member at your holiday gathering, use these tips to avoid an unpleasant conversation.