Pick a theme, color scheme, time and date …

Posted Dec. 10, 2010, at 10:17 p.m.

After walking around the super center squinting at signs, you find yourself in the holiday section. Your arm brushes against a mountain of tinsel. The Santa figurine doesn’t fit your budget. Blinking snowflakes, spinning ornaments and whimsical wicker reindeer appear to be crowding in.

You have to fill the cart with decorations in a hurry — the party is tomorrow and you still have to search for spiral ham. Sound familiar? There’s an easier way. Bangor event designer Amber Small gives a few tips on planning a successful holiday party:

Pick a theme

“I always say, pick a theme — it can be colors, a flower, snowmen — and whatever that theme is, embrace it,” she said. “If you think of the holidays, it’s huge and your brain can just explode.”

A snowmen-themed party could include: a snowmen contest, white decorations, fake snow sprinkled tabletops, snowmen figurines, hydrangea ball centerpieces and vanilla ice cream desserts, said Small in a brainstorming session. For party favors, create low-cost snowman building kits with used hats and scarves, sticks and rocks.

Food themes are popular and often inexpensive. For a gingerbread party, the centerpiece of the table could be bowls of candy — colorful and creative. After dinner, the utilitarian centerpiece becomes a tool for the main event: gingerbread making.

An elegant, adult party could revolve around something as simple as winter berries, snowflakes or a specific color.

Small has designed a “Christmas in Pink” party for her girlfriends, during which everyone dressed in pink. Picking out tinsel, beverages and cookies is easier when you know that all of it has to be pink — or another color of your liking.

And if you’re struggling with what theme to choose, just pick one that expresses what you love about the holidays.

Start from the event time and work backward

While planning for an event, create an itinerary by starting at the event time and working backward in time — not the other way around. This is the key to stress-free party preparation, Small said.

The first thing on the list should be: “Clean up and get dressed.” Don’t forget: the host is a big part of the event.

Get all decorating done two or three hours before the event, and complete small, tedious aspects of decorating — folding napkins and untangling lights — far ahead of time, maybe while watching a sitcom on the couch.

Always add 30 minutes to an hour of extra time to run errands on your itinerary.

“Something always hits the fan,” Small said. “So when the dog knocks over the water on the coffee table, you have time to clean it up.”

Give the kids an out

If it’s a family party, energetic children usually are running around. Instead of making them sit with glassware, give them plastic cups and sit them at a kids’ table.

“Cover the table in white craft paper. The centerpiece is a box of crayons,” Small said.

Have things on the table that children can automatically play with or eat.

If parents of young children want time to mingle, hire a babysitter to attend the party for one or two hours to play with the children.

“That’s worth its weight in gold,” said Small. “That’s pretty inexpensive and gives the parent an out.”

After dinner, if everyone is winding down, have a movie and popcorn ready as a backup plan.

Create with what you have

A centerpiece is what transforms a dinner into a special moment and pulls the guests together as they sit down to eat. But such an important decoration doesn’t need to be expensive.

“I’m a lover of flowers,” Small said. Flower arrangements can be simple. And if you keep the bouquets monochromatic — the same color family — the display appears larger. And you can use your own eclectic collection of vases.

“I love working with vegetables and fruits, natural things,” Small said.

Bowls filled with cranberries or nuts and pillar candles look creative and beautiful. Bathing the scene in candlelight can kick the mood up a notch at a low expense.

“I think you can take cues from nature and the season,” she said. Stacked birch logs, pine cones and leftover trimmings from the Christmas tree arranged down the center of the table creates a rustic look.

Make the centerpiece either tall or short, not eye level, so guests can see one another.

Have one little thing that’s special

A signature drink, an elaborate dessert or a creative contest can make guests feel special.

“Even if it’s not something they take home with them, it feels like a gift,” Small said.

Place setting cards make guests feel you’ve put thought into their place at the party.

Party favors are nice only if it’s something that the guest can “use or lose,” Small said. A useful gift is something that can be used with little effort, such as an ornament, and a losable gift is one that can be eaten, such as chocolates.

One idea is to fold a special treat — a candy cane, ornament or dreidel — in each guest’s napkin.

“Those things are not stressful, but they make your guests feel special,” she said.

Guests also remember interactive gifts. Small suggests hiring a chef to come teach guests how to cook something fun, such as marzipan.

Keep it simple

“If you keep it as simple as possible, at the end of the night, you’ll walk away thinking it was a success,” Small said. “And that’s what really matters.”

On the flip side, when you plan out 100 details and activities, you’re more likely to drop the ball and feel unsatisfied with the event.

You don’t need to obsess about guests’ coats or patrol for dust bunnies. In fact, you don’t even need to prepare a meal. You can do a dessert party and visit a local bakery for supplies. Fondue always seems fancy.

“The key to a great party is actually enjoying the hostess,” Small said. “They’re coming to see you. A party is about enjoying your friends and family. If you’re going to be a Martha Stewart, you’re going to lose the purpose of what you’re really doing.”

For information, visit www.sweetestthingweddings.com

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