Waiters open bottles of wine for a Christmas party to be held at Dick and Diane Beattie’s Manhattan apartment. (Mark Peterson via Getty Images)

The Free Press Guide to the Perfect Holiday Party

Clare de Boer, April Bloomfield, Leandra Medine Cohen, Winston Marshall, Liz Lange, John McWhorter, H. R. McMaster, and more on how to host with the most.

By The Free Press

December 21, 2023

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Besides the ironclad rule that no one will thrill at the idea of new socks, there are no strict rules when it comes to throwing a fun holiday party. Good friends, good music, good food, and good conversation are a great starting point, but there are a lot of decisions to make from there: What to cook? Who to invite? What music should you play? And does fruit count as a dessert? 

For the fashion designer and hostess extraordinaire Liz Lange (she revived Grey Gardens), the answer is a hard no. “Generally, if it grows, it does not count as dessert at my house,” she says. 

Read more from Liz and eight other friends of The Free Press, including a Michelin star chef and a three-star army general on what they’d bring to make the perfect holiday gathering whether for Christmas, New Year’s, or a very belated Hanukkah. 

Enjoy—and chime in with your best hosting tips, recipes, and holiday traditions in the comments. 

(Illustration by Erin Otwell / The Free Press)

Danielle Crittenden Is Bringing Strong Cocktails

In D.C., to accuse someone of being an elitist is to say they are a frequenter of “Georgetown cocktail parties.”

It’s an antiquated insult. The era when members of Congress, important journalists, and even the occasional vice president would mingle to drink hard and talk freely, all under the auspices of a wealthy Georgetown hostess, disappeared long ago. 

What killed the Georgetown party? Partisanship, in the first place. The intensifying rancor between Republicans and Democrats split a once unified social world into mutually suspicious camps. Sobriety, in second place. Alcohol flowed like Niagara Falls in the old days, and without it, the naughtiness and scandal of those once fabulous parties ebbed into dull decorum. 

Now most holiday parties in D.C. tend to have a corporate vibe: the event will be sponsored by a lobbying firm or media conglomerate in a hotel ballroom with all the ambience of a departure lounge. The official White House parties are only marginally better. Yes, you get to post to your social media that you are in the White House, but it’s the same anonymous crush of strivers always looking over everyone else’s shoulders for someone more important to talk to.

The way my husband, David, and I have coped through the festive, or rather unfestive, season in D.C. is to throw our own annual holiday party. We’ve done so now for nearly 15 years—and I feel we’ve finally perfected the anti-Washington party.  

Our guests come from all walks of life and every strata of the political oligarchy. It’s a punchbowl of personalities, from young Hill aides to seasoned journalists, authors and academics to ambassadors and dissidents. The only qualification for an invitation is to be interesting. Lively, explosive opinions are encouraged, as are drinking and dancing. Discouraged: networking and partisan rancor. The Trump years were challenging, for sure. And God help us, they may be again. But I find with enough goodwill—undergirded by strong cocktails—even an embittered and divided Washington can still mix together with conviviality, if only for one evening. 

Danielle Crittenden is editor of the Femsplainers newsletter on Substack and host of The Femsplainers podcast. Vanity Fair called Crittenden “one of the most important new thinkers about women and family.”

Clare de Boer Is Bringing a Ginger Cake Straight from Tolkien’s Shire

This isn’t ginger cake like you know it. It’s dense, chewy, and dramatic—something you’d expect to find in Tolkien’s Shire, baked as fuel for an odyssey. Three kinds of ginger—dry, candied, and fresh—deliver three distinct layers of heat. More than a jar of molasses makes a brownie-like texture that gives the cake longevity and celebratability. Bake it as a welcome gift or use it as the base of a winter sundae with vanilla ice cream and marmalade, warmed with whiskey poured on top.

4 cups (480 g) all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt, kosher

1 tablespoon ground ginger

8 tablespoon (1/2 cup, 112 g, or 1 stick) butter, unsalted

1/2 cup (100 g) neutral oil, like canola

1 and 3/4 cups (550 g) molasses (not blackstrap) or treacle

1 cup (213 g) dark brown sugar

1/3 cup (75 g) crystalized ginger, chopped into pea-size pieces

2 tablespoon (24 g) fresh ginger, finely grated

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 eggs

1/4 cup milk

Heat the oven to 325°F. Butter and line a 9- × 13-inch tin with parchment paper. 

In a large bowl, combine the flour, ground ginger, and salt.

In a large saucepan—larger than you think you’ll need—over low heat, warm the butter, oil, brown sugar, crystallized ginger pieces, fresh ginger, and molasses until the butter just melts and the sugar has dissolved. 

Add the baking soda to this mixture and whisk until it begins to foam. When the mixture has a frothy head, pour it into the dry ingredients. Whisk just enough to combine. Add the milk and then the eggs, whisking until the batter is uniform.

Pour the batter into the lined tin and bake without moving it for 50 to 60 minutes or until the top has set and feels like memory foam when you press its center. Eat with tea or coffee, or vanilla ice cream and marmalade warmed with a few shots of whiskey. Keeps in an airtight container for up to 10 days.

Makes one 13- × 9-inch cake. 

De Boer is executive chef of the restaurants King and Jupiter in New York City and the chef and owner of Stissing House in the Hudson Valley. De Boer grew up in India and the Middle East, trained in Ireland, and honed her culinary skills at London’s River Café.

John McWhorter Is Bringing the Song “Go Tell It on the Mountain” 

I don’t have a whole must-listen album during Christmas, but there is one song that is absolutely necessary. 

It’s Gordon MacRae from the early sixties singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” 

Gordon MacRae—not that this was a problem—but he was a very white man in the middle of the twentieth century trying to sing this vaguely black-inflected spiritual Christmas carol. And it almost works!

The orchestral arrangement is absolutely gorgeous. It’s from this promotional album that Firestone Tires used to put out around Christmas with all these people singing Christmas songs to make you want to buy tires. My parents had it, and by the end of this song, I feel like it’s Christmas. Of course, this is partly because this is what my parents played, but I have played it for many people, and there is a charming antique, weird, slightly off and therefore endearing quality about these three minutes. 

John McWhorter is a linguist. He is currently an associate professor at Columbia University and a columnist at The New York Times. 

Liz Lange Is Bringing the Vibes

When I’m entertaining a crowd, which I love to do, I have the following tips that make my life easier and my guests’ lives better—or at least I hope so. 

As the guests arrive, I like to set up a big self-serve bar with all the bottles along with carafes of mixers and little bowls of cherries, cut lemons and limes, olives, cocktail onions, crackers, nuts, a bucket of ice, and a variety of different glassware. It’s fun for people to congregate there and make their own drinks, and because I don’t drink, I am bad at making them. I am not an alcoholic; I am just one of those Jews who hates alcohol. I like the food! 

When it’s time to eat, I don’t bother with a starter course; I prefer one big buffet. Guests can get up from the table and choose their own food, get seconds, thirds, whatever. I like to have a wide variety, different proteins, different sides, something for everyone. If the crowd is really big, I try to set up two mirroring buffets to cut down on the line to get food. 

I like dinners at home to feel like dinners at home, not attempts to be a three-star Michelin restaurant. You won’t find “fancy” food at my house. You’ll find mac and cheese, lasagna, roast chicken with gravy, pot pies, that type of thing. Anything else feels absurdly “pass the Grey Poupon” to me. 

I grew up in a family obsessed with desserts, so I like to put out a lot of different cakes after the meal, and I don’t consider fruit a dessert. I’ll add a fruit bowl to the mix for those who like to be healthy, but generally if it grows, it does not count as dessert at my house. I like homemade old-fashioned cookies and cakes. I also like to scatter plates of mini brownies and cookies on the table for people to pick at.  

I am not a talented baker, but this cake is foolproof. It’s best served warm, straight out of the oven in the pan, so there’s no praying that it doesn’t stick to the pan. I like to put it in the oven right before we sit down to dinner and take it out just before I’m ready to serve dessert. It’s meant to be scooped, not sliced, so you just serve it with a big spoon and with vanilla ice cream on the side. Trust me, it’s always a huge hit.

Now that we have food and drink out of the way, it’s time to focus on the more structural elements. When it comes to dinner parties, I hate being trapped for hours trying to make conversation with the two people you are sitting next to. No matter how much you like the person, by hour two you are all out of things to talk about. For me it’s all about one group conversation, and the best way to foster that is to have a round table. Rectangles don’t work. When your table is round, there truly are no bad seats. 

I have definitely entered my tablescape years. I’ll often order arrangements from a local florist to place on the table. My one rule is that they need to be very low. There’s nothing worse than blocked sight lines, so you want to make sure that all items on your table can be seen over.

I like an eclectic table, so I typically mix more than one tablecloth in more than one print, and I grab objects from around my house, such as shells and various knickknacks, to place on the table. I put tons of votives on the table too, and I turn down the actual lights in the dining room as low as possible.  

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s, this Jew likes Christmas music playing throughout the house. I’ll start with something like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” and let the Pandora algorithm take it from there. 

Liz Lange is CEO and creative director of Figue, and also the founder of Liz Lange Maternity. She hosts guests in New York City, Palm Beach and the Hamptons at her Grey Gardens estate, which she bought and renovated in 2017. Listen to the podcast about her family, The Just Enough Family, hosted by Ariel Levy. 

Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster Is Bringing a Bottle of Wine

As a beer enthusiast who grew up on the East Coast and lived for over six years in Germany, I am a late convert to wine, but since moving to California, I am hooked. We enjoy California pinot noirs, mainly from the Santa Ynez Valley, including Sea Smoke and Babcock. But two of our favorite wineries are Balletto and Land of Promise in Sonoma. 

We have a tradition of opening one gift on Christmas Eve to communicate our appreciation for one another and the blessings we enjoy. As we open a gift, we will lift a glass of Patriae Fidelitas pinot noir to celebrate the spirit of Christmas as well as the freedoms we enjoy and those who fight to preserve them. 

H. R. McMaster served as the 25th United States national security adviser under President Donald Trump and is a retired U.S. army lieutenant general. He is also a wine connoisseur. 

Leandra Medine Cohen Is Bringing Strategic Style

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all style recommendation unless you are telling someone to be ruthless about only wearing things that make them feel like a million bucks, but for the holiday season, I have three degrees of recommendations (ranked from lowest to highest risk) for anyone who doesn’t know what to wear.

Low risk: wear one of your most reliable outfits—could be a pair of wool trousers and crewneck knit or jeans and a t-shirt or flannel button-down; then slap a long strand of pearls over the outfit. Etsy has great pearl options.

Medium risk: if you are feeling adventurous, I also recommend pairing sheer knee-high stockings and mid- to high-heel sandals with whatever you’re wearing on the bottom. 

High risk: if you are entertaining at home (the best place to test your style risk threshold), you might want to try the popular runway trend of wearing no pants at all. You pair your fullest coverage black underwear with sheer tights and a cotton shirt or knit and see what the guests say. Happy holidays!

Leandra Medine Cohen writes about fashion, entertaining, and life at The Cereal Aisle.

Cat Marnell Is Bringing NBA Color Commentary 

I’m an adult child. I don’t know how to cook. I’ve never brought anyone food in my life. I’ve never made a playlist. I usually get gifts last minute and wrap them in the New York Post because I never have wrapping paper.

My biggest contribution to a party is my commentary.

I give amazing commentary on all the NBA games I watch all day to my family and to my friends. On Christmas I sit around and watch something like five NBA games in a row. If you like basketball, Christmas is the best day of the year. I bring my delightful commentary to the internet and to my friends and family, who are so lucky to have me. 

Cat Marnell is a writer in New York City. She was the beauty editor at Lucky magazine and the beauty and health director at xoJane. Her memoir is called How to Murder Your Life. 

April Bloomfield Is Bringing a Salad

The one thing I love to have with my holiday dinner—and is always a must on any table—is a fresh green salad with a simple dressing made from lemon and olive oil.  The reason I love a good simple salad is that first, it’s delicious and refreshing, and second, it’s three ingredients only and they are completely easy to find at the store. It’s so vibrant that it will be a welcome respite to the palate, allowing you to eat even more. 

A good green salad should consist of some sturdy greens like little gem, or large or small-leaf arugula. There are also some amazing varieties of radicchio available during winter. They are always a welcome addition to any salad this time of year; varieties like Castelfranco or Tardivo di Treviso are some of my favorites. Here’s how I do it: 

Wash and dry all leaves and place them into a bowl while you make the dressing.

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil 

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice 

1/4 teaspoon Jacobsen Sea Salt or similar sea salt.

This makes around 2/3 of a cup. Whisk together and drizzle over your favorite greens. 

The best thing about this salad is that you can make it look beautiful by arranging each of the leaves, and it will brighten up any table. This salad goes great with meat; I love to cook duck around the festive season, especially a spiced orange roasted one. 

April Bloomfield is a Michelin star chef born in Birmingham, England. She was the executive chef at The Spotted Pig and the John Dory Oyster Bar in Manhattan. Her latest restaurant, Sailor, was named the fourth best new restaurant of the year by The New York Times.

Winston Marshall Is Bringing the Accidental Christmas Songs 

When I wrote the song “Winter Winds” 15 years ago, Christmas was the last thing on my mind. I was in my existentialist phase, one I marinated in earnestly, and I’d just cut things loose with a girl, or was about to. Or was she about to? Maybe it was the title, or the waltzing melody, or the scheming of a far-off record executive, but I since hear it every year around this time uncomfortably rubbing shoulders with “White Christmas,” “Blue Christmas,” “Last Christmas,” and “This Christmas.” 

It turns out my accidental Christmas song wasn’t the only one. Here are a few of my personal favorites: 

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Broadway songwriter Frank Loesser wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in 1944 for him and his wife to sing at their Manhattan house parties. It became a national hit after it featured in the film Neptune’s Daughter five years later, but neither the film nor the song were Christmas themed.

Stay Another Day 

British pop group East 17 reached the coveted Christmas number-one spot in 1994. But despite what the snowy music video for the single suggests, songwriter Tony Mortimer penned it about his brother’s tragic suicide.

Celebrate Me Home

In 1977, Kenny Loggins made the mistake of dropping the word holidays into the opening line of this song. Give the Christmas curators an inch, and they’ll take a mile. Barbra Streisand’s and LeAnn Rimes’ covers sealed the song’s seasonal fate.

Take My Hand, Precious Lord

Elvis’s 1957 Christmas album is the biggest selling Christmas album of all time, with over 20 million sales worldwide. While its success is not surprising, the choice to include “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was a strange one. It was a gospel standard penned by early blues music pioneer Thomas Andrew Dorsey while in mourning for the death of his wife and son in childbirth. It would become a favorite of Martin Luther King Jr. and was regularly played at civil rights marches. Eventually, through the King of Rock ’n Roll, the song became a Christmas standard.

Stop the Cavalry

Jona Lewie’s stirring music video for his anti-war song “Stop the Cavalry” juxtaposes bouncy nursery rhyme melodies over images of men at war, and it puzzlingly became a Christmas classic. Lewie explained, “The soldier in the song is a bit like the eternal soldier at the Arc de Triomphe, but the song actually had nothing to do with Christmas when I wrote it. There is one line about him being on the front and missing his girlfriend. The record company picked up on that from a marketing perspective, and added a tubular bell.”

Coventry Carol 

Unlike the other songs here, this is a Christmas tune that left the genre—a sixteenth-century English hymn describing the Massacre of the Innocents when King Herod ordered all male infants under the age of two to be executed in Bethlehem, fearing that Christ would replace him. But after the Coventry Blitz in 1940, it took on a different meaning. The BBC broadcast a Christmas performance that year from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. For the English heart, our darkest hour has been sewn into this melody forever.

These songs may not have been intended for this special time of year. But isn’t that life? I bet you have big plans for 2024. I promise you, just as unpredictably as these songs found themselves on Christmas albums, something else completely is gonna happen. Pray it will be even better.

Winston Marshall was lead banjoist and guitarist of the Grammy-winning band Mumford & Sons. He started his Marshall Matters podcast in 2022.

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