Like it or not, we’re homebound this holiday. My husband is on call through Christmas, and I’m between photo shoots for my next cookie book, struggling to see my way past the latest blizzard of powdered sugar. Cookies in various stages of completion are everywhere. And I mean everywhere! Finished ones bide their time before meeting the camera in thigh-high stacks of bakery boxes that carpet the living room floor. Just iced ones air-dry on sheet trays that blanket tabletops, counters, banisters, and chairs galore. Freshly baked ones cool on a duo of sky-scraping speed racks. And remains of broken ones cling to the veneer of sugar that’s replaced the wax on my test kitchen’s linoleum floor.

Christmas Cookie Chaos
Christmas Cookie Chaos Photo by Julia M. Usher

Yes, it’s sad, but true: what I once considered “home” now bears a closer resemblance to an obstacle course. I could dismiss the Christmas spirit with a terse “bah-humbug,” but there’s simply no time to play Scrooge. You see, I have an open house in under a week. What’s this girl to do?!

Instant Holiday Cheer
Instant Holiday Cheer Photo by Greg Rannells

Before my pre-party panic has the chance to spiral out of control, I remember last year’s Christmas fête—a small, simple gathering that came midway through my 120-stop book tour, and which fortunately provided the necessary seasonal cheer sans the stress. I’m fairly confident that I can pull off something similar between now and next week. (Big sigh.) Here’s a glimpse of that party, along with some planning tips to ease any pressure that you might be feeling at this zany time of year.

Snap App-y
Snap App-y Photo by Greg Rannells

1 | Do the bare minimum of house cleaning.

(I love this tip!) Chances are good that lights will be low and noone will notice a dust ball or two in the corner. Especially if you dazzle them with a few other interesting details. More on those details, below. Unfortunately for me, the cleaning task is more formidable this year; it means shuffling all of my book’s cookie projects (like the snow globes in process, top photo) into boxes and then into a distant recess in the mudroom. I’m giving myself a two-hour limit for this ugly task.

Menu Makeover
Menu Makeover Photo by Greg Rannells

2 | Find built-in ambience and draw attention to it.

Every home has a spot or two that’s especially Christmas-y, perhaps due to its color palette or coziness. Play up those spots and center the party (read: the food) around them, so you don’t have to worry about decking out the whole house. My living room mantel (second photo from top) is normally flanked with red and white transferware; it’s also the first thing people see when they enter the house. Fresh evergreens and a few bling-y Christmas ornaments complete the red-and-green theme and lend needed sparkle. Oh, and don’t forget the candles. Candles = instant coziness. Plus, they hide the dust balls!

More Easy Openers
More Easy Openers Photo by Greg Rannells

3 | Limit the menu to nibbles and recipes that you know.

In the height of my book tour-craze last year, I broke with my normal tradition of a full meal and did heavy apps instead. And easy apps at that, like the endive spears stuffed with blue cheese, apple slices, and curried walnuts in the third photo from top. (Conveniently, that app also played nicely into my red-and-green theme.) I didn’t take any chances either; all but a few items were recipes handed down from Christmas gatherings of my youth, ones I’ve made with success over and over and over again.

Savoir Fare Photo by Steve Adams

4 | Find creative ways to display the commonplace.

Even though my menu selections weren’t new, I found easy yet interesting ways to package them. For those who have been following me, you know I have a fetish for vintage cards. So, naturally, I converted one into a backdrop for my menu (fourth photo from top). I also cleaned out vintage ornament boxes and used them to display storebought treats in eye-catching patterns (second photo from bottom).

5 | Serve at least one make-ahead comfort food.

To make sure guests have gotten their fill, include one or two soul-satisfying comfort foods amongst all the nibbles. I chose an ultra-decadent savory cheesecake, a well-tested recipe (see link and photo below) that I developed for Sauce magazine several years ago. (Remember: Crunch time is no time to take chances.) Also, it’s always best to choose make-ahead foods to give you greater schedule flexibility. For instance, my cheesecake needs to chill at least three hours before slicing. In that time, I could chase dust balls, fill out my mantel with more greens—or, better yet, kick back with an early cocktail!