How to ace Christmas entertaining with our festive party guide

EXCLUSIVE Guests, take a magnum of rosé and stay until at least 10pm. Hosts, extend your table with MDF and serve white bread canapes. How to ace Christmas entertaining with our indispensable festive party guide

  • Party experts Alice Naylor-Leyland and Alexandra Dudley share their top tips
  • READ MORE: I used an air fryer to cook everything for my Christmas party and it was a triumph – even the mulled wine was great

The Christmas party season is in full swing and your social anxiety levels have reached peak panic mode. Your diary is full, your time is stretched and you’re expected to socialise with people you neither know nor particularly like.

All those tricky how-to-behave dilemmas are weighing on your mind. What should you take for drinks with your husband’s boss that looks thoughtful but not over-the-top? How soon is too soon to exit the supper with neighbours? And how can you avoid being the bore no one wants to sit next to?

And if you’re the one who’s hosting, can you rope in guests to help out? What will they want to eat? And what decorations will they gasp at in awe?

Here is your practical guide, written by two experts who socialise for a living, so you can breeze through the build-up and charm everyone in sight.


Alice Naylor-Leyland, founder of Mrs Alice tablescapes and contributing editor of American Vogue, on how to embrace ‘collective cooking’, make canapes from cheap white bread and extend the dining table with MDF.

A table dressed to impress: Alice Naylor-Leyland loves a well planned and co-ordinated place setting 

It’s not too late to plan

When it comes to laying your Christmas table, pre-planning is key, especially if you don’t want to feel overwhelmed. And no, it’s not too late if you do it now.

I put the children to bed and make my moodboards. You need to work out what you have and what you need to buy.

Don’t allow yourself to get overloaded with too much choice. It’s all about taking the hassle out of hosting.

Know when to stop

I could bow and bow until you can’t see the tree unless someone stops me. The extra 30 per cent effort you put in is what’s going to kill you — and, guess what, no one will notice.

My mother, who has banned heels this year in an attempt to keep it low-key, once put up 40 wreaths all around her home. By the time she served Christmas dinner, she was totally shattered.

That’s when she noticed my sister had a hole in her Donna Karan tights and completely lost the plot, because this didn’t fit with her idea of the perfect Christmas.

So I decorate the hall, the tree and the mantelpiece, that’s it. Only do focal points or you’ll just die of exhaustion. I lay it all out the night before then put it up in one day.

When it comes to laying your Christmas table, pre-planning is key, especially if you don’t want to feel overwhelmed

Be creative with table decor, but make sure what you choose isn’t too high – you want to be able to see the guests sat on the other side 

Invest in a tablecloth

Unless you have the most beautiful table, buy a tablecloth. When you lay one, people stay longer at the table. There’s something very inviting and collective about it.

I love a place setting that is well planned and co-ordinated. It’s an art form.

Dressing your home and your table is no different to dressing yourself. You always know if someone has made an effort. That’s the point, and good table linen will do that for you.

Look for the quick win

Choose table decor that’s not too high as you need to be able to see guests on the other side. Instead of a regular tealight, go for a glass lantern tea light holder (£32 pair,, then you can use them as year-round decorations.

Make sure the colour of seasonal plates also works year-round. Our Christmas green lace plates will be used in our Easter collection, too. The look is interchangeable.

I don’t know many people who can even store Christmas plates. I bought some from TK Maxx years ago and they live outside with the washing machine.

Lamps are like clothes

When it comes to table lighting, buy the lamp stand (think of that as your skirt) and then add a beautiful lamp shade (your top).

One season, you can have an olive shade and then next season you can go pink with a yellow trim.

Rechargeable table lights sell so well on Mrs Alice, we can’t feed the demand. It’s a modern take on how to light the area where you’re sitting and making conversation.

Instead of a regular tealight, go for a glass lantern tea light holder (£32 pair,, then you can use them as year-round decorations

Invite one and all

My husband Tom and I are both the eldest of six children, so we have a large extended family.

I’m the person who gets a sheet of MDF and extends the table on Christmas Eve.

If it means we end up with chocolate fondant on the curtains, so be it. If there’s a time to be cosy around the table, this is it.

When it comes to opening gifts, have separate times for when the adults and the children do it.

That way, you won’t look ungrateful when you’re opening a present while, at the same time, focusing on your daughter excitedly opening her new Barbie.

Slow cooking = success

For a crowd, do something slow cooked the day before. I hate it when you’ve made an effort with the table, you’re wearing a nice frock and you’re not able to spend time with your guests.

For friends over Twixmas, I’ll do an adaptation of a Nigella recipe, slow cooked lamb with pomegranate, feta and mint. I’ll put it in the Aga the night before when the kids are in bed. It’s delicious for days.

Get the mint pre-chopped before guests arrive, then throw it together before people sit at the table.

Avoid dishes such as risotto that take you away from the friends you’ve invited. Trust me, I’ve had my Christmas disasters. It was turkey sashimi one year.

If you’re going for a traditional Christmas look, a red table cloth is a great place to start. Add green glassware and gold Christmas crackers with red velvet bows 

White bread canapes

A smaller version of Harry’s Bar Croque Monsieur gets devoured at every party in our house.

You can pre-make the sandwich with a good amount of mustard, good ham, strong cheddar cheese, plus a touch of lime, then some Worcestershire and tabasco sauce on top of the cheese.

Only use proper white bad-for-you bread. It doesn’t work using sourdough. Then clingfilm them so they don’t get dry in the fridge.

Just before guests arrive, get lots of butter in the pan, fry the bread on both sides, cut it into six to eight pieces and there’s your canape.

We also eat a lot of halloumi as a quick canape, just fried in strips — it’s very unsophisticated but it works. And, of course, cocktail sausages because people always eat them. You can’t be a foodie and a table enthusiast. Pick your skill.

Finally, fake it!

Nothing else really matters as long as to your children you appear calm. Even if you are pedalling furiously underneath.


Alexandra Dudley, presenter of Soho House’s How to Host A Dinner Party workshop, on the £1 gift all hosts love. Plus, why you should never remove your shoes, take fresh flowers or leave before 10pm.

Alexandra Dudley, presenter of Soho House’s How to Host A Dinner Party workshop, shares her top tips for guests 

A magnum is munificent 

Do NOT take alcohol that you want the host to open for you — that’s not a gift. Remember, once you’ve handed it over, it’s no longer yours.

Opt for a magnum of rosé at any time of year, which typically costs less than a good bottle of Champagne, around £40. It looks more thoughtful than a bottle of wine that you could have grabbed at the local supermarket.

Having said that, Champagne can be a supermarket brand — you’ll be amazed how good the Lidl ones taste. If you do buy something cheaper, don’t lecture your host on how good it is to justify your choice.

Arrive with breakfast

I like to buy foodie gifts that your hosts wouldn’t buy for themselves in their usual weekly shop.

If they’re the type to go for hair of the dog (and I hope for your sake they are!) then The Bloody Mary Gift Box kit from The Pickle House (£30, is hard to beat. 

Or take a more sedate breakfast for the next day — some good bread and butter, cold cuts and smoked salmon — like a food stocking, will make anyone smile.

For a real budget buy, take long tapered candles from somewhere like Flying Tiger in pretty colours for about £1 each, and wrap them in tissue with a velvet bow.

I stock up, so I always have them on stand-by for any last-minute invites.

For a kitsch Christmas table, try plates with reindeer, wicker accessories and plenty of ornaments 

Ditch Flowers

I would avoid bringing flowers to a party, because then the host has to pause, cut them and find a vase. You’re adding to the workload — and they’ll be conscious it looks rude if they don’t display them.

You could take something potted; not a cactus but perhaps herbs, that will last and be useful.

If in doubt, overdress

Take your lead from the host and what you know about their style. You can ask in advance, but if you don’t know them, aim to over dress rather than under dress.

If you’re totally unsure, aim for smart jeans with a fabulous top and a heel. Sezane, Whistles and Boden are all good for this. 

Look for pretty patterned silk or velvet shirts or a statement collar, and you’ll never go wrong with a good cream silk crepe shirt worn with oversized gold jewellery.

I quite often wear a colourful suit. If, when you arrive, you find that you have gone overboard, own up to it and laugh.

Keep your shoes on 

They should be clean enough that you don’t need to remove them. Obviously, if you’re asked to, you’ve got little choice, but when you take them off (make sure you’ve had a pedicure or wear good socks!), guests revert to more of a childish mentality.

Somehow, it’s more casual once shoes are off — it removes the sophistication from the evening.

Sit pink dining plates on green placemats and decorate the table with pink and green flowers for a modern look  

Share the bore!

The best way to rid yourself of the dinner party bore is to skilfully bring other people into the conversation.

Pretend you can’t remember details of the story you’re telling and ask others for help. That way, you’re not stuck one-on-one.

Or, gravitate yourself to conversations that are more interesting. Hopefully they will get the hint — but honestly, a lot of the time, people just don’t.

How not to be the bore

Don’t prep your dinner party chat because it will only feel false. Most people have something about themselves that they want to talk about — your job is to find out what it is.

You can ask people what they do for a living, but don’t make it the first thing. Commenting on the evening is an instant way to start a conversation.

Avoid politics. For a lot of people, the state of the world is terrifying, and they’ll fear they’re ill-informed and stay quiet.

Others will be over-informed and over-opinionated.

Aim for great TV you’ve watched for immediate common ground.

Unless you have the most beautiful table, buy a tablecloth. When you lay one, people stay longer at the table

Never call to cancel

You cannot cancel on the day unless you are really sick. If that’s the case, don’t call — it’s annoying and self-indulgent, like you’re trying to prove you’re ill.

Don’t put someone on the spot and force them to talk to you.

They don’t have time for that. They will try to be sympathetic, but it is irritating and calling will just add fuel to that fire. Send a text explaining and apologise, but don’t expect them to reply.

If you are the partner of the person cancelling, then you should still attend.

Be a useful helper 

Always be specific with your offers of help. Don’t just say: ‘Can I do anything?’

Always make useful suggestions, such as: ‘Can I chop anything?’ Or: ‘Can I carry anything through for you?’ And not in a way that suggests they’ve forgotten it.

Hovering in the kitchen is the worst thing of all: never do that.

Offer to take water to the table because guests always feel bad asking for it. It suggests they’re not having fun.

Asking for water is more awkward than asking for wine.

Add a modern twist to a traditional Christmas by ditching red in favour of white, green and gold 

Eat and help serve

It’s disheartening if you make something and no one eats it, so always pass nibbles and dishes at the table to other guests.

The host will always appreciate the help. And nine times out of ten, someone will take something if they are offered it.

Don’t leave too soon 

Assuming the party starts around 7pm, 10pm is the very earliest you can go. And if it’s a sit-down meal, then you definitely can’t go until after dessert.

Similarly, don’t announce you have to leave early as soon as you arrive. That never goes down well with the host.

Nor is it OK to arrive late. There is a half-hour arrival window.

I ask people to arrive between 7 pm and 7.30 pm. Later than that and it’s rude.

If you’re being left out  

If there are people at the table who know each other well, they often end up in deep conversation that other people are not part of.

If, at times, you’re the one who’s not in the chat, then don’t panic. It’s not intentional and it will swing back to you.

This is when what’s on the table can be useful props to help you.

You can offer to pass something or refill someone’s glass — then someone might notice and bring you into the conversation.

But you have to make the effort. The host has already done their bit — and now it’s your turn.

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