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Haute Holiday

Mary Murray

Aime Dunstan, president and creative director of IT! EVENTS + MEDIA of Palm Beach and Southampton and co-author of Palm Beach Entertaining: Creating Occasions to Remember, shares her tips for throwing a memorable holiday party.

PBI.COM: When's the ideal time to throw a holiday party?

Dunstan crafted this holiday table using rich red and a damask print. Photo by Steven Martine

Dunstan: Although the Dunstans always hit the Christmas tree lot the day after Thanksgiving ready to deck the halls, there are plenty of people who groan at any pre-Thanksgiving mention of Christmas. Thanksgiving seems to arrive late to the party this year on November 28, but Hanukkah actually begins the day before for the first time since 1889 (this won't happen again until 2089). Those who celebrate the Festival of Lights will be able to incorporate candle lighting, traditional games, gift giving and maybe even some latkes with family and friends on Thanksgiving. I think everyone will be in the spirit a tad early as a result, making the first three weeks in December open season for holiday gatherings.

What do you view as the quintessential elements of a holiday party?
While embracing the spirit and true meaning of each holiday, entertaining is all about indulging the senses. Set the tone with the scent of spiced apples, warm balsam or rich vanilla throughout the house, and fill the air with a nostalgic mix of holiday tunes. I especially love Ray Charles, Tony Bennett and Eartha Kitt this time of year. Start guests off with a signature cocktail that complements the menu, such as Manhattans served neat with black currant cherries and rosemary sprigs. Incorporate fresh pine, magnolia leaves and florals in garlands, dining and buffet tables, and the party practically throws itself!

What are some holiday party clichés you would steer clear of?

Branch out from typical holiday color schemes by incorporating your favorite found objects into a tablescape or taking inspiration from our tropical environs. After all, we spend the holidays in Palm Beach because we love the warmth of the season and the casual island lifestyle.

What type of decor would you employ to set your party apart while still keeping it within a recognizable aesthetic?

The holiday season is a great time to experiment—there's no better time to go all out on a centerpiece or a decadent menu of comfort foods like short ribs, chicken hash and cheesy smashed butternut squash. Weave winter branches and berries into chandeliers, incorporate fresh flowers on the Christmas tree and in garlands strewn over mantles and doorways, and remember that the ceiling is your fifth wall; uplight it with colors complementary to your scheme or snowflake gobos to create your own personal winter wonderland.

For this winter-inspired display, Dunstan focused on whites. Photo by Mary Beth Tyson.

What other elements would you incorporate to distinguish your holiday party?

If you have fewer than 50 guests, printed or hand-written and hand-addressed invitations and hand-written place cards are a must. Introduce your guests to two new people over cocktails and, at dinner, seat them near two more new people they'll enjoy.

Any suggestions for appetizers?

The Palm Beach cheese puff is always a must, but certainly this is the time of year for hearty bites of filet of beef or lamb, bacon-wrapped figs, creamy cheeses herbed with rosemary and thyme, and smoked fish on endive.

What about for holiday cocktails?

Dropping a few pomegranate seeds into the Champagne is so simple and elegant, but we love to bring signature cocktails into the mix like mulled wine, spicy grog and rosemary Manhattans.

Any suggestions for entertainment?

If you have a piano in your home, have a pianist come and tickle the ivories during cocktails. Low-volume tunes during dinner will allow for ease of conversation, and when you dip a candy cane into your coffee after dinner, cue the carolers. I cry every time I hear them. Talk about ending on a high note!

For party attendees: Any tips or suggestions for attire?

I think everyone loves a little sparkle at Christmastime [as well as] metallic leathers, lightweight winter white or jewel-toned cashmere.

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