Get Christmas cocktail party ideas for adults and serve an easy appetizer buffet with drinks to celebrate the holiday. I’m sharing my best tips, ideas, and secrets to success in this holiday hostess guide.
Want to host a cocktail party for Christmas? Well this is my jam! It’s how I began my love of entertaining over 20 years ago. We were new to the area so we invited our new neighbors and coworkers for a fancy holiday soiree, and it was such a success it became an annual event.
I’ve learned a lot along the way and became so adept at planning it, it’s like being on autopilot. So whether it’s your first party or an annual celebration, my goal is to make it a little easier and less stressful for you.
Use these tips and tailor any suggestions to your specific needs, budget, or geographic location. These ideas are geared towards people who are busy but want to make the most out of their entertaining experience.
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What is a Holiday Cocktail Party
A cocktail party is for adults, and you serve a selection of finger foods, appetizers, and small bites rather than a sit down dinner. It’s accompanied by cocktails or a signature punch, and you get to dress up in pretty cocktail dresses or elegant suits.
When is the Best Time
To have a successful Christmas cocktail party, the date matters. The closer to Christmas you get, the busier everyone will be.
Our yearly event has always been on the first or second Saturday in December. That way it’s early enough that people aren’t too busy yet, and it’s a great way to kick off party season!
The start time is typically 7pm and lasts until about 11 or midnight depending on the babysitter situation. However, a start time could range from 5pm to 7:30pm depending on your lifestyle and how late you want to go.
Start Planning Early
Get your invitations out as early as possible. Since this is a busy time of year, 4 to 6 weeks out is normal, even if it’s only a save-the-date with a more formal invitation to come later.
This is one party where printed invitations are fun to send, however digital invites are also good. Create invitations based on your theme so it helps set the tone from the start.
Include specifics like time and place, dress attire, what is included (hors d’oeuvres and cocktails), adults only, and RSVP information.
EXPERT TIP: Invite extroverts and introduce them to introverts to help put them at ease.
Choose a Theme
Picking a Christmas theme can be as simple as following a color scheme. It helps guide your choices for décor, food, drinks, and mood. The invitations can inform the guests of whatever theme your party will be.
What to Serve
As I mentioned, a cocktail party is made up of appetizers like finger food, dips, and heavy hors d’oeuvres. It’s good to have many options to please all palates.
Follow My Formula
I’ve followed the same Christmas party appetizer menu formula for two decades. It includes something hearty, something for meat lovers, and something for vegetarians. I incorporate cold appetizers as well as hot or baked items.
I also like using recipes that make a lot without requiring extra work. Here’s what it looks like.
- Cocktail meatballs or kielbasa medallions. Could also do smoked sausage in bbq sauce or little smokies.
- Cold marinated shrimp appetizer or classic shrimp cocktail.
- Baked mini party sandwiches, puff pastry appetizers, canapes or crostini. Usually includes ham, bacon or chicken. Bread helps soak up the alcohol.
- Cheese board or cheese appetizer like baked brie, or a cheese ball.
- Something with spinach or artichokes such as a baked artichoke dip or cold spinach dip in bread bowl.
- Veggie cups or crudites platter with stuffed cherry tomatoes. You could also include a fruit tray.
- Snack mix like sweet spicy pecans, savory pecans or sugared pecans.
Note that many of these recipe ideas can be easily doubled to serve more people.
EXPERT TIP: Heavy hors d’oeuvres help to soak up alcohol. Provide hearty appetizers like mini sandwiches and meatballs to fill your guests while they’re drinking.
Make Ahead Food
Pick some recipes that you can prepare ahead and easily assemble or cook before the party begins.
- Ham and cheese puff pastry pinwheels can be prepped ahead and frozen for up to 3 months.
- Sausage cheese balls can be cooked and frozen for months.
- Ham and swiss mini sandwiches can be prepared the night before and refrigerated. Just bake them when ready to serve.
- Cold honey chicken salad can be made a day ahead and scooped into phyllo cups when ready to serve.
Have Vegetarian Options
We’ve been catering to our vegetarian friends for years, and now it’s even more main stream. Make sure you have a couple of items that they can eat without worry.
Have a Build-Your-Own Bar
Take some of the work off yourself and let guests make their own bites with a toppings bar or other food station.
EXPERT TIP: Once you determine what you’re serving, create a detailed grocery list so that you don’t forget any important ingredients.
Drinks for a Cocktail Party
Follow my rule of thumb to set up beverages AWAY from the food. That way people don’t get stuck trying to move in and out of the space.
Choose one of our favorite Christmas cocktails for festive sipping. You can estimate about 2 drinks per hour, per guest.
Serve a Large Batch Cocktail
These are the drinks I’ve been serving the crowd for years.
Have a Signature Drink
This can be your punch recipe, or you can have ingredients and printed directions for making single cocktails.
The point is to serve something festive and on theme. Make it color coordinated and give it a fun name.
I love to go all out for a Christmas party so I have a few different bars set up in different areas. I may have wine set up on a counter, a bar set up on a card table, and the punch set up on the sideboard.
Provide Non Alcoholic Drinks
Even though the name says cocktail party, you have to have non-alcohol options for drivers or those who don’t consume spirits. I find that most people will drink soda like ginger ale, sprite, or coke-cola. You can also have a pitcher of flavored water or juice too.
EXPERT TIP: Make a special mocktail pitcher drink with pretty garnishes so it’s just as special.
Set Up a Bar
I always set up a self-serve bar for a Christmas cocktail party. It includes the liquors that I know people like. In our case it’s bourbon and vodka, but on the west coast it may be vodka and tequila.
- Pour juice mixers into pretty pitchers instead of having them in commercial packaging.
- Have ice buckets filled with extra ice in the freezer.
- If you want to spend the extra money, use small cans or bottles of soda mixers. It looks more elegant than large 2-liter bottles on the table.
- Use trays to corral like items together, and to catch spills while pouring or mixing.
- Make sure you have festive cocktail napkins and themed stir sticks too!
Add garnishes such as lemon and lime wedges, orange slices, cherries, olives, and sugar cubes.
Extra ideas can include edible flower ice cubes, berry or juice infused ice cubes, candy cane stir sticks, mint leaves, or alcohol-infused fruit.
Have a Dessert Table
Just like the appetizers, you want to serve mini desserts and small bites for a cocktail party. Set up a dessert table with a few holiday recipes.
Dessert Finger Food Ideas
In addition to these ideas, you could include an array of cookies from a cookie exchange party.
PARTY TIP: Make your holiday cocktail party a dessert party. Start the party a little later and invite guests to come after dinner. Serve an array of sweets, coffee cocktails, or hot chocolate.
Decorate Your Space
Create a festive party space with Christmas decorations. Go with twinkle lights, decorate your Christmas tree and hang some garland.
Put together an easy Christmas centerpiece with themed flower arrangement, poinsettias, or vases filled with evergreens on the food buffet or bar table.
Decorate table tops, shelves and buffets using small groupings of items like bowls of ornaments, glass vases filled with Christmas balls, greenery and ribbon.
EXPERT TIP: For the sake of safety, use battery operated candles rather than real flames. That way you don’t have to worry about anyone bumping into the fire or knocking it off a table.
Since food is a key component of the party, make sure to decorate the buffet with seasonal decorations. Use elegant chafing dishes for cocktail meatballs and hot dips, and make an ice bowl to hold cold shrimp cocktail.
Set up the buffet a few days ahead and place sticky notes on dishes to remind you where everything goes.
Do Something Special
Surprise your guest with something out of the ordinary, interesting or unexpected. These can keep people talking about your party for years!
- Have an ice sculpture as part of the buffet decoration.
- Fill an ice bucket with mini champagne bottles with straws tied on for sipping.
- Make an ice bottle cooler for the bar and keep white wine or clear liquor cold.
- Walk around with a tray of champagne jello squares. These are far more classy than typical jello shooters, and they’re a good way to make sure you visit with each guest.
- Hire a DJ for a dance party, or simply hang a disco ball where you have space to boogie.
- Hire a musician or piano player for some live background music.
- Hire a bartender for the night. Have them prepare your signature cocktail.
- Have Christmas karaoke or a Christmas carols singalong.
- Bring in a caricature artist and have them draw everyone with Santa hats or reindeer antlers.
Setting the Mood
Along with the decorations and music, lighting plays a key part in setting the vibe. Make sure you have low lighting for a lounge feel.
Use string lights, replace lightbulbs or use a dimmer switch so you can adjust the light where you want it.
Nobody wants to party in a place lit up like an airport!
Create a Playlist
Music sets the tone for the evening. Curate a playlist filled with your holiday favorites to play throughout the party. You’ll want at least 3 hours worth of music
For a cocktail party, start off with some jazzy Christmas music from the Vince Guaraldi Trio or Harry Connick Jr., and let it evolve to more upbeat tunes through the night. I like a mix of old standards along with modern classics and artists.
I’m not a big believer that a party needs games or “forced fun”. The socializing is the activity! However, you may want to incorporate a good ice breaker or conversation starter, as well as a photo opportunity.
I’ve got these trusty conversation starters that you can cut out and tie on to stem glasses, or pass one out to each guest as they arrive.
- Get a head start on cleaning house at least a week before. Do one small job each day and don’t sweat the small stuff.
- Or, do your self a favor and hire a cleaning crew for the day.
- Move out anything that might get broken, or be in the way of a large group of people.
- Make sure there are plenty of surfaces for drinks to be sat down on. Have coasters nearby, or cocktail napkins.
Bathroom Fully Stocked
Make sure this public area is ready for guests with extra toilet paper, full soap dispenser, towels or disposable hand towels, and room spray.
Have a Place for Guests’ Coats
Clean out the hall closet and have plenty of empty hangers ready. If you don’t have space, use a rolling rack or empty room to place coats.
I love giving my guests edible party favors to take home with them. Wrap up some homemade (or slice and bake) Christmas cookies, candies, nuts or easy Christmas biscotti and put them in a basket or on a tray near the exit.
- Decorate with a theme and use evergreens, ball ornaments, wrapped gifts, etc.
- Use cute themed or whimsical napkins, stir sticks, food picks, or platters.
- Have small bowls of snacks to nibble on at the bar, and in bowls around the room.
- Stock up on supplies early so you’re prepared when things get down to the wire. That includes cocktail napkins, plates, glasses, picks or small forks.
EXPERT TIP: If you know you want to host lots of parties, go ahead and invest in real dishes and utensils. You can find many items for a dollar each and it can save you in the long run. Plus, it’s so much nicer!
When it comes to hosting a Christmas cocktail party, the more festive and fun you can make it, the better and more memorable it will be. Follow my tips, and pick and choose what works best for your schedule and your guests will remember the fete for years to come!