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Countdown to a No-Stress Cocktail Party

Got hosting jitters? Our sanity-saving timeline will help you throw the bash of the season with the greatest of ease

Blame it on Pinterest (everyone seems so together!) or the stress of the holidays, but the thought of throwing even a small cocktail party can feel as overwhelming as walking into a mall on Christmas Eve. Manhattan-based event designer Maria McBride comes to the rescue with a planning timeline to help you relax and prioritize.

Six Weeks Before

Invite guests by email. Instead of using Evite, which can feel impersonal, McBride prefers sending a message with details and attaching a photo, like a snow scene or your dog wearing jingle bells.

Book a party helper to assist with serving and cleanup so you're free to focus on hosting. "If you're on a budget, a college student is ideal," McBride says.

One Month Before

Hire a musician, one of McBride's favorite ways to amp up the ambience. "All you need is one acoustic guitarist playing Christmas carols or jazz to get people feeling festive," she says. Don't be shy about hitting up a talented friend.

Two Weeks Before

Outsource some of the food. You'll save serious time and hassle if you order a precooked smoked turkey or spiral-cut ham from a gourmet store or website. Ask a few friends to fill in with sides and sweets.

Plan a simple bar. McBride suggests a scaled-down offering of wine, soft drinks and a special cocktail that also can be made without booze, such as warm bourbon cider garnished with cinnamon sticks.

Shop for nonperishable items, such as votive candles, paper plates, cups, napkins and drinks.

One Week Before

Make and freeze a filling, one-pot entrée if your party will bump up against dinner hour. "Something like shepherd's pie, lasagna or chili will hold up well during the party," McBride says.

Add dimmer switches to a few lamps for a quick lighting makeover.

One Day Before

Declutter your space by clearing surfaces and removing toys and paperwork.

Clean up. You don't need to obsess (low lighting masks many flaws), but you should at least vacuum and scrub the bathroom.

Shop for last-minute items like ice and perishable groceries.

Day of the Party

Rearrange a bit. Push your dining table against one wall to use as a buffet; scatter the chairs around the rest of your home. Be sure to clear out the coat closet.

Set up. Heat any warm drinks and dishes. Put out empty serving dishes for friends' contributions.

Kick back with a cocktail and wait for guests to arrive—you're good to go!