During the last holiday season, we got it into our heads that we wanted to invite a whole bunch of families over for dinner. Not all at once like a holiday party — we wanted to have them over one family at a time. We liked the idea of getting to hang out and talk with one family, a real chance to get to know them better. But we quickly realized, we couldn’t make dinners work. It was a combination of holiday over-scheduling and feeling like a whole bunch of dinner parties in one month was too much pressure.
So we came up with an alternative plan. We stocked our pantry with supplies, and then whenever we had a spare evening, we would make a last minute phone call or send an email and invite a family over for a Hot Cocoa Bar. Essentially: Hey, can you guys come over after dinner for hot cocoa?
This worked beautifully! Since it was last-minute and spontaneous, it took all the social pressure off. I don’t know if I can articulate why it worked so well, but this is what we loved:
It was easy on relationships. There were no invitations to send and no rsvp-ing. If the first family we called couldn’t make it, no stress, we would try them on a future date, and call another another family instead. Because it was casual and we didn’t know when it was going to happen or how often, we didn’t make a list of invitees and worry that someone would feel left out.
It was easy on prep. Something about it being last-minute made it easy for me to feel like the house was presentable enough — meaning I didn’t stress about deep-cleaning. And while a dinner party involves a lot of preparation and cleanup, a hot cocoa bar doesn’t. You can stock up once and be ready for a dozen parties. No party favors needed.
It was easy on schedules. A hot cocoa bar doesn’t have to take long, so sometimes friends would stay an hour, other times, they’d stay late into the night (age of kids and bedtimes was a big factor). It wasn’t on anyone’s calendar, including ours, so there was no thinking about what to wear or coming up with hostess gift or wondering if you’d be in the mood for the party. It was last minute and spontaneous — which means we didn’t make the call and extend the invitation unless we really wanted to, and our guests didn’t say yes unless they really wanted to (last minute things are easy to say no to). So no one was stuck at an event they didn’t want to be at.
In case you’d like to try hosting your own Hot Cocoa Bar this year, here are my tips:
1) Stock your pantry. Find a good classic hot cocoa mix or recipe — nothing particularly flavored— and keep the mix or ingredients stocked. Keep extra milk in the fridge and whipped cream too.
2) Check your cupboards. Think about what you’ll serve the hot cocoa in. Maybe you have holiday mugs that you pull out every December. Or maybe you’ll mix and match your everyday mugs. See what you’ve got on hand — if it can handle hot liquid, you’re good to go.
Your basic checklist is mugs, spoons, and napkins. You can put out your favorite red tablecloth too.
3) Upgrade it from Hot Cocoa to a Hot Cocoa Bar, by setting out mixins and stirrers in bowls. Things we like:
– candy canes — they add peppermint flavor and are good for stirring
– cinnamon sticks, for the same reasons
– marshmallows, little or big
– baking chips — milk chocolate, butterscotch, white chocolate, mint, etc.
– short bread cookies for dipping
You could even try an Italian syrup, or go really decadent and have chocolate bars to melt in your mug. Remember that quote from The Polar Express? “We drank hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars.”
I should note, we have never served all of these mix-in options at once. Having 2 or 3 things to customize your cocoa is plenty to make the whole thing feel extra special. And happily, you can stock up on any or all of this so that you don’t have to run to the store at the last minute.
4) Keep a pot of hot cocoa warming on the stove. When guests arrive, let people serve themselves and add their preferred mix-ins. Then hang out. Sing Christmas Carols. Go on a neighborhood walk to look at lights. Admire your holiday decorations. Read a chapter from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Do whatever it is you do!
And that’s it. Easy as pie. A simple casual gathering that will last an hour or two (or longer if everyone is into it!). An easy, happy way to connect with the people you love over the holidays. No stress involved.
Now it’s your turn. How do you feel about entertaining during the holidays? Do you host an annual Christmas party? Maybe something fancy? For about 10 years in a row, we hosted an annual Christmas Recital, and I loved it! Or maybe you prefer something more humorous — like a crazy holiday sweater party? Have you ever gone to a cookie exchange party? Or maybe you dread holiday entertaining altogether. Would a hot cocoa bar gathering sound fun to you? I’d love to hear your holiday entertaining stories!
P.S. — I picked out a whole bunch of gorgeous holiday wares from Crate & Barrel for these photos.
Photos by Kristen Loken for Design Mom.