Deckin’ the halls with bells and ribbons

Throwing a holiday party on a college-student budget

Fall term is almost over and the Black Friday bell has rung, marking the beginning of the Christmas holiday season and shot nerves, broken banks, a glut of generosity and overwhelming gift-giving decisions. What’s left to do but to take the edge off the holiday craziness by throwing a small party?

Throwing a holiday party on a college-student budget

Fall term is almost over and the Black Friday bell has rung, marking the beginning of the Christmas holiday season and shot nerves, broken banks, a glut of generosity and overwhelming gift-giving decisions. What’s left to do but to take the edge off the holiday craziness by throwing a small party?

Riza Liu

With that in mind, I made it my mission to plan a 10-person-or-less holiday party—decorations, invitations, menu and drinks—using as little money as possible. We’re college students, for crying out loud, not Fortune 500 candidates with money to burn and perfectly styled houses easily adapted to any occasion, be it a Christmas party or an outdoor wedding.

I thought it’d be less Nancy Drew mystery and more Mission: Impossible, involving high-speed chases, explosions, villainous store clerks and a well-stocked toolbox of crafty weapons, but it turned out to be more choose-your-own-adventure than anything else. Despite my disappointment at the lack of high-speed chases and explosions, I’m satisfied that my quest for low-cost holiday-party greatness was pretty damn easy.

Bonus: On my various trips, I saw a 4-maybe-5-year-old crawling up and down a bus aisle pretending to be a cat; met a very nice, seasoned Santa Claus, who’d been doing the gig at various department stores for 20-plus years (and offered to grant me a wish, which I politely declined); and watched two strung-out ladies at the craft store squabble over the remaining two identical ornaments of a set.

I discovered that you don’t have to be an interior designer or a Martha Stewart protege to throw a kick-ass holiday party—all you’ve got to be is imaginative and resourceful (emphasis on resourceful).

Step 1: Analyze your space

Because most of us don’t live in McMansions and likely have less than 800 square feet to work with, the first thing you need to ask yourself is: How many people can I fit in here? Despite the long-reigning status quo that says the more the merrier, squeezing 40 people into an 800-square-foot apartment (more like 650, when you take out the bedrooms) is a really fucking bad idea.

Trust me—I have a very vivid memory of such a party, one that culminated in hand-scrubbing chocolate ganache and crusted cake frosting from worn hardwood floors, stepping on no less than 50 bottle caps and picking empty bottles and plastic cups from dense rose bushes.

Be realistic. Keep it small, but make it just big enough to revel in the revelry. Plus, after you’ve cemented your guest list, figuring out the food and drink options is that much easier.

Step 2: Make invitations

I’m a long-standing, card-carrying member of the do-it-yourself guild, so buying prepackaged invitations is an automatic no-go. Save your money. You can get the word out in one of two (or both) ways: Make your own invitations and then either mail them out or send by email. I opted to mail them out because, hell, I’m old-fashioned and I like sending—and receiving—mail that matters. Put a smile on your friends’ faces and give them something better to read than junk mail flyers advertising fleece-sock booties and commemorative, limited-edition ceramic replicas of Princess Catherine or Precious Moments Elvis.

What you need for handmade invitations: A few sheets of heavy cardstock in white or one other color; glue stick; ruler; scissors (or paper-cutter, if you’re super fancy); and clip art, which you’ll find on the Internet—just search for non-copyrighted images/illustrations/photos, etc. Wikipedia’s public domain images resources page lists a ton of sites that have free images. Or take a trip to Powell’s Books and search through the Art/Clip Art section, where you’ll find dozens of cheap books with easy-to-copy images.

Cut the cardstock into postcard-sized sheets (4.25 by 6 inches). Make copies of your chosen illustrations/photos/images, etc. If you want, you can even take some time and add a bit of color to a black-and-white image using crayons, pencils or markers. Gently affix to one side and reverse. Split the blank side into two columns—one will be used for the address, and the other for the invitation text. Add a postcard stamp (32 cents) and voila! Invites done.

Step 3: Plan food and drinks
This step’s cake. You’ve got one option for a limited-budget party: potluck and BYOB. You can still plan the menu, though. For easy clean-up, tell your guests to bring a finger food dish and their own fabric napkin—this way you don’t have to worry about utensils, plus, everyone’ll stay on top of their napkins ’cuz they brought them—and pick up a package of small paper plates from the store. Don’t waste your money on the frilly shit, though; good ol’ standard paper plates will work just fine. The trick is to get your guests to graze instead of sitting down with a mountain of cold pasta salad they just nibble at anyway and then leave half-finished in your peace lily planter.

While bring-your-own-booze parties are sometimes lame, you can spice yours up a bit by limiting the selection to one or two drinks. Pick a beer and a cocktail and have your guests bring a six-pack or one of the cocktail ingredients. Punches with lots of liquors are highly recommended.

Step 4: Deckin’ your place in holiday style
This is the fun part. The rest is kiddie shit compared to the kinds of stuff you can do to make your home feel festive without A) going overboard, and B) spending next month’s grocery money.

Remember step one? When you took a long look at your space, what’d you see, and what kinds of things can you capitalize on? For example, I’ve got lots of plants and bookshelves, plus low-ish ceilings. I don’t have room for a tree, which is fine, because cutting down trees for a one-month spectacle is ridiculous (not to mention spendy—expect to pay $25–30 for a cut tree). What I did instead? Draped ribbon on the plants. Subtle, festive and does the trick. Depending on your particular foliage, you could even go so far as to hang a few ornaments.

Stringing Christmas lights around a room is a pretty standard gimmick for the just-left-home-and-starving youth, but if you want to kick it up a notch, opt for a little tea-light magic. You can either scatter them across various surfaces or, if you want to fancy it up a little, put the lights in glass holders.

Between now and your party, save any and all glass jars you acquire. Tell your friends you want theirs. Go to Goodwill and pick up a few random pieces for a few bucks or, better yet, use your own glassware. Candle wax is easy to remove, and it saves your glassware from the drunken reveler who thinks she can handle drinking from a “real” glass and not those red plastic cups you bought for the occasion (which you should definitely buy), but inevitably drops it on the floor, where it shatters into almost invisible fragments.

Don’t waste your money on decorations or lights at big-box stores. Go to the dollar store and local thrift stores, where you can find all kinds of cool shit you can use for decor. I bought three packages of 12 ornaments, tissue paper (not the nose-blowing kind) and flaked coconut (for snow—duh) at the dollar store, two run-of-the-mill vases for use as centerpieces at a thrift store and an assortment of ribbons at a fabric store. Grand total: $10.

I used clear filament wire to hang the ornaments and fashioned hanging pom-pom snowflakes from the tissue paper. Another trick of the DIY trade: Don’t buy clear filament wire at craft stores or home improvement stores. Get out to a sporting goods store (I went to Big 5 Sporting Goods) and pick up a reel of basic
monofilament fishing line. I got something like 500 yards for $2.50. It’s perfect for hanging lightweight stuff from walls and ceilings.

Last but not least, take advantage of your neighborhood’s natural offerings. You can put together some really festive pieces using low-lying branches, pine tree clippings, berried twigs and harvested herbs. Fresh rosemary, for example, gives off a nice, woodsy scent. My table centerpiece is made of twigs, berried branches, coconut flakes and dangling ornaments (you could also use dangling earrings as pseudo-ornaments). I also clipped a bagful of Douglas fir branches, shoved them in a vase and hung two ornaments to create the illusion of a Christmas tree.

The moral of this holiday story is: Spend a little more time in the planning, save a good chunk of change, plan a collaborative menu and you’ve got the recipe for a kick-ass party.