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Holiday party guide

The Spokesman-Review

Throwing a holiday season hoedown takes more than a couple of Franklin’s worth of booze and a crowd.

Most of the time.

Tradition be damned or followed, winter shindigs need spice, flair and weight.

Why? Well, unless you’re a winter sports enthusiast or a resident of Hawaii, winter bites.

Chances are your kick-ass party will be the highlight of an otherwise dreary stretch of cold, grey suck.

Make it count.

What’s the deal?

In Thai tradition, kings reserved perfect rare white elephant specimens for themselves, and gave lower-grade white elephants to allies. The elephants were considered sacred and were not allowed to work, so once they were given, they only ate up the recipient’s resources. Thus the white elephant is a blind gift exchange in which everyone brings a wrapped item that no one will have a use for and spends the night stealing gifts from his friends.

Don’t like to cook? This one’s for you because, as host, you get to decide who brings what (which is the only way to make sure you don’t have a table full of grocery-made potato salad and chips, plus a lonely tub of Jell-O).

It’s long been fashionable to hold murder-mystery parties. Not only is it a way for the easily intimidated to play, say, Jack the Ripper for the evening, it gives everyone else the chance to explore their inner Colonel Mustards and/or Miss Scarlets.

This celebration hit pop culture thanks to a 1997 “Seinfeld” episode, about a Costanza family tradition that haunted George’s childhood. Disgusted by Christmas commercialism, Frank Costanza created Festivus (“for the rest of us!”) – an anti-holiday based on a real-life tradition from the family of Seinfeld writer Dan O’Keefe. It takes recognizable holiday elements – honoring elders, celebratory decoration, the bitter undercurrent of family tension – and distills them to their joyless, ritual essence. Festivus, for example, trades in trees and tinsel for a low-maintenance aluminum pole.

Nothing says holiday elegance like a sophisticated, adult cocktail party. It’s a chance to dress up, engage in suave repartee and pretend you are in a 1950s Billy Wilder movie.


Rules: whiteelephant.html.


Gifts: Um, White Elephant Surplus Stores,

1730 N. Division St. (328-3100), 12614 E. Sprague Ave. (924-3006) in Spokane Valley.

Recipes:, and

How to: new-years-eve.html.

History: 000100a2.html.

Details and resources:;;

Printable gift card: images/humanfund.jpg

Seinfeld script: the-strike-script.html

Books: “Cocktail Parties, Straight Up!” by Lauren Purcell and Anne Purcell Grissinger; “The Ultimate A-to-Z Bar Guide” by Sharon Tyler Herbst; “The Bartenders’s Best Friend” by Mardee Regan.

Web sites: “How to Host a Cocktail Party,” party.html, and “Hosting a Cocktail Party,” horsdoeuvres/a/cocktailparty.htm.

What you need

■inexpensive gift

■wrapping paper

■pad of paper


■the rules

■sense of humor

You don’t need a black belt in culinary arts to make your potluck a hit. Just provide one signature dish and invite friends who can throw down in the kitchen. Oh, and paper and plastic picnic supplies are a must.

Stores such as Uncle’s Games & Puzzles carry as many as 10 titles of mystery board games, ranging from $26 to $33. Web sites such as can give some pointers without the expense.

An aluminum pole and several months’ worth of suppressed rage. Two more crucial components: The Airing of Grievances (gather ‘round the table and tell your friends and family how they’ve disappointed you over the past year) and The Feats of Strength (Festivus isn’t over until someone pins the head of the family).

Lots of ice – about a pound per guest. Lots of glasses: highball glasses, wine glasses, tumblers and martini glasses. Don’t forget mixer ingredients, including orange juice, club soda, tonic, ginger ale, cola, tomato juice, lemons, limes, Tabasco and Angostura bitters.


Finger foods. If you serve a meal, don’t start the exchange fiasco until dinner’s finished, so people can get into the exchange.

More than God could consume.

Go with what’s appropriate for the holiday. Christmas means fruitcake (can double as a bludgeon). Cinco de Mayo means Mexican (Montezuma’s Revenge, get it?).

Comfort dishes, as long as they’re not traditional holiday fare. Turkey and ham, no; meatloaf and pork chops, yes. Bagels are also appropriate. For dessert, might we recommend Junior Mints?

A variety of hors d’oeuvres, finger foods and tapas-style bites.


Wine, beer or White Russians: the more, the merrier. Avoid shots of anything; no need to fuel aggression over stolen gifts.

White Russian recipe:

1 1/4 ounces of vodka

1 ounce of Kahlua

Half-and-half to taste

Serve over ice.

Tap a keg. And make sure to have bags of ice and a cooler (or two) on standby for reserves or for potluckers who bring their own.

Suggested brews: Pabst for cheap hipsters, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for a chill, classy party or high-end micro mixpacks for the beer snob crowd.

Bloody Marys, duh.


1 1/2 ounces of vodka

3 ounces of tomato juice

1 dash of lemon juice

1/2 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce

pinch salt and pepper

Tabasco to taste

1 lime wedge

1 teaspoon of thick horseradish sauce (optional)

Lots. There isn’t a specific Festivus drink, but try a Junior Mint cocktail:


1/2 ounce of Malibu Rum

1 ounce of white crème de cacao

1 ounce of white crème de menthe

Stock your bar with vodka, whiskey, gin, tequila, rum, bourbon, vermouth, sherry, brandy, white wine, red wine and beer. If you don’t want to make that kind of outlay, narrow the options by making your party a martini party, for instance, instead of a cocktail party.


Dim lamps or strung lights, a fire in the fireplace and David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” on wax. Oh yeah.

It’s all about being comfortable. Since there’s going to be a lot of grubbin’ going on, make sure people aren’t having to balance their plates on their laps. If you don’t have enough table space, use TV trays (for the right retro coolish touch). Make a few random mix CDs (really random mixes make for quizzical looks but good conversation).

Decorate and dress to reflect the theme – tuxes and gowns for Agatha Christie parties, trenchcoats and silk scarves for hardboiled Raymond Chandler gatherings.

Big table for the dinner and grievances, big open space for the wrestling. Seasonal music might not fit the anti-holiday theme, but you probably can get away with winter tunes by Vince Guaraldi or George Winston. Later, stress things out with some acid jazz, or liven them up with some power-pop.

Lots of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole on the sound system. Extra credit if you have Ella Fitzgerald’s “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.”

Naughty or nice

For a laugh, wrap up a bottle of Spanish Fly and toss it into the mix. Hey, it’s anonymous. And you can steal it for yourself for later.

Add a theme. For a yin-and-yang potluck serve biracial beans and rice or a chessboard snack tray with olive and cheese chess pieces. Make the theme a part of the dress code – and you never know, Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes might show up to par-tee.

Chosen guests, designated as corpses, can be undressed for “group autopsy.” Heh-heh.

An Orthodox Festivus demands tension, hostility and, ultimately, shame. Keep everyone’s drink glasses full, and listen to your instincts toward tact and grace – then do the opposite. You don’t want anyone to leave feeling better about himself. If it’s fun you’re after, put out a guestbook for anonymous grievances. Reading them aloud can be hilarious, and maybe a little cathartic. Experienced Festivus celebrants also have a perfect stand-in for the Feats of Strength: a good old-fashioned thumb-wrestling tournament.

Somebody will end up having the proverbial tee many martoonis. As host, take it upon yourself to organize the cab rides.

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