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‘Tis the season for holiday hosting. If you’re planning a celebration in the next few weeks, make sure everything is party perfect – and then relax and enjoy the fun!

Throwing a holiday party can be truly pleasurable, as long as you have a plan, start early and remember to have fun along the way. Just ask Bobby Chez. He has established himself as an expert holiday party host. Each year, a few hundred friends flock to his house for a knock-your-socks-off good time.

Walking up his driveway to his annual Christmas Eve party is like walking straight into a winter wonderland. Thousands of colorful holiday lights adorn the trees, creating a glow around the entire property. An oversized sleigh stuffed with artfully wrapped packages waits near the front door, and the beautiful sounds of carols can be heard the minute you ring the doorbell.

The grand home is filled to bursting with a Christmas tree in every room, while elaborate garlands and wreaths bedeck the halls. A fire is crackling in the hearth. Friends and family mill about, talking, laughing, drinking and eating gobs of gourmet food. And then, as the party’s grand finale, Santa arrives – in a helicopter.

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Bobby and Linda Sliwowski with Santa

Sound too good to be true? It’s standard fare at the annual holiday party thrown by the founder of the successful takeout seafood chain at his Moorestown home. The man behind it all – also known as Bobby Sliwowski – is the holiday’s number-one fan.

“Christmas Day is anti-climactic compared to our Christmas Eve party,” laughs Sliwowski. “We like to make our holiday party a whole event, a complete night of entertainment.” And he does, but it’s no small feat.

“There’s no ‘I’ in party,” says Sliwowksi. “Everybody has to work together to make this party work.”

Six weeks before the holiday, Sliwowski and his wife Linda begin planning the party. They mail out invitations, plan the food and begin setting out the decorations. Each and every tree in the yard gets wrapped in multicolored or white lights, and lit snowflakes hang from even the tallest of branches.

“We never cut back,” he says. “We always find one more tree to decorate. So it takes a while.”

The end effect is a luminous front yard, which can be seen for miles.

“The decorations are important,” Sliwowski says. “When people walk up to the house and see it lit up for the holidays, it puts them in the mood. It really brings out the holiday spirit.”

Inside, the spacious house also gets the holiday treatment. Nearly every room has its own Christmas tree – 13 in all. Each is decorated in a different theme, such as the Southwestern-style tree that honors Linda’s Phoenix, Arizona roots and the canine-themed tree for the family dog, Bentley.

The party is a large affair. The Sliwowskis invite close friends and family, meaning the guest list usually totals more than 200. During the party, guests dine on pasta, shrimp, lobster, roasted vegetables and – of course – Bobby Chez crab cakes. Carols are sung, and lots of talking and laughing goes on. Just before the end of the party, Santa arrives in a spectacular fashion.

“We always try to do something special,” says Sliwowski. “We love to see the kids smiling.”

In years past, not only has Santa arrived in a helicopter, he has also arrived on a fire truck accompanied by a Mummers’ string band. One year he “parachuted” in amidst fireworks.

“We directed everyone’s attention with the fireworks, and then Santa came running out of the woods with a parachute trailing from his back,” chuckles Sliwowski. “He said that he just missed the house and landed next door. Everyone was so excited.”

Live music adds a festive touch to the Sliwowskis’ annual party

Live music adds a festive touch to the Sliwowskis’ annual party

Spectacles like these require weeks of work – Sliwowski often has to clear the party’s entertainment with Moorestown Township officials. The year Santa’s helicopter landed, he also had to receive flight clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration.

And Sliwowski is still pushing the envelope every year.

“I’ve always wanted to have a live nativity, but my wife says no way,” Sliwowski says wistfully. “I want to get a couple of kids from the high school drama club and have them act as Mary and Joseph and the wise men and everything.

“I don’t mind doing the extra work or the cooking or anything,” he continues. “It is a lot of work, but it’s worth it for this party.”

For Sliwowski, the annual event is more than just a party.

“I’m carrying on a tradition,” he explains. The Christmas Eve party started out as a relatively small affair: family gathered at his grandmother’s row home in Camden on Christmas Eve in 1976, shortly after his grandfather died.

“I remember it being just so nice to see everyone,” Sliwowski recalls. “I remember walking in and seeing the garland, and doing the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which is an Italian tradition. And then you know that the next day is Christmas Day, so you know you’re getting presents. It’s a great feeling.”

After his grandmother passed away, Sliwowski took it upon himself to carry on the family tradition, and to make it better and better every year.

“It’s been 37 years, and I do this every year,” he says. “I always get pumped for Christmas Eve and the party.”

Sliwowski’s passion for the holiday season makes him eager to be a great host each year. “It’s like having a restaurant,” he says. “You want to keep your people entertained and happy. I always tell my waiters and staff that having a great party is more than great food. I could give them the greatest food in the world, but they’re going to remember the experience. That’s what brings them back.”

 

Creating Your Own Experience

If the Sliwowskis’ amazing affair has inspired you to host your own spectacular event this season, now’s the time to start planning, says party planner Kim Blackman.

“It’s such a busy time of the year for everyone, so you really need to get invitations out as soon as possible to make sure your key people can come,” says Blackman, president of KSB Events. “There are only so many weekends during the holiday season and lots of parties – think of your invitation almost like a wedding save-the-date card.”

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Party planner Kim Blackman suggests renting chairs even if you are dining in your own home

Once you’ve sent your invites, Blackman says you need to “decide on your party’s identity. Know your crowd – are the people you invited more of an open-house, come-and-nosh group, or are you expecting guests that are more suited to a formal, sit-down dinner? That will dictate the entire party, but either way, you want to make sure you have enough food and drinks.”

If you’re planning on cooking your own food, Blackman says Pinterest can be a great resource for festive, crowd-pleasing recipes. “You can also find great ideas for pretty ways to display your food. But beware of anything too complicated or time-consuming – I’d definitely recommend you look for dishes you can make in advance and freeze in batches.”

If you’re more of the catering type of host (and there’s nothing wrong with that!), Wegmans Executive Chef Kebin Xie advises, “the sooner you place your catering order, the better. When you place your order, the caterer will ask you about the number of people you’re expecting and give you serving suggestions, which is really helpful if you’re unsure about how much food you need and what dishes go well together.”

And always consider the dietary needs of your guests, says Joe DiLullo, Wegmans cafe manager. “It’s always a good idea to have kosher, vegetarian and gluten-free options available,” he adds. “Your guests will appreciate it.”

After you’ve put in a call to your caterer, Blackman says you shouldn’t put the phone away. “Now’s the time to also hire any help you need.  I recommend hiring a bartender, since it allows you to mingle with guests and better controls how much people drink. If you do hire a bartender, be sure to tell him not to chill everything right out the gate. Most liquor stores take back unopened, unchilled bottles and cases of beer if you have anything left over at the end of the night. Just be sure to clarify with the store first, and communicate with your bartender.”

Servers, a coat check attendant and even valet attendants can also be helpful, says Blackman. “You can rent a coat rack to place in an extra room or even the garage, and just hire a teenager to handle the coats for a few hours. It makes guests feel special, and it’s less of a hassle.

“Valet service usually isn’t that expensive but it’s such a nice feature, especially if it’s tough to park in your neighborhood. Guests will love that they don’t have to walk to your house in the cold.”

Festive decorative touches will also help create a welcoming atmosphere, says Michael Bruce, founder of Michael Bruce Florist in Collingswood.

“The energy you put into planning the party will rebound onto the party itself,” he says. “Guests will appreciate what you did if you really put the energy into it.”

When it comes to selecting a theme or looking for your holiday decorations, Bruce urges hosts and hostesses to think outside the box.

Florist Michael Bruce uses mismatched vases with various flowers to make a unique centerpiece

Florist Michael Bruce uses mismatched vases with various flowers to make a unique centerpiece

“Don’t worry about matching,” he says. “Eclectic is a great look, and now people love that look more and more.”

Bruce also says it can be easy and inexpensive to set a beautiful dinner table for the holiday. “One of the easiest and most effective ways to set a great table for the holidays is candlelight,” he says. “Use votive candles, and the look is elegant.”

During Hanukkah, use the family menorah as the focal point of your table and decorate from there. Add table linens in any color, although Bruce recommends trying simple winter colors like silver and gold. Scatter an abundance of rose petals, branches of evergreen and tiny crystals over the table, and finally add potted florals like cyclamen for a pop of vibrant color.

“And you can drop any one of those steps and still have a complete look for the table,” says Bruce.

If you are looking for an alternative to traditional bows, try creating a bow garland. Take rolls of uncut ribbon in different colors and patterns and tie bows every 15 to 20 inches. With this, Bruce says, you’ve made a fun alternative to garland that can show your creativity and style.

“People think that they can’t do what they see styled in a magazine,” he says. “These are all easy tips, and anyone can decorate like this. Don’t over-think it.”

Once all the trimmings are in place, Blackman says it’s time to clean the house and set up your space. “Move out any furniture that will prevent people from comfortably moving throughout your house, but be sure you have plenty of seating even if you’re doing a buffet. You can always rent chairs if you don’t think you have enough.”

As the party nears, keep your momentum going by doing as much prep work as possible. “I always set my table and get out all my serving pieces a day or two ahead.

I also buy flowers and do a final cleaning at this point,” says Blackman.

With proper planning, your last-minute preparations – and stress – should be minimal. “The day of the party, all you should need to do is heat up food and put it out,” says Blackman. “If you’re having an open house, don’t put out everything at once – stagger it so there’s fresh food for people who arrive later.

“You’re hosting this great event, so it’s important that you actually get to enjoy it,” says Blackman. “By making a list and tackling as much of the work as you can ahead of time, you can throw a spectacular party without stressing out.”

Sliwowski says that has been his experience. He believes the most important things that make a holiday party great are the friends and family you get to see and entertain that night.

“Whether you have a party for 60 people or 200 people, you do whatever you can to make that party come off in the right way,” he adds. “How the decorations look, how the food is served, how your guests intermingle – all these things come together to make a great party.”

December 2013
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