Friday, October 7, 2022 Oct 7, 2022
79° F Dallas, TX

Holiday Get-Togethers

Our party expert rifles through her special events files and finds some great tips for easy entertaining and fabulous fetes.
By Peggy Healy Parker |

I grew up in a large, loving household that included my parents, five siblings, maternal grandparents, great aunt Rose, and our dog, Charcoal. For weeks before Christmas, my mother brought down boxes of holiday decorations from the attic. Not one inch of our house was left untrimmed.

Garlands and swags, green wreaths and gold-painted sprays, Czech crèches, papier mâché Wise Men, and child-crafted clay candleholders shaped like poinsettias were draped and hung and placed until the whole house sang holiday. We still celebrate Christmas as a family, though we’re grown with children of our own. Dad still checks the fireplace to make sure the stockings (now some 30 strong) are filled. New generations of children line up on the staircase as we once did. Turning on the tree lights still signals a mad rush to the living room to see if “Yes, Virginia…” still applies.

Customs and rituals strengthen the bonds of friendship and love. For young singles or just-married couples, the holiday season is an opportunity to take the traditions you grew up with and graft onto them a little something new, something that, over time, becomes yours alone. Several Dallas families have done just that.


Every year for 20 years, British transplants Nicole and Anthony Gill-Ottinger bring a little bit of London to Dallas by entertaining on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas in England when “Upstairs waits on Downstairs.” But, instead of nobles kowtowing to servants, the Gill-Ottingers wait on their friends and exchange presents with those who have no family here. Their hunt buffet consists of warm, wild duck salad; smoked goose breasts; loaf of venison sage stuffing; a baby goat cheese log with pesto; and, for dessert, mince pies with brandy butter; mocha shortbread; and fresh berries. Anthony keeps Claret glasses filled, while Rod Stewart, Nicole’s English rock-star heartthrob, rasps digitally.


Nicole takes a strap of venison to Kuby’s in Snider Plaza, one of the last of the old-time custom markets, where it’s turned into sausage based on her savory sage recipe. Kuby’s will cure, smoke, and slice meats and fan them on your platter for $1 a pound if it’s their meat, $2 if it’s yours. Nicole’s smoked goose is also from Kuby’s; cheese log is from City Cafe to Go.


Among the prettiest holiday parties are those of Zahida and Mohammed Sarwar, and not just because of the beautiful orange, ruby red, and royal blue saris embellished with gold that swathe the women. On the eve of the party, a mendhi artist comes to their home on the grounds of Willow Bend in Plano and paints lovely, intricate designs on the ladies’ hands with henna. For Eid, a Muslin feast after a monthlong fast, the Sarwars invite friends to an elaborate Pakistani and Indian buffet topped off with Texas pecan pie à la mode. Late evening, rugs are rolled back, Indian musicians sit cross-legged on the floor, and a dancer out of Arabian Nights begins her languid rhythms as tiny ankle bells jingle and finger cymbals clash.


The Sarwar parties are catered, but even exotic holiday fare can be taken out. Zahida suggests ordering platters of spicy lamb kebabs with mint chutney, vegetable fritters and samosas, chicken tikka, and naan bread from Taj Express or India Palace.


For Maureen and Chuck Gage, the holidays mean bringing the family together. Typical of today’s families, theirs is scattered, so every other year, children and grandchildren come from Phoenix, Tucson, and Chicago for an old-fashioned Christmas celebration. Each woman in the family brings her own recipes and prepares one meal. Christmas Eve, daughter Peggy grocery shops and cooks, while family members set the table, make appetizers, and help serve. Together the family attends midnight service. The next morning Maureen begins preparing Christmas dinner—baked ham with honey mustard, garlic mashed potatoes, corn soufflé, salad, and green beans with red peppers. Dessert is English trifle and a kaleidoscope of cookies, some procured at a cookie exchange, the rest contributed by each individual family. The repast over, children open presents piled under a huge tree hung with ornaments sentimentally collected over a lifetime.

During the season, grandchildren take names of needy children from the tree at NorthPark Center and buy gifts for the little “angels.” Christmas afternoon finds the family playing charades or Trivial Pursuit or touring Highland Park in a convertible to see the oh-so-Dallas displays of brilliantly lit trees, a fairyland of lights no city in the country can match.


Maureen recommends ordering a ham from Honey Baked Ham. It comes pre-cooked, ready to serve at room temperature or heated for 20 minutes. She picks up grilled vegetable salad from Gourmet to Go and keeps frozen appetizers from Sam’s on hand for unexpected holiday guests.


Host a holiday “hen” party (roosters welcome). Serve deviled eggs, chick pea spread from Worldwide Food, and chicken fajitas or chicken quesadillas with plenty of do-it-yourself condiments. Go all out and get those wonderful clay chickens from La Mariposa on Henderson and stand place cards in front of them for a cluckingly happy table. Put Rue One’s Hen Soap with little, egg-shaped ones to tuck under it in your powder room. Dare your company to dance The Chicken or prompt a philosophical discussion of which came first.

Throw a gingerbread party for grown-ups (and bring the kids along). Sheila Etzkorn, artist, and Ruth Anderson, founder of Wearartists (women who design wearable art and accessories) invite their crafty friends to bring a selection of edible decorating materials to a gingerbread party. They bake giant gingerbread girls from a Joy of Cooking recipe, make quick-drying, unsticky icing, and provide tea and wassail. If it’s a family affair, let children have their own table with gingerbread boys (to be perfectly fair) and offer prizes for creativity. Guests have a ball trying to outdo one another. One gingerbread girl is transformed into a Victorian lady, another into a Gauguin-inspired South Seas islander, complete with Hershey kiss peeking out from a colorful sarong. Fruit roll-ups are cut with pinking shears to make a fringed skirt, red licorice whips are braided for hair. A guest who’s a therapist from Timberlawn brings all leftovers to her patients for their Christmas party.

Put on the dog with a red and gold party. Take a gold, spray-painted basket to The Great Harvest Bread Co.—they’ll fill it with a variety of sliced breads for your holiday table. Serve brie with strawberries, Scandinavian shrimp with Russian dressing, and Duffy’s mushroom tartlets (see recipes at left). Serve champagne in ruby red flutes from Crate & Barrel. Place poinsettias everywhere. Put goldfish in bowls and give them to guests as they leave. Use your best china or, for fun, tin plates—Sticks & Stones carries ritzy copies of 18th century Sevrès porcelain designs. If you have a piano, you must hire fabulous pianist Mark Carroll, back now from his stint in Palm Beach. If you’ve no ivories to tickle, have guests listen to the wonderful CD of Sting and Pavarotti singing “Panis Angelicus” or any Andrea Bocelli album.

Count down to the real millennium. Send out digital invitations, then follow up with e-mails every day for 10 days before the party. Serve shots of chilled, flavored vodka such as Grey Goose carried by Centennial Liquor in Highland Park Village. The bottles themselves are conversation pieces. Get Elton 2000 Pure White Gel candles designed by Laura Slatkin at Stanley Korshak. Suitably spacey looking, they burn better than wax or paraffin and leave no residue. Challenge your guests to predict where Nasdaq will be, who’ll be at the top of the charts, if extraterrestrial life will be discovered, how many people will be using eBay, and what the price of cigarettes will be next New Year’s Eve. Music? Play the soundtrack from, what else, 2001.

Give a “get out of the cold” pre-Super Bowl party with electric blankets, fondue over open flame, hot spiced tea from Two Sisters, Red Stripe beer from Goody’s, and Leal’s Salsa Festiva from Muleshoe, Texas. The Leal family started a tortilla factory back in the ’50s, then opened a restaurant, then another, then, you get the picture. Finally they’re bottling their sensational salsa and it’s available at Minyard’s. Be forewarned: “Mild” is hot, “Original” is hotter, “Hot” is a pistol-packin’ mama. Keep the party sizzling with tunes from Enrique Iglesias.