You love your family, but between work deadlines, weather snafus and airfare costs, not going home may look like a pretty good option this year. Don't worry. This is the time to call upon your other family -- your closest friends -- to create a new holiday, one filled with good conversation and good food. Sure, it won't include Mom's homemade stuffing, but that's okay.
tips + how-tos
Hosting isn't hard, but it can always get easier.
Hit the flea market. Grab '60s-inspired dinnerware -- the quirkier the better, and extra points if it's holiday-themed. This will give your party a playful, retro feel without costing a fortune. And it's way better than wasteful paper plates.
Cook in advance. Keep food warm in a 200º oven. Vegetables and sides should be fine, but be careful with fish and meat, which can dry out. To retain even more heat -- and, okay, to impress your guests -- warm oven-safe plates in there while you're at it.
Clean tools immediately after use. You don't need to clear the sink as you cook, but washing crucial items such as whisks and measuring cups leaves them at the ready when you need them next (which will probably be soon).
Put leftover ingredients to work. arnish hot cider with remaining kumquats from the Arugula Ambrosia, then finish off with cinnamon sticks. Slice leftover chorizo from the Easy Paella, grill and serve with toothpicks.
Getting dressed up when your parents tell you to might be a chore, but for dinner with friends, it can transform just another meal into an evening you won't forget. Tell guests to wear their finest.
Don't be afraid to bring the outdoors indoors. Decorate your table with pine needles, faux mistletoe or holiday lights. It'll look festive and cheerful -- and smell great, too -- with no roof-climbing required.
Eleven Pipers Piping
Generic holiday music will make your house feel like a department store. Try CDs by such artists as Sufjan Stevens (Songs for Christmas) and Aimee Mann (One More Drifter in the Snow) to keep things seasonal but not annoyingly so.
Part of the fun of the holidays is knowing that Dad is going to carve the ham, or that Uncle Rob is going to fall asleep on the couch hugging the remote like a teddy bear. This year create some traditions of your own: When guests arrive, photograph them in front of a wall decorated with festive wrapping paper, like a step-and-repeat red carpet event. (Everyone looks best before they eat.) During dinner go around the table sharing stories of everyone's best and worst holiday gifts. And at the end of the meal, so no one goes home empty-handed, do a cookie exchange. Have guests bring tins of homemade holiday cookies to trade -- no peeking -- with someone else at the table. (If you're picky about sweets, do a mix-andmatch exchange across the whole group.)