Entertaining drives some of us to do crazy things. We want our lives to have the glossy shine of life in a magazine. But when we look at all the stress and work, we can end up thinking, "Why bother?"
It doesn't have to be that way. There are people who entertain and enjoy themselves while they do it.
Consider the case of August Post. A former event director of Martha Stewart's organization, he once spent hours creating a Christmas party decoration by taking apart his entire chandelier, then putting it back together with a cranberry replacing every other piece of glass.
It took hours. It looked amazing.
"I'm not sure," he admitted, "if that was a decoration or a cry for help."
This is the heart of the entertaining season. We're not scattered all over on vacations, and the calendar is full of opportunities to throw parties. Decorating our houses even helps to keep winter gloom away. The trick is to skip the stress and go straight to the fun.
Shauna McFeeley of Charlotte, N.C., chose her house to have a good flow for parties.
"I wanted to have the house where everyone goes," she said. "Most of my friends don't cook and I love to cook. My gift to share is my cooking."
McFeeley talked about it just a week before hosting a cocktail party for 70 for a Juvenile Diabetes Foundation fundraiser. And she wasn't panicky. This time, she was using a caterer, but she's done all the cooking herself for up to 100 people.
It's just a matter of breaking work down into steps and then putting it together a little at a time, she said.
"The whole point," she noted, "is to have people over and enjoy them."
Kathy Rowan keeps her parties on ice: She makes things like rolled spana- kopita that she can stash in the freezer so she can have friends and co-workers over at the last minute.
A public relations consultant with her own company, she's always inviting over co-workers and friends. She even invites people who own rival PR firms for "wine and whine" gatherings.
"I'm one of those throw-it-together people," she said. "It's basically, 'come over.' It might be shrimp and spanakopita. If it's a crazy week, it might be a mix of Trader Joe's and now, thankfully, Whole Foods. It's really about the people."
Susan Triantafyllides of Charlotte married into an entertaining tradition: She's not Greek, but her husband is.
"My mother-in-law is a huge entertainer I've learned a lot from her. She's not intimidated at all. Her cooking is much more elaborate, the first course and all that. I'm like, 'courses?'
"Typically, I like to choose recipes that can be made ahead of time, so when my friends arrive, I can visit with them. That makes me more relaxed. Try to be a guest at your own party."
Post has people over numerous times a year, but it doesn't have to be complicated, he said. On a recent Thursday, he was having friends over for chili.
"For somebody who just wants to get into entertaining, it's so easy. It's just chili and toppings and big baskets of gorgeous breads," he said.
The whole idea is to do something that makes the people who are special to you feel special, he said. People got away from entertaining at home for a while, so it makes it even more special when you do it.
"If you take the time to create a mood, people appreciate it. I think it's coming back. People are interested in entertaining again."
Party-givers shared their favorite tips with the Charlotte Observer:
Kathy Rowan: "Less is more. Two or three substantial food items are better than five or six small things.
"Look for fun touches, such as giving lottery tickets for party favors or using markers to write messages on your wine glasses."
Shauna McFeeley: "Have a signature drink you can hand out at the door, so people feel welcomed.
"Make sure everything is ready so you have time to greet people.
"If the hostess is there, and calm and collected, that's nice. And I want to make sure I see everybody."
August Post: "Instead of decorating with a lot of little touches, do one big thing. It can be as simple as grouping several pots of mums in one basket. Just do it big.
"Taking the scale up a few notches has a big 'wow' effect."
Also, don't skimp on wine.
"Buy a good wine and the rest will fall into place, even if it's just a spaghetti dinner."
Susan Triantafyllides: "If it's a cocktail party, have something on trays you can pass around, in case people don't make it to the buffet.
"If people offer to bring a dish, I have a do-not-bring-a-thing policy. If they're messing up their kitchen, they're not getting the benefit of the night off. And they can reciprocate another time."