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Holiday Party Ideas That Don't Break the Bank

Here are some budget-conscious tips for throwing a fabulous wintertime fete.

It's the time of year for parties with egg nog and mistletoe, Santa hats and Christmas cookies. It can get pretty expensive to host a party like that, but here are some tips for lowering costs, while still showing guests a great time.


Get guests excited by coming up with clever themes and sending quirky invites. If you're mailing them the old-fashioned way, you can attach a sprig of holly to a simple white card, or affix a swizzle stick with a promise of good cocktails, says Erika Lenkert, author of

The Last-Minute Party Girl

, a guide to practical entertaining.

If you're sending an Evite, don't be afraid to play with words, or include a fun quote. Be sure to send your invitations two to three weeks before your event, and clearly indicate a start and end time so party hoppers can plan ahead, as well as the type of bash you'll be hosting (cocktails, dinner, etc.).

Go Green

If eco-friendly is your thing, get a small potted tree that you can keep or plant in a garden later on. Trees that thrive in containers include Alberta Spruces and Nordmann Firs. Make sure the pot has a drain hole and is proportionate to the size of your tree, and that the potting mix has equal proportions of compost, shredded bark, leaf mold and sand. You can get the tree at your local nursery, or online at and other retailers.

Decorating the house can be done naturally, too, with real boughs of holly, ivy, mistletoe or even tree trims placed around a mantle or used to decorate a table centerpiece. For example, place tree trims in a pretty bowl along with pinecones, pomegranates and apples.

Set the Mood

A smell can transport you to another time or place, and there's nothing better than the right holiday scent to take you down memory lane. An inexpensive way to infuse your home with the smell of Christmas is to place several drops of spruce oil, fir needle oil and cedarwood oil in a burner. You can get these essential oils at natural-goods stores, or online retailers like

Ananda Apothecary.

Even easier, place orange peels in a pot along with cinnamon sticks, steeping them in low boiling water. The scents will slowly start to fill the air.

If you don't have time to prepare a homemade scent, get a holiday candle like

Banana Republic's popular "winter" candle, which oozes pine and cinnamon notes and burns for up to 50 hours. Or, try

L'Artisan Parfumeur's Bougie de Noel, which gives off cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and walnut scents and also burns for up to 50 hours.

Accessorize the Drinks

Good cocktails are essential in a party, but you can keep that simple, too. Stemless glasses are fun, feel good to hold and look trendy. Riedel sells a line of tumblers called "O," which includes glasses for different types of wine, even champagne, with no stem or base. They are sold at



and other retailers.

A fun option is to set up a bubbly bar with inexpensive champagne like Chandon Brut Classic and a couple of mixers, including blood orange juice, pomegranate juice, pear nectar and Chambord (to make the classic Kir Royale). For the garnish, add a long toothpick with colored gum drops. Cheers!

Don't Sweat Over the Menu

There's no need to prepare a four-course dinner to keep your guests' stomachs happy. Finger food is easy to serve, eye-catching and can be delicious. Party expert Lenkert suggests mini-pancakes (homemade or bought at a gourmet grocer) topped with creme fraiche, a layer of smoked salmon and minced chives. She also likes to serve endive leaves filled with a mixture of blue cheese crumbles, chopped spiced nuts and a drop of honey.

Another foolproof crowd-pleaser is the cheese platter -- picking the right mix can make it special. Max McCalman, maitre fromager at Picholine and Artisanal restaurants in New York, picks from three to nine cheeses, including at least one from each milk type: cow, goat and sheep. A soft cheese like a brie-type, a hard sheep's milk cheese like a Spanish Manchego, a goat milk cheese, a hard aged cow milk cheese like a Beaufort or farmhouse Cheddar and a blue cheese offer a good range of flavors and textures.

Paola Singer is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsday and Hemispheres magazine.