Holiday home prep, simplified

Small, finishing touches make a definite difference, but they don’t have to take ages to incorporate.

By Jennifer Shapira

Majestic Double-sided Pre-lit Garland from Frontgate, Photo courtesy of Frontgate

Katie McGovern has her holiday planning down to a science. Of course, she decorates for a living, but that’s all the more reason she needs to get her own home in shape for the holidays sooner, rather than later. She recalls, in the past, having felt frazzled about getting everything done.

She’s somewhat nostalgic about those early days of putting the kids to bed and then speed-decorating all night so that the family awoke to a magically transformed home. But over time, she’s learned to take shortcuts here and there so that she’s able to maximize the time spent with family and guests during the holiday season. And it helps that McGovern’s daughters are now old enough that she can outsource tasks to them, and they are happy to oblige. And so is her husband, whose traditional role is to put up the holiday lights outside the house.

Together, the family embraces the season of giving. From hosting thoughtful, casual meals for overnight guests, to making them feel comfortable at all hours, McGovern, an interior decorator with Herndon-based Décor and You DC, shares some time-saving tips and tricks.

“I used to make my own fresh garlands for my staircase in my home,” she says. She would cut the greens herself then hand-wire them to an artificial garland base. “In the end, the whole thing looked like a completely fresh garland—and I have a staircase that goes up to the second floor then winds around a balcony. I used to do that! I did that for five years running.”

But since then, life has gotten a lot busier, she says. So she decided to invest in some “really good garlands from Frontgate.” Off-season, she stashes them pre-decorated in good-quality Rubbermaid boxes. And when the calendar hits her start date, she carefully removes them from their well-labeled storage and sets to work winding them around the staircase, looping in festive ribbons. McGovern even keeps the ties in place so that the lengthy garland hangs as precisely as the year before. The whole process once took an entire night; now it takes her 30 to 45 minutes—tops, she says.

Table setting by Katie McGovern (left) and Andrea Schwartz (right)

Easing the Load
Experts agree that successful holiday planning is all about keeping things simple, yet still thought out. The details matter. The trick is to think ahead to avoid running around at the last minute.

When it comes to hosting a house full for casual breakfasts and lunches, McGovern says, “I’m a huge proponent of self-serve, but beautifully done.” Don’t go to all the trouble of whipping up pancakes and bacon, you don’t want guests to feel obligated to be up at a certain time for breakfast. And as the host, you don’t want to be disappointed if the food cools without any takers. Keep in mind, a big meal is not everyone’s idea of how to start the day.

The best suggestion is to have items accessible and at-the-ready. Let guests help themselves. On her kitchen island, McGovern rolls out a table runner, and sets out a selection of croissants, muffins, festive flavored butters (she makes a marmalade butter) and assorted jams and juices, complete with pretty serving spoons, knives, plates, napkins, and hits the power on the coffee maker. Though, she says, “I recently bought a Keurig—it’s fabulous because everyone can make their own coffee or tea.”

The buffet idea has worked really well, says McGovern, of her perfected mix of homemade and store-bought items. “I try to treat [guests] like they’re at a bed and breakfast; let them do what they wish. That’s a pretty gracious way of doing breakfast. I’ve done the same for lunches. If everybody’s going to be hanging around the house, make your own sandwich: Here are the meats, cheeses and condiments.” You don’t have to make it for them, just offer some options, she says.
Another tip? “I always advise people to make use of the gourmet grocery store—that takes some of the pressure off,” says McGovern, but still offers guests a fresh-made vibe.

“The other thing I do throughout the year,” says McGovern, “when I’m baking muffins and breads, I make another batch. I’m constantly making muffins for my family to eat and I freeze the rest.”

Then during the holidays, she’ll serve an assortment of her own ready-made breakfast breads and muffins. Always the planner, McGovern starts in the summer, when berries are plentiful. She freezes them, then later folds them into batches of muffins and breads. She uses her trusty Brother P-Touch label maker to tap out the type of baked good and the date made so they’re easy to find in the freezer.

During the holidays, convenience trumps everything, says McGovern. For example, don’t make potato salad, buy it. And there are so many bakeries that make wonderful breads, so let them do the work. Pick up fresh bagels from a favorite shop, along with seasonal cream cheese. Bake a quiche if there’s time, if not, purchase one from a local market. For an uncomplicated lunch or dinner, pull out a frozen lasagna and toss a quick salad. Enlist the slow-cooker; with little direction, minimal supervision and a tried-and-true family recipe—it can whip up a laid-back, but tasty weeknight meal of chili or pot roast. Have a bowl of fruit on the counter heaped with bananas, apples, oranges, clementines, so guests can help themselves to a healthy snack. Ask guests ahead of time about their preferences and stock up on their favorite items; a little attention to those details makes them feel special.


Be Our Guest
The more on top of things you are, the more you can focus on some of the smaller touches of making guests feel welcome, like ensuring a good night’s sleep.

If possible, McGovern suggests that a host stay overnight in her guest bedroom, to test it out from all angles. Make sure it’s a private, serene place in which to fall asleep and wake up, that there are no offending sounds, that a window covering shields the beam of a streetlamp or the morning sun. Ensure there’s a well-lit mirror for putting on make-up, a clock radio with an alarm, a chair or a bench to take off or put on shoes, a suitcase valet, if space allows. Have enough hangers in the closet, suggests McGovern, adding they should be good-quality, not ones from the local dry cleaner.

Assemble a welcome basket of easy-to-forget toiletries, like a toothbrush, floss, razor, soap, shampoo. Having those items on-hand takes a little extra planning, but it’s worth it; it will eliminate emergency trips to the drugstore.

“I like to be prepared like there’s going to be a snowstorm,” says Leesburg-based interior designer Andrea Schwartz. For her, some of those items include extra toilet tissue, paper towels, trash bags, bottled water.

“I like to put chocolates on people’s pillows,” adds Schwartz. Make sure all the linens are fresh and clean for your guest, and show them where they can get extra pillows and blankets. Have pillows in varied heights and fills; you don’t want to have a guest who couldn’t sleep because the pillow was too puffy, not flat enough or allergic to down feathers. Make the bed ahead of time, clear a shelf, dresser drawer or closet for a guest’s belongings, and stock the bedside table with a tastefully appointed bud vase, clock radio, good reading light, maybe even a note of welcome. If there are a number of activities planned over the course of the visit, note their dates and times on a printed itinerary so that guests are informed.

Being a gracious host, says Schwartz, just may be the most important thing. “Anytime you’re entertaining, if someone offers to make something, say, ‘That would be lovely. I would appreciate that.’ It’s important people feel like they’re included.”

(November 2013)