How to have the ultimate family festive gathering

Worried about Christmas? Here are the expert tips you need to have the perfect family get together, to help you take your next holiday gathering from stress to success.

Family gathered around a festive table
  • Sue White
  • November 2019

Family get-togethers can be the best of times or the worst of times. Luckily, the experts have simple tricks to help you take your next holiday gathering from stress to success.

Prep ahead for food

Chef at Three Blue Ducks and father of two, Darren Robertson, is no stranger to big family get-togethers. He says successful festivities don’t require you to be an amazing cook. “Decide what you’re going to cook, don’t overcomplicate it and do what you can in advance so you can relax when everyone arrives,” he says. Darren’s top tip for that Christmas essential – roast potatoes? “Boil them first in chicken stock instead of water. Then roast them in duck fat until golden. They will be epic!” he says.

Share the load

Darren also recommends letting everyone help out – get kids picking herbs and adults peeling prawns or shucking oysters. And when catering for a crowd, keep guests’ dietary needs in mind (such as no chilli for kids!).

Children wrapping a Christmas present
Getting others to help out will ease your stress.

Organise what drinks you’ll serve

Plan to serve a simple cocktail rather than just wine and beer to elevate the gathering. “Choose one signature cocktail you can prepare in advance in a bigger batch. Everyone loves an Aperol spritz,” says Mark Evangelista from glassware brand Plumm.

To chill wine, ice does a good job, and adding salt to the ice and water supercharges the cooling process. “About one tablespoon per ice bucket will do,” Mark suggests. “It’s a good hack based on science.”

And don’t be afraid to mix it up. “A lighter style pinot noir works well with oysters or smoked salmon, and an aged riesling will offset the richness of your roast vegetables and the flavour of meats like turkey, chicken or ham,” says Christine Ricketts, cellar director and wine educator at Cellarmasters. “At hot pudding and brandy custard time, I love to add a chilled liquor muscat from the freezer.”

Regardless of the wines on offer, consider stemless glassware – it is versatile and less delicate. “It’s meant for wine but you can use it for other drinks like beer too,” Mark says.

A group of friends toasting with drinks
Planning a simple signature cocktail can help elevate your festive gathering

Try a festive spread short-cut

Grazing tables are a great way to cater to different requirements. According to Emily Brindley, co-owner of Sweet Bones vegan bakery and café, “Grazing tables look appealing but there’s minimal effort, and lots of things you can add to make it vegan, or gluten or nut free. Appetisers like bruschetta, guacamole and hummus are all good examples of vegan dishes that everyone will love.”

Mark agrees, recommending having some canapés ready for guests on arrival. “Everyone today loves a charcuterie board,” he says.

A colourful grazing table with breads, cheeses, meats and fruit
Grazing tables are a great festive option for all the family.

Avoid family dramas

“There’s so much expectation when family haven’t seen each other for a while. That can be a recipe for disaster,” says Matt Garrett from Relationships Australia. “Plan beforehand what you want from your Christmas and then cut your expectations in half,” he says.

Avoid the obvious conversational minefields: politics, religion, money and the housing market and if you see an issue coming your way, act fast.

“This isn’t the time to make up with a long lost cousin or have that long needed conversation. Either move on by distracting people or stepping outside: invite people for a game of cricket or a walk,” says Matt.

And if you think a family event will be difficult, gather somewhere outside of the home, such as at a hotel. “People tend to be a little bit better behaved if they are out in public. The cost is probably worth it,” adds Matt.

A grandmother and granddaughter hula-hooping
Plan fun activities to make sure everyone is busy and entertained.

Arrange the décor in advance

Set up the room the night before so you’re less stressed on the day. “If you have smaller round tables, set up different stations for mains, desserts and drinks in different parts of the room,” says Advantage Interior Design’s Luisa Volpato. “And ensure you have areas dedicated for people like Grandma who prefer to sit to eat, while keeping free space for others to stand and mingle,” she says.

Decorate on a budget

It’s easy to create a luxury look on a lean budget. “Instead of balloons, bells or baubles, feature glass vases with all white flowers and green foliage only. Use gold candles for table centrepieces. Take your one Christmas motif, say a gold reindeer, and feature that on items such as paper plates, serviettes, place cards and decorative ornaments,” says Luisa. “For more wow factor when decorating, stick to no more than three key elements,” she adds. “Pick a colour scheme, limit your use of decorative items and stick to one main motif.”

A table laid out with a candlestick and festive decorations
It's easy to create a luxury look on a lean budget this Christmas.

Keep it about the kids

When it comes to navigating a “modern family” Christmas, family lawyer and author Rebekah Mannering advises to keep the focus on the kids.

“If it’s a new family unit, make your own traditions, including some that are just yours with the kids,” she says. “Try to look at it as a time of renewal and growth.”