How to entertain out-of-town guests at the holidays

December 14, 2023

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A friend of mine recently called me for ideas for hosting her in-laws, who will be in town for the holidays for four days. Together, we brainstormed what works when it comes to entertaining out-of-towners (aka it’s fun but low stress for you and not too tiring). We came up with a comprehensive list for making spirits bright. Use these ideas to build the ultimate itinerary:

Make a welcome charcuterie board.

Charcuterie Boards

Go all out: meats, cheeses, nuts, pickles, crackers, chocolate. Get those cute little holiday stars at Trader Joe’s. Make this pretty and abundant. Put this together right before you pick them up from the airport. You may not have time to build this once your guests arrive. When they get back to your house–a snack dinner is ready! It’s my favorite magic trick.

Make a guest basket.

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This can be on the guest bed and should include a reusable water bottle, a phone charger, a snack, gum or mints, and other little toiletries that they might have left behind (mouthwash? floss? dry shampoo? makeup wipes?) or things that would just make them feel special (a face mask? a pair of slippers?). Especially during the holidays, I like to include a puzzle book or an adult coloring book. There’s going to be a lot of downtime, and you don’t want everyone just scrolling on their phones.

Plan a puzzle day.

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You don’t have to go out every day. That’s exhausting. One day, you’re going to stay in. Get a big Christmassy puzzle, make something delicious in the Crock-Pot. Put out some snacks, and turn on a Christmas movie in the background. If you’re lucky, this will turn into a Christmas movie marathon. The down time is my favorite part about the holidays, so schedule it in!

Build in bonding time (that’s not necessarily with you).

Have your spouse take the parents out for lunch one day, or tap your sisters to take your friend out. Or send them out with the grandkids. You’re not going. This is all about scoring some much-needed downtime and letting them bond. They probably have some last-minute shopping (for you) to do, anyway.

Get tickets to a matinee.

This could be a movie or another performance. Make a lunch reservation beforehand — somewhere close by. (Bonus points if you can park just once.) Here’s the thing — a matinee, plus lunch, feels like an all-day affair. By the time everyone comes home, it’s dark outside, and they’re ready for a hot drink and pajamas. Plus, you’ll be debriefing about the movie for the rest of the night.

Head to a holiday market.

There are holiday pop-ups all over Raleigh/Durham, and I know these are popular everywhere. Do a quick search, strap on your crossbody bag, and head out. It’s especially fun to find a maker’s market, but high-end shops do special shopping experiences for the holidays, too. It’s fun to give everyone a challenge — “What’s the coolest thing you can find for $5?” — or even start a tradition of having an ornament exchange. It’s also fun to just get a soft pretzel or some hot chocolate and bundle up and walk around.

Plan one nice night out.

When your guests are packing for their trip, ask them to bring one nice outfit for going out in the evening. Look up your local symphony’s schedule and see if they’re doing “Holiday Pops.” Or, see if there’s a stage production of “A Christmas Carol” in your area. Even a fancy dinner reservation will feel fun and special. Just remember to take a group picture when everyone’s all dressed up.

Drive around and look at lights.

A lot of towns have sanctioned light events, but you can also just drive around, listening to Bing Crosby, and Ooo and Ahh at your neighbors’ displays. Real homegrown fun. Tip: Check Facebook groups for cool hubs for holiday lights. Sometimes one street will get together on something truly spectacular.

Do an edible craft.

Make Christmas cookies or get Gingerbread house kits. Tis the season. Tip: If kids are involved, the houses have to be already put together and ready for icing. Target has these already assembled. Whole Foods has some nice ones, too.

Order in one big meal.

This might be the clincher for the last night. After days of hosting, you’re not in the mood to cook or clean the kitchen again. I recommend going with Thai, Indian, or Chinese. These are menus with lots of variety, and your group can try lots of different bites. (Side note: Why is Thai/Indian/Chinese $100 whether I’m ordering for two people or six?) Double down on the Crab Rangoons.

Visit a Christmas tree lot.

Even if you already have a tree, going to a nursery or garden center is a really fun and Christmassy thing to do with out-of-town guests. Task your family/friends with helping you to choose a wreath. Mostly, you’ll just mosey through the fragrant pines, and if this were a movie — this is when it would start snowing.

Host Christmas karaoke.

Even the most hesitant of singers will want to get in on the caroling fun with this microphone. Tip: Don’t stress about finding the karaoke version of a song. You sound better singing directly over Mariah Carey anyway.

Host a movie night.

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Here’s how to make it fun: Ask everyone to come ready with their favorite clip from a Christmas movie. Almost all of them are streaming, but you can also find a lot of classic/favorite scenes on YouTube. Keep the clips to 10 minutes or less and give everyone a turn. Here are a few to get you started:

Ralphie licks the pole in “A Christmas Story”

Squirrel attacks The Griswalds in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

The cards on the doorstep in “Love, Actually”

Have a crawl.

Hot chocolate? French fries? Brussels sprouts? Pick a favorite snack, and look up a few local places who claim to do this well. Give everyone a rating card, so you can crown a winner at the end of the day. Bonus points if you can park once (like in a downtown area) and hit two or three stops. This could turn into an annual thing: The Marcum Family Hot Chocolate Trot 2023.

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What do you think?

  1. Kathy says:

    Thank you for this fabulous idea! Since we live in Wisconsin and love custard, we had a Custard Crawl, and it was a BIG HIT with our 22-30 year old kids and our daughter-in-law. Such fun discussions we had about each of the 3 custard stands we visited! The kids want to make a crawl an annual tradition, maybe a Taco Trot next year!

  2. Jan says:

    Great ideas..
    Sophisticated schddule plans—One suggestion—-Hotel-like mints or chocolates left on pillow at night…..

  3. Jen C says:

    We have friends coming from Scotland in a few months and your ideas have me planning so that they have an enjoyable visit. Thank you!

  4. Tricia says:

    Super, such fun ideas 😊

  5. Cristina C. says:

    You have really wowed me with these ideas! My dad just left town but I’ll be saving these ideas for next time!

  6. Jessica W. says:

    This was an amazing post! I’ll be saving this for years to come. So many thoughtful ideas that will make so many good memories to come!

  7. Alma Stone says:

    These are great ideas! Thanks for sharing them.

  8. Ashley L says:

    Super fun and creative ideas. Thanks for putting these quality time ideas together! Merry Christmas!

  9. Kate S. says:

    This was a brilliant write up! I’m actually being the hosted this year but coming with some suggestions so my host doesn’t feel like it’s all on her shoulders. The Christmas Karaoke is for sure topping that list since I can pack everything with me and it’s a done deal. No work for my host!

  10. Michele Nelson says:

    Awesome ideas!!!

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