Q&A: James Farmer on how to throw a great holiday party.

James Farmer
Dec 06, 2018

James T. Farmer is a professional designer, cook, author, and lifestyle expert based in Perry, Ga. He is also an editor-at-large for Southern Living and a frequent guest on television and radio. He is the author of eight books, including, A Place to Call Home, Dinner on the Grounds, A Time to Plant, A Time to Cook, A Time to Celebrate, and Porch Living.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers, Marie Kondo or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

James T. Farmer is a professional designer, cook, author, and lifestyle expert based in Perry, Ga. He is also an editor-at-large for Southern Living and a frequent guest on television and radio. He is the author of eight books, including, A Place to Call Home, Dinner on the Grounds, A Time to Plant, A Time to Cook, A Time to Celebrate, and Porch Living. Here is his design philosophy: “I want our clients to love being home, or longing to be, in a very personal and lovely space whether it is a place for solitude or company.”        

Good morning! 

My name is James Farmer and I'm a Southern fella staying busy with a interior design, speaking around the country, writing books, and entertaining to the best of my ability. I'm very blessed to be from Perry, Georgia, and get to see and meet amazing people along my journey.

I'm so grateful and excited to be part of the Washington Post's Q+A this morning. I love connecting with people and sure hope to make this a fun conversation! Thanks!

I'd love to get some amazing smelling greenery to go above a headboard. What would be good and where could I find it?

I like all the traditional ever greens like Frasier fir, which probably has the best scent, but seeded eucalyptus has a nice scent as well and not as strong as other eucalyptus. All these are readily available and holiday markets and floral shops! Hope that helps!

Hi James. I love your work! I'm throwing a holiday party for my team and their significant others at my home. I have a great place, but entertaining makes me anxious. I have another week to prepare. Food is taken care of, house is ready. What else should I do now to prepare? What can I skip? Thank you, Lisa

I'm doing the same for my team! Trying not to overthink it, but excited to create a fun, tasty, and beautiful environment. 

My grandmother always said the best thing to serve is confidence. With your house, make sure you've got plenty of cups, napkins, toilet paper, paper towels and rest knowing you've got the big stuff checked off the list! 

Help!! James, what is your secret for keeping a home with many antique pieces fresh and updated and not looking “granny-ish? You are amazing at perfecting this beautiful southern look. Thank you.

Thank you for the compliment! 

I think one of the top style tips is to not collect pieces all of the same era or finish. For example, all brown wood furniture will quickly look like your grandmother's attic, but throwing in a painted piece or contemporary art over antique chest or lucite bases under a jar or vase keeps things fresh. It's all about the mix! All about that base :) Mixing family pieces from different generations, whether furniture, silver ,or artwork is a hallmark of Southern style!

What's an all time favorite food is a "Must Have " every year at Farmdale?? Merry Christmas

I don't stray away from a block of cream cheese with pepper jelly and crackers. It's not chic, it's not original, but it's delish and everyone loves it. EVERYONE! I'm all about the sweet and salty mix!

Some Christmas Parties are so huge it takes A While to greet everyone and chit/chat.. do you have a rule of thumb on how many guest to invite to a party?

I like to remember that I too am a guest at my parties... as well as the host... so the more the merrier is great, but maybe a slight edit to the "more is merrier" manta... think about who you want to see! And also think about the conversational dynamics among guests. 

Hi James. I have a small home and don't entertain a lot. However, when I do entertain, there seems to be a lot of people to invite. I usually don't even have enough chairs for everyone to sit on. What is the best way to occasionally entertain on a larger scale, without making large investments in home "infrastructure?"

That's easy - a cocktail buffet! Serve food that doesn't require a knife and fork and dinner plates. Small plates, bite sized apps go a long way. Or better yet, be sure to have a bar and serve good wine! I guarantee it'll be a hit! After all, no one goes to a party to sit, so don't you worry!

Somehow, a casual cocktail party we're giving has turned into A Cocktail Party, with people driving longer to get here than the party will even take. Tips for elevating the experience to make the drive worth it without making it stuffy and formal, please.

It happens!

That's a bit of a challenge. Signature cocktail is always fun- I love a champagne punch or Christmas sangria. Add a sprig of rosemary or other garnish to the cocktail or food... It's super easy and adds a very intentional touch. Music always makes an environment great, so don't skimp there. Even if you have someone playing a classical guitar, it adds a little something extra. Drinks and music aren't stuffy one bit! 


Candles are everywhere this time of year and everyone has a candle that reminds them of the holiday season. Read about how candles became a huge part of the holiday and see how 14 popular brands fared in our Washington Post sniff test.  And read what James Farmer thinks of scented candles at parties. Here is the story.


I grew up with very formal dinner parties (my parents were diplomatic corps) and no kids around (except for me). I now live in a mid-Atlantic university town and NOBODY has dinner parties. Ever. Nobody seems to entertain. I'm so confused; my son is almost ten and we've never had people over at all (except family and friend at Thanksgiving and Christmas). Is it just me or is this true across the board?

People do entertain less formally nowadays, however I think with your background, you should throw a dinner party and become knowns as the best entertainer in town! Decorate the mantle, pull out the china, and raise a glass! It can be soup and cornbread or a full diplomatic formal dinner, but make it your own. I think the bar was set by your family and now it's up to you to carry on the tradition in your own style. 

I'm going to be doing some holiday entertaining and so far all I have is a green wreath on the door and some mantel greens. Do you think a simple Noble Fir wreath is beautiful enough or do you have to add a bow or pine cones?

I'm all about a good looking bow...they are festive and I think the holidays are a time to be festive. It doesn't have to be red velvet...it can be green and still have a great tone-on-tone impact. If you do add pinecones, after the holidays, you can spray paint them silver or gold and your wreath will be festive for the New Year! I can be swayed either way, but why not spruce it up?

So I read your comments about scented candles at a party. If you are burning fragrance candles in a container, where do you put them in your house? At a party you need to be careful about someone spilling hot wax don't you?

Of course have a candle lit in the bathroom.. and any side table, chest, or serving piece that may not be a collection place for drinks, plates etc. That helps with the risk of hot wax. Since the candles are contained, I usually don't worry about the hot wax too much! 

Hi! I'm not sure how to describe this, which is why my internet searching isn't productive. I have a few closets in my house that continue to the sides beyond the door openings. (Does this make sense?!) All of them have shelving in the parts beyond. Any ideas on how can I make the most of these closets? Thanks!

I'm a firm believer in hiring a professional for anything--including closet and space organization. Sounds like a job for the A Team!! 

Hi there! My husband and I love throwing parties and have thrown quite a few this year. Typically we put out some snacks (like mozzarella cheese, tomato, and some sliced meat from the Italian deli down the street), chips, and maybe someone will bring sweets to share as well. Sometimes I'll make a punch-like drink as well. Usually (as we're in our mid to late 20s) we'll end up playing beer pong/flip cup at the end of the night and going out. We're hosting the NYE's party this year, and I was thinking I'd try to do something different, like actually decorating perhaps and having a game ready since people are getting sick of the same old same old (maybe we're getting older!). Any suggestions?

Well-partied crowd! How about a good theme (chili and Cheetos or one of my alltime favorite guilty pleasures - fave childhood snacks for adults - mac and cheese with a gourmet twist)? Any menu makes things a little nicer and feel more upscale. You could handwrite place settings or menu cards for each person. And certainly, decorate! 

No offense to beer pong, but maybe a game like Catch Phrase or Heads Up would elevate the "activities."

I try to vary it up every year - the woodland/evergreen theme, the white/silver theme, the - any other ideas?

I like a twist on traditional, but holidays are about tradition and that "same ole" is what makes it great! If you're looking to mix it up, blue and white with touches of dark green, green and pink is kind of fun, red and pink, orange and red with greenery. I love to incorporate natural items like seasonal fruits. Oranges, nandina berries and pomegranates! 


Here are 5 great tips for making candles last longer from Laura Slatkin of Nest. Read it here.

I was lucky enough to know my great uncles and aunts who were adults in the 1920's and 1930's. Talk about folks who knew how to throw together a party on a whim. Now I meet people who don't entertain because they are intimidated and overwhelmed by the Martha Stewart and HGTVism of entertaining. So they don't entertain at all. 1. The party is about the people. 2. Folks want some good conversation, food, music, and drink. I had relatives who would have no matching linens, no coordinating centerpieces, no candles, but plenty of punch for the kids, ashtrays for the adults, no pets underfoot or in the house, alcoholic beverages, folding chairs, card tables for seating and tv trays. If you moved out of your seat, you lost it. (although, elders had privileges). These folks had small kitchens. Food was whatever, deviled eggs, tuna salad, crackers, nuts, turkey salad, chips, fritos, ham salad, potato salad, macaroni salad, and maybe some other hot foods. Cakes, pies, and cookies rounded it out. What I learned from them. 1. Keep it simple food wise. 2. Inexpensive food works. 3. Lots of people in a small space works. If you are not Martha Stewart type it is ok. Have fun and entertain in your home and have some fun.

Ha! I love hearing all this! Very encouraging. I hope people are inspired. But hey, coordinating centerpieces and matching linens never hurt any one! But, absolutely, it's so often the people and ease of a good time that make a party/gathering memorable!

Since Pantone announced that Living Coral is the Color of 2019, do you have a favorite coral paint color?

Love this year's color! I've been known to pronounce coral like "carl" as my mother did, so I've officially started saying #LivingWithCarl as a nod to this year's color of the year. 

I do have a few favorites - I love Copper Canyon by Valspar, Persimmon by Sherwin Williams, and for more reddish hue, I love Benjamin Moore's Geranium.


What's a fairly easy idea for a centerpiece for Christmas dinner?

A wreath laying flat on the table with a glass hurricane and candle in the center...you can do one, two, or three. I love adding silver julep cups with short cut red roses or amaryllis or just berries, as what I call satellites, dotting the table. 

I am thinking of having some people over for New Years Eve but I don't want it to be a huge deal - just relaxed and comfortable. Got some ideas for me? Do you like to go out or stay in?

Make it a Southern style NYE dinner. Casual but delish food. Collards, black eyed peas etc. You can serve that as a dinner and guarantee it won't be too stuffy. Encourages people to linger into the new year. Another opportunity would be to plan your party for later and do a new year's breakfast! Who doesn't love champagne with pancakes? As long as you let people know the style will be laid back, your guests will arrive knowing what to expect! Then, best of both words of staying in but enjoying loved ones!

I'd like to put a few holiday touches in my guest room. What would be some things you might suggest?

I think guest rooms should be neat, tidy, and accommodating with all the things a traveler would need. Simple fresh flowers with holiday/seasonal nods are all you need! If you make it too inviting, they may stay and require their own stocking lol :) 

I will be hosting a few family members for Christmas and they will be staying over at our house. What should I do to get the guest rooms ready and comfortable for my visitors?

Just answered a similar question if you can see that!

I think guest rooms should be neat and welcoming, offering everything your guests could need. One thing I thought of, if you had holiday/Christmas guest towels that you don't get to use but once a year, put them in the guest room! Bathroom needs, fresh/seasonal flowers or berries on the bedside, nice linens...all good things to provide!

If you are having 10 or 12 for dinner, is a buffet better for conversation? I could fit them at my table but it is tight. Thanks.

I like a tight table! I also like a progressive dinner. After dinner at a tight table, have dessert and coffee in the living room, or have the men go to the study. Serve from the buffet and eat at the table...tight tables always make for great conversations!

How do you go? Real or faux?

I tend to lean towards real, but a REALLY good faux is nice. Personal preference. I don't like cilantro and I do like a real tree..but you make like cilantro and have a perfectly faux tree. 

I think my main challenges to entertaining are (1) my husband is not very social, (2) clutter, and (3) my husband and I have no mutual friends together (locally, that is--plenty elsewhere). I'm just not sure how to go about crafting a party for several groups of people who don't know each other.

That's why it's a party! Mix them together, add a great drink, and have a good time. And who says you have to invite your husband? lol.. do an all wives party!

If it helps, rent a private room at a restaurant where you're just the host. It takes the pressure off and changes the atmosphere. 

For our New Year's Eve party, we ask our guests to come with at least one prediction for the New Year written on a slip of paper. After dinner, we place the predictions in a basket and pass it around the table. Everyone pulls out a prediction and reads it aloud. Some predictions are funny; others are serious. I can't tell you how much fun we have doing this every year.

Love that! Sounds great and I may incorporate that into my next party! Having my team over for a Christmas party so maybe I'll do that. 

Had another person submit a question about NYE parties. Hopefully they will see this suggestion! Cheers!

How wonderful to get such a multitude of holiday ideas from James Farmer. Love his Southern hospitality approach. Thanks so much to James for doing the chat in this busy time. Next week I will have Jessica McCarthy, Decorist's Creative Director, talking about how to get your guest room ready for your holiday overnight guests. See you then.

What a fun way to interact with so many great people. Loved the questions and made me dive into my creativity in the middle of a busy holiday season! Thanks, Jura and the Washington Post, for asking me to partake. Hope you all enjoyed as much as I did!

Have a great and happy holiday season and New Year! 

"And who says you have to invite your husband? lol.. do an all wives party!" LOL. Very true. I've been thinking about doing teas and using all my grandmother's china cups.

Haha. Love your idea.

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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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