Kick Off the Holidays with a Casual, Gift Wrapping Dinner Party

See how food editor Emily Teel carves out quality time amid the holiday bustle with a low-key weeknight of hands-off dinner and gift wrapping with friends.

Every December feels as though it goes more quickly than the last. With holiday preparations, family events, and end-of-year work responsibilities, the month seems to be booked up before it has begun, and the festive season flies by with scarcely a moment to enjoy it.

Several years ago, I thought I surely couldn't be the only one who longs not for more parties but for more togetherness. I sent a group text to friends: "Monday night. I have to wrap presents. Bring yours over, and we can wrap them together. I'll feed you." I scattered tubes of wrapping paper around the living room, put scissors and tape on the coffee table, and stacked bowls next to the stove.

christmas illustration holiday beverage
Illustration by Eugenia (Jenny) Kroik

For dinner, I kept things equally simple, both for my own benefit and for friends hungry for a nourishing alternative to holiday overindulgence.

Pulling off the holidays doesn't have to feel like a part-time job. It's more fun to tackle the to-do list with friends.

I cooked white beans to creamy softness, then added a heap of vegetables to make a slow cooker version of the Tuscan tomato and bread stew called ribollita. It grew even more velvety while left on the "warm" setting so people could serve themselves throughout the evening. A dusting of Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil made each bowl rich enough to feel special. I set some tongs in a bowl of sturdy salad greens and put out the caesar dressing I had mixed up the day before.

Yes, there was gift wrapping, but the evening wound up more as a casual hangout. Nobody got dressed up; most either came straight from work or arrived later as kids' bedtime schedules allowed. We leaned against the kitchen counter and crowded around the table. We sipped low-octane spritzes that I made in one big batch. A pan of hazelnut-studded brownies dwindled as we repeatedly cut slivers off the edges. What started as a last-minute, thrown-together gathering is now one of my favorite holiday traditions. Too informal to be called a party, it's too joyful to be called anything else.

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