Often we celebrate the holiday season with (yawn) the same old rituals: a cocktail party with strangers, carolers trudging from house to house, or a high-calorie dinner that puts everyone on a diet.
How about something different this year? Put away those old, worn decorations, relegate white-bearded Santa to the attic and hide the rum, nutmeg and hors d'oeuvres. Some of the following tradition-breakers were suggested by event planner Adrienne Erlick, 9441 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills 90212.
Afternoon tea--This is an elegant holiday party that the hostess can enjoy because everything is prepared beforehand. According to Alan Crump, a member of the Order of the British Empire and owner of Crumps, Spirit of London, 13616 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. "For a proper tea, always pour from a china or porcelain pot. Use your finest linen and silver for a spread that includes scones, toasted tea cakes (served hot), crumpets and thinly sliced watercress sandwiches. Brew up India, Darjeeling and Earl Grey. Don't forget lemon, sugar and milk."
Charity party--'Tis the season for giving. Guests gather at your home for holiday cheer, then go to a children's ward of a needy hospital or to a nursing or retirement home. Contact public relations directors to make arrangements before the party. Take sheet music, so your group can sing holiday songs, and plan to spend time visiting those who might otherwise have a lonely holiday. Invitations should suggest that each guest bring a wrapped gift.
Charles Dickens party--Calligraphy will enliven invitations to this Christmas-past celebration. Ask guests to wear Olde English garb, and provide line drawings of costumes in the invitations. A goose, or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, would be appropriate for dinner, with plum pudding, gooseberry pie or trifle for dessert. Sit in front of a roaring fire to read favorite sections of "A Christmas Carol."
Fabulous dessert party--Suggest that your guests have an early snack so they won't spoil their appetites for a table filled with sweet indulgences. If you're a Julia Child-type, prepare mousses, pies, petits fours, Bavarian creams and cakes of every variety. Don't forget Grandma's favorite sugar cookies cut in holiday shapes. Portions should be small so everyone can sample everything. If you prefer to stay out of the kitchen, order from your local bakery or caterer. Exotic tea, espresso or spiced coffee would add the perfect finishing touch. Have some gift-wrapped chocolate truffles for each person to take home.
Futuristic party--Everyone is invited to come dressed in what they think will be the fashion in 2002. A robot-like Santa (your own creation or a store-bought model) can greet guests. Let the halls be decked with holly--foil, of course. Use computer parts to create a tree. As for dinner, nouvelle cuisine served on plastic TV trays can be zapped in the microwave oven.
Gift-wrapping party--This is for those who can't tie a bow, make the edges of gift paper meet or put tape on anything without becoming entrapped in it. Invite a group of friends to bring their unwrapped gifts to your home. Give copies of directions for different wrappings to each guest. Be sure to include a few artistic souls who can lend a helping hand. Have a full supply of foil, wrappings and ribbons of every hue, tape and a variety of boxes. Ask everyone to bring extra goodies for gilding the gifts. Display finished samples to inspire creativity.
Hansel and Gretel party--The host and hostess greet their company dressed in European peasant outfits. Build a real candy cottage to welcome guests. Children will want to munch, so hang candy canes from windows and doors. Serve humble pot-au-feu (peasant stew) with French bread. Decorate with boughs of pine. Play a recording of Humperdinck's opera "Hansel and Gretel" as background music.
Hayride--There's rarely snow in Los Angeles, so sleighs are out. But you can substitute a hayride. Nearly all stables offering rides have nearby picnic facilities so you can prepare gaily decorated baskets filled with hearty sandwiches and hot soup. If your party starts after sundown, remind guests to bring warm clothing. To add to the festivities, take along bells and a battery-equipped tape player with cassettes of favorite holiday songs. Remember that most wagons hold 20-25 people and that reservations are required. Stables and rides are listed in your phone directory.
Movie party--Send invitation on tickets. Set-up klieg lights to welcome guests and decorate the house with movie props: empty reel cans, streamers made from old film, spotlights scattered around the room. "Miracle on 34th Street," "White Christmas," "It's a Wonderful Life" or "A Christmas Carol," are a few of many fine holiday films to rent or buy for your VCR, but, if you're going to rent, do so early (some stores allow rentals as long as 10 days). Serve popcorn sprinkled with butter, salt or any other spices.
Scavenger hunt--Santa's messages lead your guests along a holiday trail around the house. Mix couples into new duos or trios, then distribute the first of 10 clues telling where to find other clues hidden in decorations. At the tenth location, hide a gift. Set up oases with elves serving food and beverages to keep everyone's spirits up during a suspenseful search.