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Everyone hates a boring party. Here's how to kick things up a notch

NPR Life Kit listeners share photos from their best theme parties. Left: a vision board for a "Vampire Nights"-themed party; middle: An '80s-themed ski party; right: An Olympics watch party.
Photos courtesy of L to R: Gabby Kanu; Arik Colbath; Tom Czech and Elizabeth Novak
NPR Life Kit listeners share photos from their best theme parties. Left: a vision board for a "Vampire Nights"-themed party; middle: An '80s-themed ski party; right: An Olympics watch party.

Have you ever thought about hosting a construction site-themed Christmas party (complete with wreaths decorated with toy trucks and tools)? Or a totally '80s-inspired ski weekend, where guests hit the slopes in retro gear?

These are just some of the unexpected ways that our audience has celebrated the holidays and the winter season.

Last month, we asked people to tell us about their most epic theme party and the strategies that made it so successful. As you plan your own gatherings and fêtes over the next few weeks, consider these ideas to impress your guests and kick things up a notch.

The big takeaway? Think through a clear party theme in advance, but don't forget to leave room for fun and spontaneity.

Here are 6 unconventional party ideas from our audience.

1. Combine two unrelated themes

My husband and I have thrown numerous themed Christmas parties. One year our theme was "Build a Happy Holiday." Wreaths were decorated with miniature construction vehicles and tools, snacks were served in the backs of plastic toy dump trucks, and the table was covered with brown paper and turned into a construction site. The menu consisted of homemade desserts, a cheese and fruit board and lots of dried fruits and nuts strategically placed in piles around the "site." --Jim Kendall, Harrisburg, Pa.

2. Find any random reason to celebrate

Karla Burk hosts an "F-You Winter" themed party where everyone gathers to light old Christmas trees on fire.
/ Courtesy of Karla Burk
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Courtesy of Karla Burk
Karla Burk hosts an "F-You Winter" themed party where everyone gathers to light old Christmas trees on fire.
Left, a party guest, and right, Kate L.'s wife C.C., who co-hosted a themed brunch to celebrate a new seersucker suit.
/ Courtesy of Kate L.
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Courtesy of Kate L.
Left, a party guest, and right, Kate L.'s wife C.C., who co-hosted a themed brunch to celebrate a new seersucker suit.

Say goodbye to winter: We have an "F-You Winter"-themed Christmas tree-burning party. We save our tree and set it on fire to celebrate the end of a long Midwest winter. We usually do this in March when the weather gets warm enough for an outdoor party. It's great fun! --Karla Burk

Celebrate a new suit: My wife and I threw an excellent theme party this Labor Day weekend: a seersucker brunch. The impetus for the party was that my wife was buying a custom seersucker suit this summer, just because she always wanted one. I mentioned that it was a shame she didn't have a good occasion to wear her great new suit, so maybe we should have a debut party for it. She loved the idea — and thus the seersucker brunch was born. --Kate L., Chicago

3. Make a vision board

Gabby Kanu shares her vision board for her "Vampire Nights"-themed Halloween party. She says she started planning for the event four months in advance.
/ Courtesy of Gabby Kanu
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Courtesy of Gabby Kanu
Gabby Kanu shares her vision board for her "Vampire Nights"-themed Halloween party. She says she started planning for the event four months in advance.

I throw a Halloween party every year. My theme this year was "Vampire Nights." People came dressed as Victorian vampires or famous vampires from movies. There was a signature blood red drink, vampire movie trivia and a costume contest. First place was a bottle of red wine with a vampire cape on it.

My pro tip is to make a vision board. It helps keep you on track and stay true to your theme. I've been to parties without a clear theme and they felt disorganized. I decided I wanted people to know what was going on the moment they walked through the door. --Gabby Kanu

4. Pay attention to the timing

Tom Czech and Elizabeth Novak hosted an Olympics-themed party during the Tokyo games. The decor included the Olympics rings, country flags and the Olympics torch.
/ Courtesy of Tom Czech and Elizabeth Novak
/
Courtesy of Tom Czech and Elizabeth Novak
Tom Czech and Elizabeth Novak hosted an Olympics-themed party during the Tokyo games. The decor included the Olympics rings, country flags and the Olympics torch.

During the Tokyo Games, my wife and I had an Olympics-themed party.

The most important aspect of any sports-themed party is the timing of the sporting event. However, the Olympics are complicated [because there are so many games].

First, I obtained a copy of the master schedule from the International Olympic Committee's website. I picked a Saturday with the most interesting events and converted the start times [of the games] to my local time zone. The first event was track and field at 6 p.m., so we had everyone come around 5 p.m. We aimed to finish dinner before the U.S. played an elimination beach volleyball game at 8 p.m. Gold medal swimming races took place at 9 p.m. Some of us were up watching badminton at 2 a.m. and many slept over and woke up at 7 a.m. to catch the 100-meter dash final before leaving.

We set up three TVs in our living room and one TV in our dining room. It was incredible to have so many exciting live sports on at one time. --Tom Czech and Elizabeth Novak, Chicago

5. Go big or go home

Arik Colbath hosts an '80s-themed ski weekend every year. Guests are strongly encouraged to wear their best vintage snow gear.
/ Courtesy of Arik Colbath
/
Courtesy of Arik Colbath
Arik Colbath hosts an '80s-themed ski weekend every year. Guests are strongly encouraged to wear their best vintage snow gear.

My most popular theme party is my annual '80s ski weekend in Killington, Vt. Each spring, I bring over 100 people dressed in their best retro gear to the slopes — then we rock out to an '80s cover band at night. There are group photos that capture all the DayGlo color — and I give out awards with titles like "The Golden Legwarmers Award for Excellence" and "Big Hair and Big Air."

I have only one rule: dress up like it's that era the entire weekend. Whether it's at breakfast or on the slopes, you have to live, breathe and [embody the theme] the whole weekend. It's an incredible time and guests come back year after year. --Arik Colbath

6. Give people space to do their own thing

We had a "Jorts and Reports"-themed party. The concept was simple: wear jorts [jean shorts] and present a powerpoint on a topic of your choosing. Despite only a few days notice, we had a lot of participation from our friends on topics that ranged from the comical to the niche to the somewhat unhinged. Someone made a presentation about the best parking spots in the greater Denver area, why It's a Wonderful Life is a terrible movie and untrustworthy animals.

A good theme is like a rug in a room. It should bring the event together, but not be the dominating focal point. In our case, the most important thing about our party was to spend time with friends. So while we had plenty of time for reports, we also had space for people to have their own conversations and do their own thing. --Sean Youn, Denver

Thank you to all those who shared their theme party tips with Life Kit.

Edited by: Beck Harlan. Listen to Life Kit on

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More great party tips from Life Kit

  • Ready to throw your own theme party? Event planners share advice on when to send invitations — and how to choose a clever theme.
  • Our party planning experts agree music is a must-have to set the tone for any soiree. NPR Music's Bobby Carter says to create a successful playlist, structure it like an airplane flight. 
  • Looking to chat up the cutie by the party punchbowl? The key to flirting is to not make it about you
  • To host a good gathering, keep in mind that the more isn't always the merrier, says Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering. She shares how to create an effective guest list
  • Good parties begin with good conversations. Listen to this episode with author and chitchat expert Celeste Headlee for tips on how to be a better conversationalist
  • Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.