Days before the first guest steps through the holly-decorated doorway, my chef, Art Smith, begins dicing, chopping, mincing, and brewing to stir up a menu with some of my all-time favorite fixin's: slow-roasted chicken with wild rice dressing (the perfect "I'm sick of turkey" choice), pantry tomato tart (a dish I've always loved), and sautéed greens with shallots (a scrumptious way to get those veggies in). Art always knows to start the meal with soup. As a child, I would watch Lassie, and there was always a Campbell's soup commercial where Timmy's mom would feed him soup that was "M'm! M'm! Good!" Ever since, soup has been my favorite thing to have for lunch, and in winter I have it almost every day. For this special dinner, I ask Art to mix up the soup I most often request: spicy winter squash. He makes his with butternut squash (it's absolutely de-lish!), but he tells me that any kind of winter squash will do: calabaza, hubbard, or, in a pinch, even a sugar pumpkin.
Few people get more excited about a party than my best friend, Gayle King. "I've just seen Art's menu," she exclaims hours before our dinner. "I can't wait." One by one, soon after dusk, the eight other guests arrive: Stedman's daughter, Wendy Graham; my father, Vernon Winfrey, and his wife, Barbara; my godmother, Rosalind Eddins (I call her Mrs. E), and her husband, Calvin; my longtime pals Mary Kay Clinton and her husband, Tom O'Brien. And of course, there's my one very special guest who steps in working her new do: my goddaughter, 8-year-old Katy Rose, child of Mary Kay and Tom—whose flip is fabulous.
After a champagne toast accompanied by a taste of the South—drop biscuits with ham—we take our places around the dining room table. Some of my fondest early memories were around a table like this one. My grandmother, Hattie Mae, would stand over a hot stove for hours, preparing cheese grits, homemade biscuits dripping with butter, home-cured ham, red-eye gravy—and that was just breakfast! During Sunday supper—the one day when the preacher from Kosciusko Baptist Church down the road was sure to stop in to join us—our table was heaped with smothered chicken, black-eyed peas, fried okra, and buttered cornbread. Food was the guest of honor, covering so much of the table there was hardly room for plates. As Stedman gives thanks for the bounty before us and the spirit of those gathered, I am grateful, more than 40 years after sitting at my grandmother's table, that I can offer the same gifts of abundance and care that she passed on to me during our feasts—all of the love, less of the butter.
Beneath the flicker of 12 dancing flames from the chandelier, dinner is punctuated with the sounds of celebration: Katy Rose's giggle, the clickety-clack of silver against china, Johnny Mathis crooning "Christmas Is a Feeling in Your Heart" in the background. Stedman carves the bird. I lift my glass for a wine toast: Gayle, the consummate abstainer who would ask a bartender for a hit of milk, of course declines. What she will partake of is the irresistible dessert: The fluffy coconut cake looks like it has floated right down from heaven and onto our plates. Later in the living room, where crystal ornaments hang in the windows and the blue spruce towers more than ten feet into the air, Art serves up one of his grandma's old-time Southern recipes: a vanilla-fudge-like candy called divinity.
As a child, I always dreamed of the ideal Christmas: bows of holly on the staircase, mistletoe in all the doorways, snowman in the yard, elf dolls in every corner. In all my years of growing up, I'd never even had a real tree—and our fake one was only 3 feet high, dressed with one of those colored-light twirls. So for the first time, back in 1989, I gave myself all that I'd thought I wanted—starting with an ornament party, since I had not one single ornament to my name. As I sit with friends in front of a fireplace now, surrounded by more ornaments than I ever thought I'd own, I remember what I realized more than a decade ago: Christmas can't be found on a tree or in a package. It comes with the rich connections we make with those around us and with the nurturing we extend to ourselves and others—those are the gifts that count. Johnny Mathis had it right: Christmas is a feeling in your heart. And whether you're commemorating Chanukah, Kwanza, or December 25, the celebration is meaningful only if the spirit of the day lives strong in you all year round.
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Setting the Table
Linens: Start with a one-color theme, (for this party, Oprah chose cranberry red) and accessorize in the same palette. Or choose other rich, festive shades, like plum, wine, or rose. You might dream of white linens and candles with a centerpiece of paper-whites. Nontraditional colors like royal blue, pale pink, sage green, or lilac can also be beautiful. (You can find reasonably priced red stemware, beaded mats, and napkin rings at CrateandBarrel.com and Pier1.com.)
Serving Pieces: Feel free to mix different patterns, new and antique, sterling silver and silver plate. Silver looks best with a slight patina; avoid overpolishing. Cut crystal also adds dazzle.
Centerpiece: Fill a clear bowl with greens, kumquats, oranges, crab apples, or multicolored glass ornaments. Arrange a cedar wreath tied with red or gold satin ribbons around a glass hurricane lamp or candlesticks. Avoid perfumed candles, and place tall candlesticks above eye level so they don't distract. Try groupings of votives or pillars on a mirrored tray.
Finishing Touches: Tie napkins with wire-edge silver or gold ribbon threaded with tiny ornaments. Make a bouquet for each place setting with miniature red roses in a silvery mint julep cup. Gift ideas for each guest: a special ornament, chocolate truffles, a jewel-tone votive.
Planning the Meal
The Buffet: Chef Art Smith puts all the dishes on a sideboard so guests can help themselves. "It makes them feel comfortable," he says, "which directly affects the mood of the party." You don't need a formal sideboard. "I've used everything from card tables to junk-shop bureaus," Art says. To protect fine finishes from hot serving dishes, use insulated pads.
The Menu: "Oprah's godmother, Mrs. Eddins, inspired me to make a hen, but they're hard to find, so I suggested roasting chickens instead," Art says. Oprah also likes a crown pork roast. "It's easy and it feeds a lot," he says. "And coming from the South, I believe in serving plenty of side dishes."
On Children: "If you expect kids to act like ladies and gentlemen, seat them with the adults, not at a separate table," says Art. Be prepared with plenty of candy for dessert—bowls of peppermint ribbons, and lollipops tied to the trees. (Find old-fashioned candy at HammondsCandies.com.)
Punch: The punch bowl is a gracious and easy way to serve drinks. Arrange the bowl, mugs, and cocktail napkins on a small table decorated with a garland of greens or holly, and place them in a room where guests gather. Art favors a nonalcoholic sugarless punch. You can have vodka and rum waiting on the side for guests to add themselves.
Dessert: Bring the coconut cake to the table to slice, as Oprah does. "She likes to serve guests herself," Art says. "It's about loving people with food."
Decorating the House
Windows: Hang a boxwood or red-berry wreath in each window with satin ribbon (berry wreaths are available at CrateandBarrel.com). A bay leaf wreath in the kitchen provides leaves that can be used all year in cooking.
Chandelier: Oprah's chandelier is draped with a boxwood garland. Other ideas: Tie on ornaments with ribbons, or drape the
Fireplace: Arrange a basket of pinecones and greenery next to the hearth. (For a box of evergreen and ponderosa pinecones, see Williams-Sonoma.com.)
Mirrors: Wrap tiny white tree lights around the frame of a large mirror or decorate with a swag of spruce and red berries.
Hall: Attach pine or eucalyptus garlands over an entryway, or tie branches of greens and tiny tree lights together with ribbons and silver bells and twist around the banister. (Find pine garlands at JCPenney.com.)
Tree: For a traditional tree like Oprah's, choose ornaments with an antique look and mini amber-colored lights that cast a warm glow. (A range of vintage-style blown-glass ornaments is available at MidwestofCannonFalls.com; tree lights at FrontGate.com.) Start a collection: Throw a tree-trimming party, and ask guests to bring an ornament. (For information on how to order a fresh-cut tree from a tree farm or to find growers near you, try Christmas-Tree.org.)