Tap into your senses for feel good holiday entertaining

How to lean into hosting that feels as good as you make it look.
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When the clock strikes midnight on Thanksgiving, most of us are met with one of two feelings; the immediate excitement for the approaching holidays, or the anxious chest hum thinking of everything to check off your to-do list.

Either way, the holidays seem to come with more stress and responsibility the older you get, especially when you add in the countless parties, get-togethers, and family soirees. Even for the most outgoing or prepared, entertaining can come with its unique set of stressors.

Finding a less stressful, more magical holiday season filled with mindful moments and cozy time with family and friends is more achievable than you think.

We tapped into some of Grand Rapids go-to spots and experts to share their secrets to a more blissful holiday season of entertaining and cozy space making.

The holidays are a time that colorfully engage every one of our senses, so we’ve curated a guide that explores just that. Read on to learn how tuning into your senses can make this holiday season’s gatherings as enjoyable for yourself as they are for your guests.

Sight: Cozy Up Your Space
When kicking off the holiday season, most people initially think of decorating your space, with first impressions being made the moment guests walk in the door. From Christmas trees to DIY wreaths to outdoor snowmen, the possibilities are endless – but that can also feel overwhelming.

On this topic, there was no one more perfectly suited to chat with than Amber Brandt, Grand Rapids own “Queen of Cozy”, who’s Instagram handle @thecozinessconsultant explains her expertise: values-based design to curate a cozier space. Different than a standard interior designer, Amber helps clients go beyond aesthetics to identify what makes you feel truly at home. So where to begin on curating your home for holiday entertaining?

Amber suggests a good place to start is to think of the five senses and picture someone entering your house for the first time.

“Curate the space as they are walking up. What greets them?” she says. “Maybe they see a wreath on the front door. What do they see, smell, hear? All these things, whether it’s mulling spices or having Christmas music on, makes a big impact from the second they walk in.”

The other place that most people get hung up on when decorating is traditional holiday décor. If you have some *ahem* more “kitschy” pieces from family that aren’t fitting your vision or personal style, put those in out of the way places.

“If it’s something that feels nostalgic to you, you should feature it,” Amber says. “But if it’s something that feels like obligation, listen to that guilt, and ask yourself why you feel that way. You get to make the rules and it’s okay to go easy on yourself.”

One of the easiest ways to make your home cozier? To just clean.

“When people enter my home, they regularly comment on how cozy it is, when in truth it’s just clean and uncluttered,” Amber laughs.

Simplify your home by removing clutter, even if that means completely emptying your space and being strategic about what goes back in it- something that doesn’t cost anything. Amber notes that, “Sometimes it’s not about adding another throw blanket. It’s removing some of the visual noise.”

She also suggests focusing on lighting. Each room in your house has different lighting that’s well-suited to the space. This could mean adding more cast overhead lighting for a brighter look. Or maybe inserting ambient lighting- candles or lanterns or items that add character but can also help to adjust the light for what you’ll be doing in the room.

“Candles are something so small that can have such a huge impact,” Amber notes. “Candlelight changes the mood; it makes everyone lean in a little more. Even installing dimmer switches on your lighting can make a big change.”

If you still feel stuck, Amber suggests asking yourself some simple questions: What do you like? What makes you feel relaxed?

“Can you think of a time when you visited someone’s home and it felt cozy to you?” she asks.  “Consider if it was something really special that they did. If not, sometimes it’s easy to overthink having all the right things in place, when really, it’s you that makes people feel welcome.”

Smell: Make Memories Through Scent
We’ve all caught a whiff of a smell that’s transported us back to a specific time and place. While scent might not be your initial consideration when entertaining for the holidays, a strong emotional connection can be made through smells.

“Our sense of smell is in the prefrontal cortex, so we link scents to emotions. Nothing else is connected to our brain like smell,” says Tanya Thompson, founder of The Aroma Labs, a local Grand Rapids shop where you can create your own custom fragrances. Customers can put their crafted scent into different mediums like perfumes, lotions, air fresheners and more.

Tanya recommends incorporating festive scents in your home through different hand soaps and room diffusers when gathering for the holidays. Another tip she shares is to spray a signature scent on your furnace filter to provide an aromatic throughout your home.

We also chatted with Mary Hayes, Manager at Wax Poetic Candle Bar of Grand Rapids, where guests can create custom candles by choosing various fragrances. When inviting guests into your home, she suggests focusing on how you’d like them to feel.

“Fragrance gives a long-lasting impression- that’s what we love most,” she says. “It’s really fun because then even in months or years from now, they’re going to smell that smell and remember being with you.”

If you want to curate a cozy vibe for your guests, try burning sweet scents like a cinnamon or cranberry candle. If you want them to feel refreshed, scents like Frazier fur or white birch can be a good choice. When choosing a scent for a group, it’s good to keep in mind aromas that are universally loved to please a variety of different noses.

Taste: Choose Festive Food & Drink
No holiday party is complete without a small assortment of snacks, treats and cocktails. Yes, we’re talking taste.

First up, food. This can be the most stressful part of hosting a get-together, but Queen of Cozy Amber suggests taking it easy on yourself.

“Give yourself little outs. Buy everything pre-chopped and know which items okay store-bought,” she says. While holidays can evoke visions of cooking turkey or ham all day, consider trying some equally as comforting foods, like homemade soup or breads.

“Even grilled cheese can be really gourmet. The simple act of presenting can elevate it,” Amber notes.

Next up, dessert! We called up Grand Rapid’s beloved Cakabakery to get their take on something sweet for holiday gatherings. Offering a local bakery’s desserts is a great way to support local businesses during the holidays (and takes baking off your long to-do list!).

We spoke with Cakabakery owner Jason Kakabaker who notes, “For a small group of people it’s always fun to offer our very cute gingerbread people. These are just as tasty as they are adorable.” For larger parties, Cakabakery’s pumpkin pie, pecan bars and caramel apple cheesecake bars are the way to go.

If you’re looking for something unexpected, Jason suggests a small dessert display of mini treats with things like cake pops, mini-cookies and mini brownies: “It’s always so fun and festive on a table at varying heights when paired with cake stands, pedestals and trays”.

Cakabakery is perhaps most known for their chocolate chunk cookies (we suggest served paired with a glass of red wine).

Speaking of, round out your holiday bash with some cocktails. We recommend stocking your bar cart with Grand Rapids founded Let’s Stay Home Cocktail Kits, appropriately named by founders Eric and Taylor MacAulay as they started their business during the confines of their home during the pandemic. These all natural, small batch cocktail mixes are ready to drink, just add alcohol. And they’re just as delicious without for non-alcoholic options, with flavors like Blueberry Lavender and Peach Rosemary.

Let’s Stay Home Cocktail Kits make it easy to create your own craft cocktails at home. Sold by the bottle, you can easily batch out cocktails for large groups by combining multiple bottles and mixing with your preferred liquor. Or put out a range of vodkas, whiskeys, gins and assorted mix-ins for a cool DIY cocktail bar.

“[Making drinks] is a fun way to bring people together and it’s an interactive experience,” say Eric and Taylor.

Hear: Go New Age or Old School
Music is without a doubt the best way to tap into your sense of hearing this holiday season. Set the mood with some Christmas music playing in background speakers or set your guests at ease with the cozy, classic sound of vinyl records.

Spotify is a great resource to look to for pre-curated holiday-themed playlists. From “Festive Hangs” to “Retro Holiday”, you’re sure to find something that complements the celebratory mood. You can also send out a link to a shared playlist to your guests beforehand so they can help to add in and look forward to listening to their favorite songs upon arrival.

Touch: Gift with Comfort and Fun in Mind
For our final sense exploration, we’re extending touch into the more metaphorical sense- the exchanging of gifts. Whether you love to handcraft your gift wrapping or give gifts that touch hearts, gifting is a thoughtful part of holiday get-togethers.

We talked with local year-round favorite gift shop, Rebel, whose shelves are stocked with everything from chic coffee table books and trinket dishes, to disco ball planters. Dann Boyles, co-owner of Rebel speaks on the shop’s holiday season enthusiasm.

“We’re kinda like the North Pole here”, he jokes. “We usually start placing our holiday orders in January before the coming season. We pay close attention to current trends, Tik Tok, social media and of course things that give us the warm, cozy holiday feels.”

Dann also shares a passion for decorating for the holidays, citing it as an “opportunity to unleash our childhood imaginations in our homes.” If you’re looking for a way to re-capture the magic of the holiday spirit, have fun with making up your home. “It’s only going to be up for a few weeks so you don’t have to take it so seriously,” Dann notes.

As far as what to give guests you’re hosting for the holidays, Dann says he thinks we tend to overthink these gifts. “When you don’t know someone’s personal style, I always go toward comfort,” he says. “A cozy pair of slippers and socks and a refreshing face mask is something that anyone can enjoy.  A hot toddy drink mixer and a favorite mug could be good too.  Maybe they’ll share a cocktail with you!”

Joining a holiday party this year and don’t want to show up empty handed? Rebel has countless signature scents in candles during the holidays. “I think a candle wrapped in a festive kitchen towel is both useful and nice for a host to have during a busy season at home,” Dann says.

Curating an exceptional experience for others during the holidays is part of what makes the season special but making sure to take some time out for yourself is just as key.

While the stress of the holidays may creep in this year, tapping into your senses and prioritizing what you love can help channel the magic feeling you experienced as a child- full of wonder and warm cookies and a glass of piping hot chocolate, spent with people you love.

After your guests leave for home, all the dishes are cleaned up and décor put away, what they and you will really remember is that you took the time to have meaningful conversations and create connection. Because that’s really all we’re searching for in the end.


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