We spent a few hundred hours researching and testing to find the best gear and supplies for throwing holiday parties. Here's an abridged version of that list.
It won't be loud enough to disturb the neighbors, but after over 40 hours of research and evaluating many models from Bose, Jawbone and more, we recommend the $250 Sony BTX-500 as a modest home bluetooth speaker for a get-together of 2-12 people. It's the best pick under $300 and has a six-hour battery—probably enough to last the duration of your party, depending on how much booze you provide.
Wine Glass Marker
A wine glass marker both helps your guests avoid snagging other people's drinks and saves you the trouble of washing too many glasses at the end of the night. After an hour of research, our pick for a dinner party is the popular Trudeau Duo Tone Floral Wine Charms ($10 for 12). They have an impressive five-star rating over 90 customer reviews, a five-year warranty, and come in a more memorable assortment than the standard colored beads or little silicone doughnuts. They're also less goofy and more varied than Amazon's bestselling Kikkerland Dapper 'Staches Silicone Drink Markers ($6).
Warm candlelight provides the cheapest way to make everyone look sexier. We were bananas enough to test 16 candles for longevity, drip, and smoke. Our favorite taper was Light in the Dark's 10" tall taper ($16 for 10). For pillar candles, we liked the Yummi candle ($20 for 3), which has a claimed burn time of 60 hours. In our tests, it outlasted the rest and hardened the fastest. The best votive candles were Light in the Dark's 15-Hour Unscented Votive candles ($25 for 36). Amazon reviewers say the actual burn time is about 11-13 hours, not the advertised 15 hours, but that's still pretty good for a votive. And if you want the low flicker of tealights, which tend to burn out within a few hours, we liked Richland's Extended Burn candles ($25 for 100). Amazon reviewers say they usually get about 6 ½ hours of flame, which should last through most of your party.
Never underestimate the thermal power of many human bodies packed into a room, even in the dead of winter. Break out a room fan to maintain optimal flow. Our pick is the Vornado 660 ($99). It's quiet, small, and powerful enough to move up to 584 cubic feet of what would otherwise be clammy air out of the room.
Pre-made Puff Pastry
This stuff makes you look like a genius in the kitchen, even though it's just a frozen sheet you unfold and bake. You can make quick hors d'ouevres and fancy-looking desserts with hardly any work at all. We tested three brands and found that the super cheap Trader Joe's brand ($4) to be the best-tasting and best value. Stock up — it's only around for the holiday season.
Champers is expensive. If it's New Year's and you just want everyone to get a little toast, grab these Spiegelau Festival Champagne Flutes ($16 for 2). They hold a 5 oz. pour, so you can fill five glasses with a single bottle of bubbly — way more than you would with a standard 8 oz. flute.
A big tub of punch is cheaper and less labor intensive than making individual cocktails to suit each guest's taste. We like the Anchor Hocking Canton Punch Bowl ($16). When you're done, flip the bowl over and — voila! — you have a cake stand.
Ready-made Pie Crust
We tested three premade pie doughs. We're not going to lie, they don't compare to the real deal, which ultimately isn't that hard to make. But if you are pressed for time, our pick is the widely available Pillsbury Pie Crust ($4 for 2). Pop one into our favorite pie plate, crimp the crust, and nobody will admit they can tell it's store bought.
Don't make your guests hunch over your coffee table or balance their plates on their thighs. Get a proper folding table, one you can pull out of the closet and kick open like furniture origami. We tested five top-rated tables and the Sudden Solutions 6' Center Fold Blow Mold Table ($80) came out on top. It didn't buckle or bend, and you can fold it in half for easy storage. Your guests — and their lower backs — will love you for it. (We also picked out some great folding chairs for about $25 each.)
When you've run out of coffee cups, wine goblets, or juice glasses, just hand your guest one of these Duralex Picardie tumblers ($28 for 6). The Guardian once declared them one of the top 10 "classics of everyday design." They're used to serve tea in the Middle East, or espresso and red wine in Paris. They're made of durable tempered glass so they resist chipping and breaking. Bonus - they make a pleasant clinking sound when you stack them.
Contractor Trash Bags
Trash can pile up at an alarming rate at a party. You want a thick, puncture-resistant contractor bag you can fill up without worries. Our pick is the Husky Contractor Clean-Up Bags ($28), which are 3-mil, get winning reviews on Amazon and Home Depot, and a recommendation for toughness from Good Housekeeping.
Bottles for Water
Being a good host means tending to your guests' hydration, especially if there's a lot of wine on the table. Stock up on these swing-top IKEA Korken bottles, fill them with water and chill them before dinner. Once dinner's on, leave them around the table so guests can refill their glasses themselves — easy for them, easy for you. They're only $4 each.
The Swedes say it isn't a party without a broken glass. Keep a Tide To Go pen ($5) for little spots on frocks. It tied for first place in Consumer Reports' 2011 mini-test of instant stain removers with 2 other store brand generics.
Say maraschino cherry and most people think of those candied, sickly sweet, neon red toppers on Shirley Temples and ice cream sundaes. Gross. Luxardo Gourmet Maraschino Cherries ($16), on the other hand, are delicious and pretty much the best you can buy off store shelves. These are the original maraschinos, made with tart Marasca cherries and soaked in a thick, dark syrup with Maraschino liqueur. They'll instantly class up your Manhattan.
Want more? See our Guide to Great Gear for Hosting Parties where we've got about 60 more recommendations like the ones above.