“I think of holiday dressing as going to a little trouble on your guests’ behalf to honor them. My Southern mother always said, ‘Darlin’, if you’re really comfortable, you probably just don’t look that good!’ I design dresses or am on the lookout for dresses that have a higher armhole and a slightly dropped waistline, because both make you look taller and slimmer. I avoid flowy dresses and choose structured pieces with an exoskeleton that work like an external corset. But I have fun with accessories. I wear a pair of $2, clear cube earrings with snowmen inside and get more compliments on those than I do on my Schlumberger bracelet.”
Wind your way through Chelmsford, a lush ten-acre property on Zaccheus Mead Lane, through a parterre of heart-shaped hedges and a quartet of welcoming candy-cane columns, and you might expect to find Mrs. Claus awaiting you with a plate of cookies. That is, if Mrs. Claus is a stunning blonde Southerner with impeccable style and manners—and a voice as smooth as the silk dresses she designs.
We are, of course, talking about Alease Fisher Tallman: hostess, philanthropist, fashion designer, Historical Society board member, wife and mother of four (all boys including a set of triplets). Alease does Christmas in legendary style. How fitting, then, that the nucleus of Chelmsford predates the discovery of the North Pole. The landmarked home, formerly owned by Charles Lanier in 1899, tripled in size after it changed hands in 1906 to owner Elon Hooker. Fun fact: Hooker was a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt’s and often invited him up to fish and camp on the grounds. Plaqued by the Historical Society, it is the only surviving McKim, Mead and White structure in Greenwich.
Richard Keith Langham, who has decorated for Jackie Onassis, Pat Buckley and Hilary Swank, decorated the house twenty years ago when Alease moved in, and just completed a redecoration of the principal rooms. Despite the home’s historic cache, the interiors are designed for living—especially during the holidays. “My job as a hostess is to make sure everyone has a lovely time, and if something goes wrong, what can you do?” says Alease. “I’ve accidentally shut off half the lights on my tree in the middle of a party, but if people are not going to have a nice time because half the lights are out on the tree, I have the wrong friends!” she says with a hearty laugh that instantly makes you feel like a girlfriend. “Just relax, treat your family like friends and your friends like family, and enjoy your own party.” Here, Alease offers us her holiday secrets.
DOING THE HOLIDAYS IN STYLE
1 Don’t Be a Perfectionist
“If you try to entertain according to the rules of perfection, I don’t see how anyone could have a good time. Sufficiency is a word I like to use when it comes to entertaining. It’s not about lowering the bar, it’s about realizing when enough really is enough. I’ll serve quartered White Castle burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches at a fancy Christmas party. Nobody minds and it just adds to the fun.
My view is this: When you have good taste, you can shop anywhere. Things don’t need to be expensive; they just need to be appealing. Appealing could mean it’s witty, or nostalgic, or thought provoking.”
2 Stock Up on Classics
“Southerners know how make their own fun and often entertain at home. They have everything they need for entertaining because it’s handed down through every dead relative! My parents are both thankfully still alive and hanging onto their silver, so I’ve had to supplement. Silver always looks good and never breaks, and is an investment you’ll have forever. Buy champagne buckets, trays and platters, which you can find at consignment shops. They don’t need to match. Buy a hundred wine glasses wholesale and you’ll have them the rest of your life. I own two-dozen gold ballroom chairs and lend them to friends all the time. You can rent them for a lot of money, or buy them once, which is cheaper in the long run.”
3 Outsource and Simplify
“Entertain in a way that feels authentic to you, which means not doing things that you don’t enjoy. I love hand-addressing Christmas cards on a little lap desk while I’m watching TV with my husband and actually find it relaxing, but if it wasn’t pleasurable for me, I wouldn’t bother. If it’s not something you like to do, outsource it, or use Paperless Post. One year, I tried to match my gift wrap to each person’s personality, and then I realized that was crazy. So instead, I got chartreuse paper for all of the gifts and tied everything with red ribbon. It made things so much easier and looked beautiful.”
4 Streamline Your Design
“Don’t agonize about the perfect floral arrangement for this room or that room. I find that if you do a combination throughout the house, like chartreuse ribbon, pine, white peonies and red pepper berries, it makes the whole look cohesive. Peonies look really expensive and are worth the splurge. Get grocery store flowers, add pepper berry, twist a little florist wire around the base to keep them tight, and plop it in a vase. Home Depot also has amazing inexpensive orchids. If you combine three together in a footed glass vase and top it with green reindeer moss, which I get from save-on-crafts.com, it looks amazing. I also buy multiple vases in a single color and place them throughout the house for a unified look.”
5 Get Crafty
“If you have a hole puncher and a piece of ribbon, you can turn almost anything into an ornament. We have a camel tassel from a trip to Morocco, a paper drinks coaster from a friend’s fiftieth birthday party, a ticket from the horse races in Saratoga. Two years ago, we got a tree that was fuller than usual and ran out of ornaments. I happened to have some two-inch stickers of pretty Victorian Christmas ornaments. I enlarged some to three inches and some to five inches on my computer, color printed them onto glossy paper and hung them on the tree way up high. Nobody could tell the difference.”
6 Serve Easy Fare
“I always cook a turkey or ham the day of a party, which I have delivered from a site called Peapod. It’s the easiest thing and people can carve it themselves. If you’re not using a caterer or server, make everything bite-size, like mini quiches topped with grated fresh cheese in the broiler so they look semi-homemade. I’ll do two fancy appetizers like shrimp and shot glasses of artichoke soup from Méli-Mélo, but I keep the rest simple and filling. Everyone’s thrilled to see a big cheese board. I buy the cheese from Costco and display it with fig preserves and grapes. I also like to serve food in waves, so the burgers come out around 11:30 p.m., when people want heartier food that will absorb alcohol. By the way, I hire male-model servers from Choice Productions in New York. No one minds a male model…definitely not the wives, and not even the husbands!”
7 Go Big or Go Home
“Having a large party is actually easier on the hostess than a small one. It’s the same amount of ordering, except for the numbers being higher, and the same amount of planning. The difference is, if something goes wrong, there are so many people that nobody notices. It diffuses tension because guests can spread out and move to another part of the room. If someone looks a little lost, I’ll find someone they might have something in common with and connect them. It’s easier to do that with a larger mix of people.”
8 Valet at the Chalet
“Consider valet parking for a party of over fifty people, because you can’t count on your guests taking Uber. If you go the valet route, hire John Dent of Parking Productions. Last year, there were seven cars stuck in the slush in the front yard—one of them was a taxi—and John Dent had tow trucks come to the rescue. This was all happening during the party and I knew nothing about it—that’s how well he takes care of things. Because if people have to wait over an hour for their car, they won’t remember the pretty decorations or that you were cute enough to kick your shoes off at 10 p.m.—they’ll remember that they had to wait an hour for their car.”
9 Make a Silent Escape
“Don’t make people go home. If you’re tired, go to sleep! Say goodnight to the few people around you and go to bed. Nobody is going to rob you. Why make them leave when you’re the one who wants to sleep? If your guests want to keep going, let them. They will find food and drink and help themselves just fine without you waiting on them. If they can’t find their way out the door on their own, then they should be in your living room until morning anyway.”
10 Take Notes
“I’ll take notes the day after the party so I know what went well or what I should change for the following year. For example, one year I served duck paté and it tasted incredible, but people were afraid to touch it. I decided not to subject my friends to that again! Another year, when I brought out platters of cookies, everyone thought it was time to leave, so we don’t serve sweets anymore. I’ll also note quantities, like how many sticks of butter, slices of cheese and loaves of bread I should remember to buy next year for grilled cheese.”