By MADOLINE MARKHAM
You have to start looking early for the perfect ornament for a swap that’s been running 21 years strong. You want the ornament that everyone ooo’s after, the one that everyone steals and the one that makes everyone ask, “Where did you get that?”
“Number four or five in the Dirty Santa game usually starts eying things,” said Leigh Wright, one of three hostesses of the annual affair held in her sister Jill Horton’s Greystone Farms home. “And once the stealing starts, it gains momentum.”
The core group of about 15 women who have attended the party from the beginning boast ornament collections that trace their adult lives and the friendships that were there through it all. They used to fight over the prettiest pieces, but now that they are in their late 30s to mid-40s, often the fighting is over the ornaments their kids will like best.
“What I love most is that when I put my tree up, I always think about my friends from the party,” Wright said. “Some ornaments will remind me that I need to get back in touch with a certain friend I haven’t seen in a while.”
For the women, the party kicks off the holiday season, launching them off to an afternoon of shopping afterward. Some of them call the hostesses months in advance to reserve the date so they can drive back into down from wherever they have moved for the tradition of uninterrupted girl time—no kids, no husbands.
“It really puts me in the holiday spirit,” said Laura Pitts, the third hostess. “The food, decorations, camaraderie and friendships get me ready for Christmas.”
From the beginning
The party started in 1990. Sisters Wright and Horton, both health care accountants, were fresh out of college and realized they had no ornaments, so they invited a few friends over one evening for a swap.
“It was a low brow affair then,” Wright said. “We had wine and brownies.”
When their younger sister, Christy, married in 1995, the sisters eyed her new china and crystal with dreams of a more formal affair. From then on, the swap has been a Saturday brunch and for the last 11 years has been housed at Horton’s home in Greystone Farms.
“It’s true entertaining like your grandmother would do,” Wright said.
The party wouldn’t be what it is without china, crystal, silver, a tablescape and printed invitations, but after 21 years they have formal entertaining for 25 to 30 down to a science.
“It’s a pretty well oiled machine by now,” Wright said. “When we reach the 25th swap in four years, we’ll really do it up.”
Pitts likes to try new recipes to vary things up in the menu they divvy up each year. The past several years she has introduced new French toast recipes: French toast with caramelized bananas, an eggnog French toast with cranberries and a decadent French toast with strawberries. This year she is thinking about trying chocolate-covered bacon.
But no matter the other menu items, Gourmet Cheese Grits from the Food for Thought Junior League of Birmingham cookbook are a must.
“I think there would be a mutiny without the cheese grits,” Wright said.
The hostesses don’t recommend quiches (they are too hard to keep hot) or bacon-covered figs; that resulted in a choking incident (everyone was okay though).
They serve hot cider, but no one really drinks it. They opt for the mimosas and poinsettias instead.
Although the party officially starts at 10 a.m. and ends around 1 or 1:30 p.m., the hostesses like to linger in their girl time as long as possible.
“We have sat there for three or four hours before, talking, catching up and gossiping,” Pitts said.
“My husband always asks when I will be home, and I tell him ‘when I get home,’” Wright said.
Hostesses’ Planning Tips
*Plan your menu ahead of time and prepare dishes you can make in advance.
*Test recipes if you haven’t made them before.
*Double or triple recipes if you have a larger crowd, and have the second and third dishes ready to pull hot out of the oven.
*Get friends to help you plan.
*Set your tablescape ahead of time, and you can leave it out all holiday season.
Gourmet Cheese Grits*
Leigh Wright prepares a double batch of cheese grits the night before the ornament swap each year and then bakes them before serving.
1 quart milk
1/2 cup butter
1 cup uncooked grits
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/3 cup butter
4 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated
1/2 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
Bring milk to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Add 1/2 cup butter and the grits. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is the consistency of oatmeal (about 5 minutes). Remove grits from heat. Add salt, pepper and egg, beating until well combined. Add 1/3 cup butter and Gruyere cheese. Pour into a greased 2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Bake at 350 for 1 hour. Serves 10.
*Recipe is reprinted with permission from Food For Thought, a Junior League of Birmingham cookbook. The Junior League’s cookbooks are available at the Junior League Gift Shop, 2212 20th Avenue South, Mountain Brook, 879-9861; the shop is open Monday – Friday, 10:30 am – 1:30 p.m. and Tuesdays, 5-8 p.m. Food For Thought is currently out of print.