fireworks_web.jpgIt would be so easy to give that holiday party — if it weren't for the guests.

Guests who fail to RSVP, then show up with friends. Guests who arrive late and stay past your bedtime. Guests who clean out your shrimp cocktail but won't touch your pasta salad. Guests who knock over drinks and nearly set their sleeves on fire reaching over your candles.

And the worst guest of all: the one who's busy the night of your party and can't make it.

But you can outsmart them all and host a party as carefree for you as it is fun for them. Here are some Party Management 101 tips, from the invite to the “Goodnight!”

WATCH THAT TIMING: Send the invitation for a holiday party too early and people forget. Wait too long and everyone's booked.

INVITES AND RSVPS: Paper, electronic or phone invitations? So many options, and yet so few result in RSVPs. The paper invite makes an impression, but it's more work. It also may suggest an unintended formality or level of fuss for your party. On the other end of the spectrum is the phone or text invite. That may be a little too casual and easy to lose track of.

Electronic invitations — Evite, email, Paperless Post, Facebook and other sites — have become the default for many people, and may yield the most responses in our no-RSVP culture simply because responding requires just one click.

But there are always a few who never RSVP. Some have no intention of coming; others may show up unannounced with uninvited friends. And a few will pledge their attendance, then never show, or cancel last-minute.

How to cope? Pin down commitments from your core group of invitees well in advance. This will ensure that you already know a good handful will be attending even before sending out the official invite.

Should you make follow-up calls to those who don't respond? A gracious call or email to sincerely say, “I wanted to make sure you got my invitation,” is always appropriate. Or send out a single email reminder before the event to everyone you haven't heard from. If that too is ignored, they're probably not coming.

FOOD AND DECOR: Food that's good at room temperature is easiest on the host, though it limits the menu. See what prepared foods your supermarket is offering before you splurge at specialty stores; you might be surprised by the selection and quality of cold party platters and easy-to-bake frozen hors d'oeuvres.

Variety is a virtue. Pasta salad as a side dish for potato pancakes is just too many carbs. Better: fruit platters with berries, toothpicked pineapple chunks and melon balls, or chicken wings. Many people have dietary issues these days, so consider the vegetarian and the low-salt, low-fat crowd, along with holiday treats that may be high-calorie or high-sugar.

Have a self-serve drink area with a couple of fun choices in labeled pitchers so you're not stuck making cocktails all night. Keep a few dishtowels or rolls of paper towels in easy reach for the inevitable spills.

Suggestions for easy, inexpensive decor include covering the table with wrapping paper instead of a tablecloth. Or decorate the table in classic holiday colors by layering evergreen boughs across the edge and scattering red rose petals over the rest.

ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES: Some folks will come early; some will stay late. Minimize stress by having everything ready a half-hour before your start time, and deputize someone else to answer the door and take coats.

Set the tone by listing a clear start and end time on the invitation. Open house is nice and informal, but also means some folks will drop by just when you were hoping everyone would leave. If you're planning on serving real food and not just chips and cookies, a window of a couple of hours also makes it easy to keep food fresh.

Exact times also are helpful for guests who might want to try to make more than one party. To manage lingerers, plant someone among the guests to help. “This friend could make casual comments to the crowd such as, ‘Wow, I can't believe how late it is already,’ or ‘Let me help you get this place cleaned up a bit.’ “

Last, passing out take-home party favors — perhaps small bags of cookies or candy — at the end of the night is a subtle and sweet way to say goodnight,” she said.

Photo: Stock photo