What makes a woman a great hostess? Imagination and a lively circle of friends help. So does a little spare cash — although the best party givers will say that splashing money around is no insurance against a social flop.

When you think of some of the world’s most dazzling party givers (the late Jacqueline Kennedy, the late New York socialite Nan Kempner, or style guru and accessory doyenne Kate Spade), what they all have in common is a love of drama. Knowing how to set a scene, how to cast the party with the right mix of guests and having large reserves of will and grace under pressure are pillars of social success. Want to throw the best parties in town? Then read the ELLE Canada holiday guide — and party on!

It takes creativity and forethought to host a memorable event but the rewards are well worth it. For Spade, “Being gracious when you entertain is perhaps the greatest gift you can give your guests,” she says in her etiquette guide Occasions.

The key to success is planning and doing as much as you can in advance. First, you’ll need to decide what type of event you’re going to have. (Brunch? Cock-tail party? Posh dinner?) Then, consider who you’re going to invite. “The right mix is everything,” say New York party planners Lara Shriftman and Elizabeth Harrison in their guide to creative entertaining, Fête Accompli. “Think about whipping up the perfect personality cocktail.”

Invite guests with different occupations, interests — even characteristics. But do keep in mind what personality researchers have discovered: people’s “personalities” are not fixed but context dependent. The shy and quiet marketing manager you invited for brunch might become a fiery extrovert when she’s outside the office. So mix your “guest cocktail” with care and, like a good Girl Scout, be prepared for surprises!

Photo courtesy of Le ChateauHostess’ top 5 to-do list

1 Send invites
Formal or funky, custom-made or computer-generated (evite.com), your invite must include your name; the time, date, address; the kind of party it is; and an RSVP number or card. Definitely mention a special theme, but etiquette expert Kate Spade says indicating style of dress is optional.

2 Get advice
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Find inspiration in Kate Spade’s books Occasions and Style; Rena Kirdar Sindi’s Be My Guest; Nan Kempner’s R.S.V.P.; Allana Baroni’s Flirtini: clever ideas for top-shelf cocktail parties; and Fête Accompli! The Ultimate Guide to Creative Entertaining by Lara Shriftman and Elizabeth Harrison.

3 Hire help
First impressions count, so make your space clean and sparkling — especially the washroom! If necessary, call in the professionals (find your nearest Molly Maid outfit on mollymaid.ca). Scent your home with room sprays or aromatic candles a few hours before guests arrive, so that the smell isn’t overpowering. “Personal chefs and college students can be life savers to the busy hostess,” says Kate Spade in Occasions. Students at Toronto-based Liaison College earn from $30 an hour serving food and drinks at events. Contact the Canadian Culinary Federation for your nearest culinary college.

4 Find gifts
If you wish to leave your guests with a small memento, don’t think you have to break the bank. You can even decorate your table with your gifts (and there won’t be that unseemly scrum for gift bags at the end of the night).

5 Countdown!
Make sure you’re dressed an hour before your event. And remember that your guests are the real stars of your show. Don’t intimidate them by appearing at the door in full gala regalia. If in doubt, choose something classic yet comfortable and accessorize. “Nothing elevates something simple like a necklace of brightly coloured stones or shoes with a lot of lift and sparkle,” advises Kate Spade in Style. Now all that’s left is to crack open the bubbly and get in the mood to mingle!

Photo courtesy of Le Chateau