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Details are important, but they don’t have to be expensive.
By Justin L. Fowler | SJ-R
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Even if you choose to limit spending, you can make your party shine
By Carol Sponagle

This year, frugal is in vogue when it comes to holiday entertaining. If hosting an event or party is part of your season's celebration, but you opt to spend less or spend alternatively for a charitable cause, your fete can be accomplished with the help of entertaining experts and a local hostess.

Ruthie Steen, a Springfield homemaker, has been coordinating parties, receptions and events for several years. She cooks and decorates for many events at her church, St. John's Lutheran in Springfield, where the congregation sings her praises. 

Jean Welch, director of music at St. John's, calls Ruthie the "Martha Stewart of our church." 

"She does the cooking and decorating for our Advent concert series," Jean says. 

The Advent "Soup & Song Event" takes place the first four Wednesdays in December, and Ruthie is known for making each week's celebration unforgettable.

"Everything is homemade - and she always creates ambiance. I'm always leaning on her to come up with a great idea."

Whether creating a holiday luncheon, hosting dinner for Elisabeth von Trapp (complete with "Sound of Music" theme) or hosting a committee luncheon, Ruthie knows how to create an event.

"I look for inspiration everywhere I go. If something catches my eye, I try and re-create it myself. If something tastes really good, I figure out how to do it economically. I try new recipes every week."

The details are important, she says, but they don't have to be expensive.

"Think about the feeling you want to convey for the event, and use things that don't cost a lot of money - reuse things you have." 

Ruthie says, "You can find ideas. I'm more tuned in now, especially with the Internet."

Ideas like turning beta fish bowls into snow globes can transform your average holiday centerpiece into a fun and interesting creation.

According to local fans, Ruthie's talents are ever-increasing. 

"I think she's awesome in the kitchen and awesome in the church," says Jean, referring to her spirit of giving.

Her gift of meshing elegance and economy not only gives joy to her fellow congregants, but serves as an example to the community at large - frugality in favor of giving to those in need.

Following are some tricks of the trade, from Ruthie Steen and accomplished holiday party planners.

Food and Drink

  • Use your own serving dishes or borrow from a friend. Try to coordinate serving dishes by color or theme. 
  • Serve Prosecco. It has a taste similar to Champagne at a more crowd-friendly price.
  • Consider boxed wine - it's getting rave reviews from wine connoisseurs. If you're shy about using this economical alternative, pour it into decorative decanters before serving.
  • Choose a menu with seasonal ingredients. It's trés chic and more affordable than purchasing imported foods. Think of flavorful holiday recipes that include persimmons, pears, apples and pomegranates.
  • Buy in bulk to supply the masses. Warehouse stores offer basics, specialty foods and drinks at discounted prices.
  • A buffet can be simpler to prepare and serve, and it can be more affordable. Consider festive foods such as chocolate fondue, potato latkes and fruit tarts. 
  • Throw a "signature cocktail" party. Choose two to three cocktails and serve with cheese, crackers and dessert.
  • There's no shame in hosting a potluck. Pick a theme, supply the libation and ask your friends to show off their favorite holiday dishes.


  • Elegant doesn't mean expensive. Search your home for items such as candles, ribbons and strands of lights.
  • Bring the outdoors in: Collect pinecones, twigs and evergreen branches to create natural holiday decor. Mix with ribbons, candles and glass ornaments in clear or wooden bowls.
  • Create an edible array: Use oranges, cinnamon sticks, pomegranates, cranberries and apples to both decorate and scent the air.
  • Another edible idea: Arrange colorful homemade holiday cookies or gingerbread men on platters. Wrap baked treats individually as parting gifts.
  • Create depth and dimension on tables with multiple elevations for serving trays and decor. Cover a solid box or a stack of books with a separate tablecloth.
  • Label food and drinks with festive but informative names. This helps create a party atmosphere while providing people with food allergies a way to identify things they should avoid.

Inspiring Ideas

  • "Frugal Luxuries by the Seasons: Celebrate the Holidays with Elegance and Simplicity - on Any Income," by Tracey McBride (2000, Random House Publishing, Barnes & Noble, $19)
  • "Gourmet Weekends," by Bibby Gignilliat (1995, Random House Publishing, Barnes & Noble, $12.39)

Ruthie Steen's Apricot Bites
"I had something like it at a resort several years ago," she says. "They're gorgeous, tasty, and healthy."

  • Dried apricots
  • Cheesecake-flavored cream cheese
  • Mint leaves
  • Fresh blueberries and raspberries

Layer ingredients in order to create individual "bites." Arrange on a platter with chocolate truffles or alone and serve at parties, receptions or brunch.


Story published Friday, December 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 7 )

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