Throw the best retro Christmas party of your life with these tips from experts

A Gingerbread Old Fashioned at Nicky's Coal Fired in The Nations neighborhood in Nashville.

This year, Christmas is coming up kitschy. After the pandemic dampened many of 2020's holiday parties, bars are back in the swing of things with festive pop-ups complete with themed cocktails and sparkling decor.

In Nashville's The Nations, Nicky's Coal Fired is festooned with twinkling lights, while a basket of candy canes — or coal, if you've been naughty — greets guests by the door. Bartenders there serve up Gingerbread Old Fashioneds garnished with gingerbread cookies and pour frozen spiked eggnog from a slushie machine. 

And Sippin' Santa, a tiki-themed cocktail event co-piloted by none other than tiki expert Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, is back traveling the country turning venues like Asheville's Montford Rooftop Bar into retro odes to everything that screams Christmas spirit, spiked eggnog also included. 

Here's how to get the look and feel of a similarly cool Chritsmas pop-up in your own home. 

More:Spread good cheer with Southern Kitchen's upcoming blizzard of holiday cookies, cocktails

What to drink

Hannah Withers, co-owner of Maxine’s, a cocktail bar in Fayetteville, Arkansas, is in her third year of running Holidaze, a Christmas pop-up taking over two locations this year, including a former dry cleaner next to her bar.

That means more than 8,500 square feet of Christmas cheer, which requires 20 employees to execute. Clearly, Withers knows how to throw a good party.

Naturally, part of what makes a retro Christmas party a great bash is a nice selection of classic Christmas cocktails. "Whether it's hot buttered rum, eggnog, wassail or mulled wine," Withers said. "There are lots of twists on that."

Jingle Balls Nog from the holiday-themed Sippin' Santa bar pop-up.

Holidaze's Old Fashioned twists include a gingerbread and cranberry version. "There are lots of fun ways that you can take a standard drink and give them a Christmas twist," she said. "The cocktail part of it is important." 

Make the drinks: Get a recipe for wassail here.

Carly Houison, general manager for Nashville's Sinema Restaurant and Bar, agrees.  She's hosted numerous festive retro events at her bar, housed in a 1940s theater, and finds inspiration for food, drink and decor in classic film and music.

"I recommend looking to pop culture from a particular time or decade and then lean all the way in," she said. 

If you're looking for classic Christmas appeal, a punch bowl is perfect. It also helps the host mingle rather than be chained to the bar. "It’s the boozy version of finger foods — self-service and enjoyed at your leisure," she said.

Eggnog, for example, can be served up punch-style and booze-free, with a variety of spirits on the side for guests to spike their own. Bourbon, rum and brandy are perfect picks, especially with the addition of some fresh nutmeg grated over the top.

She recommends setting up a drink station opposite the food to keep guests circulating. "Moving around a lot at a party is a goal to keep it social and fun," she said. 

A champagne tower would make an unforgettable statement. It could also make a mess, so attempt this at your own risk. 

"Stack coupe glasses into a pyramid, and slowly pour your bubbly over the top glasses allowing it to trickle all the way down," Houison advised. "For the rest of the party, create a fun sparkling cocktail punch. Fresh berries or pomegranate seeds for garnish are a classic look."

Punch recipes:This boozy but refreshing Peachy Keen Sparkling punch is perfect for your party

More:Once mixed in a bucket, Old Chatham Artillery Punch is a strong, celebratory tipple

Get the look

Decor plays a key part in a cool retro Christmas party. What elements you choose are, of course, determined by the era you're trying to evoke. 

"I tend to go older and weirder," Withers said. "I think of a couple of key elements, like a vintage blow mold, which are the sort of yard plastic light-ups that they did before inflatables."

Traditional vintage-style bubble lights add a retro, festive feel. So do Christmas wreaths crafted using whatever fun vintage items you're able to source. 

“Special lighting is always a great move to make a great party, things like chandeliers, disco balls, lava lamps, depending on your theme," said Carly Houison, general manager for Sinema Restaurant & Bar. "A photo booth setup with themed décor, costumes and favors is a fun option for guests.”

"A lot of people think that the elves and Santas from those older eras are creepy, but I think that they're mischievous and beautiful," she said. "It's just about finding an aesthetic and an era that you like."

Extend that vintage look to your glassware by rummaging through thrift stores for punch bowls and glassware. Houison said a hodgepodge of different drinking vessels lends a fun, laid-back feel.

"For instance, if you’re serving a sparkling drink, feel free to mix up coupes and flutes," she said. "For a boozy punch, try some mix and match punch cups with and without handles. Throw in some hotel glasses, which look like a taller, deeper coupe. They give a cool spin on a drink presentation."

Apple slices are a festive, easy garnish for classic cocktails.

For garnishes, provide pre-made lemon or orange twists and citrus wheels.

"In our bar, we dehydrate them and garnish several cocktails that way," she said. "They float on top for a really festive look. Fresh apple, sliced thin and stacked with a toothpick, is a dramatic way to use an everyday ingredient that makes a statement. It’s a professional look with minimal effort or skill required.”

What about the music?

"There's a lot of bad Christmas music out there," Withers said. "But I have found some really great music."

Withers' playlist includes Run-DMC's “Christmas in Hollis," plenty of funk from Bootsy Collins and classic Otis Redding Christmas tunes.

"Instead of going that clean, family-friendly holiday vibe, like Mannheim Steamroller, I think finding things that are a little funkier and out of the box can set a really good party," she said.   

Not into curating your own? There's an app for that. 

“There are many existing platforms with ready-made playlists, which makes party planning easy," Houison said. "Movie soundtracks are a great call, depending on your theme."

Just make sure your tunes don't compete with your vibe, but rather add to it, she added. "If you have a record player, this is your moment," she said. "Spinning vinyl for a retro party is a perfect fit, and you can invite your guests to bring from their own collections and let people take turns playing DJ.”

You could even pair your food with your playlist.

"Create an epic playlist of '70s hits and make sure it builds as the evening goes on," she said. "There are some hilarious recipes from the '70s that are not especially appetizing, but finding a delicious way to recreate them is possible. Think gelatin molds and big cheese balls. You’re definitely going to want to have a keg set up out back.”

But if you'd rather go the classy-retro route, here's a recipe for a sparkling punch, developed by Roger Miller, lead bartender at Sinema Restaurant & Bar, 2600 Eighth Ave. S Suite 102, Nashville, Tennessee.

Holidaze is at 101 N. Block Ave. and 495 W Dickson St. in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The Montford Rooftop Bar is at 199 Haywood St. in Asheville, North Carolina.

More about Sippin' Santa at www.sippinsantapopup.com/locations.

Nicky's Coal Fired is at 5026 Centennial Blvd. in Nashville, Tennessee.

Sinema's festive sparkling punch

The flavored ice cubes transform this cocktail's flavors as they melt, keeping it cold without watering it down.

Serves 10-12

For the punch

  • 1/2 cup Old Dominick Formula No. 10 gin
  • 1/2 cup Italicus Rosolio bergamot liqueur
  • 1 1/2 cups pomegranate juice
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cup soda water
  • 750 ML bottle brut sparkling wine

For the ice cubes:

  • 2 cups lemonade
  • 2 cups ginger ale
  • 1/2 oz Fee Brothers mint bitters


For the ice: Combine lemonade, ginger ale and bitters

Put in ice tray overnight to form flavored cubes for serving

For the punch: Combine gin, bergamot liqueur and pomegranate juice in a pitcher overnight to chill.

When ready to serve, use either a large pitcher or bowl, and add juice/liquor mixture to sparkling wine and soda water.

Serve over lemon ginger mint ice cubes (cubes can be served crushed or whole).

Garnish with cinnamon stick, freshly grated nutmeg and mint bunch.