Home For Christmas
Two artists, 15 years, 45 friends, thousands and thousands of cookies. This Congress Park party is not your average cookie exchange
Photography by Emily Minton Redfield
Picture the Met Gala as a cookie exchange, and you’ve got a pretty good vision of Samantha Robinson and Erica McNeish’s annual Congress Park cookie party. Every corner and shelf of Robinson’s home is decorated to a fare-thee-well.
Everywhere you look, there’s a small and perfect Christmas tableau, and where there aren’t bottlebrush trees and homemade garlands and vintage sleighs, there are gorgeous cheese boards, tiny puff-pastry potpies, champagne punch and every cookie your heart could desire. It’s not a cookie exchange so much as an extra, extra, all-caps, multiple exclamation points, 20 heart-eyes emojis Cookie Extravaganza.
The tradition started 15 years back, at McNeish’s house. “When I was growing up, my mom and one of her friends used to throw a cookie exchange, where everyone bakes and brings cookies and then goes home with a big assortment.” But after just two years, the party had grown enough that it migrated to Robinson’s slightly larger house.
Hosts Erica McNeish and Samantha Robinson (and goldendoodle Oliver) on the front porch of Robinson's Congress Park home.
Robinson has a degree in fashion design, and for 10 years she owned Manorisms, a Denver design favorite that sold antiques, home goods, soaps, the work of local craftspeople and, yes, holiday decorations. “She has always been the queen of holidays,” says McNeish. “I met her 18 years ago when I shopped in her adorable store.” McNeish, too, has a design background, but her medium has been all things food—she’s worked as a caterer and a food stylist and is now a full-time creative. The friends share an eye for what is lovely, an appreciation for what is delicious and, as illustrated on these pages, a pull-out-all-the-stops generosity when it comes to entertaining.
Last year's handmade announcement
“We’re still old-school. We mail our invitations,” says Robinson. Sometime in September or October, the two get together and pick a theme. “The theme just comes when we decide it’s time to think about invitations. This year the theme was France, because Erica went to Paris for the first time,” says Robinson. “Or the theme might be built around a cookie Erica really wants to make. We just go from there.”
And by going from there, they don’t just mean mailing invitations. They make them. A different one every year. “Three years ago, for example, we made a Christmas tree out of rolling pins and cookie cutters and photographed that and made it into an invitation. Other years, we’ll do something homemade.”
"Every year, " says McNeish, "Sam makes these amazing favors, and usually she starts with something we just have lying around." She made these star ornaments using fabric intended for ironing-board covers. "It's muslin on one side, silver on the other—I thought it looked so cool," says Robinson
“We used to say that someone had to die in order for someone new to get invited,” laughs McNeish. “We’re pretty crowded. We have everyone who’s come before, and we invite new neighbors and new friends. We probably send out about 50 invitations and have 40 to 45 guests every year.
Sam puts the invitations together, and I’m in charge of addressing the invitations and getting them in the mail. I’m always late because it’s that time of year, and people will start calling and emailing to be sure they haven’t been bumped off the list. They say, ‘Forgive me, but it’s just my favorite tradition.’ It’s our favorite tradition—and everyone else’s!”
"Sam's in charge of box design," says McNeish. "We order cake boxes—they come in lots of 100 or so, two years' worth—and Sam decorates the boxes, picks out ribbon, makes the bows and makes the little party favor tucked on top."
The guests are all women, of all different ages and professions. “We’re stay-at-home moms, lawyers, presidents of companies, creative directors, yoga instructors,” says McNeish. “Life gets so busy that sometimes the party is the only time I see some of them,” says Robinson.
The common denominator is an appreciation of the homemade and a willingness to make six-dozen cookies. That’s the only party rule, established by McNeish years ago: no store-bought cookies. “Sometimes,” says Stacey Weiss, creative/artistic director at Margot Elena Companies and longtime friend of the duo, “we’ll stand together and whisper about how we could disguise store cookies and slip them onto a table. But we know: Erica would just know.”
"It's always been wonderful, but particularly in the last five or six years, people have really upped their cookie game," says McNeish. Guest Stacey Weiss says, "I can't just bring in some sad cookie. I want to make something that equals what Sam and Erica do for all of us with this party." Here, McNeish's gingerbread Notre Dame stands watch over just a small selection of the cookies on offer
“Especially in the past five or six years, people have been making some really decadent, elaborate cookies,” says Robinson. There are precise chocolate and vanilla checkerboard shortbreads, and fragile snowflake cookies, and antique images frosted onto perfect buttery rectangles, but there are also simple, homey classics like McNeish’s friend Sarah’s sugar cookies (“the best sugar cookies I ever had,” McNeish attests).
“The favorites aren’t always some fancy-pants cookie. A friend who moved away used to make these Rolo sandwich cookies. Pretzel, Rolo, pretzel, and you melt them in the oven. We let them in,” says McNeish, “because they are a cookie and they’re adorable, and everyone would come in saying, ‘Where are those Rolos?’ So really you don’t have to go crazy. We don’t want people staying up until three in the morning making cookies.”
The garland is an old one from Anthropologie, and the vintage ornament arrangements are by Willa Fuller—I carried them at my shop and then at holiday craft shows I did for years," Robinson says. As to her impressive bottlebrush tree collection, "I have no idea how many I have, I'm at an antique mall or an estate sale, and I see one I've never seen before, and I just buy it. I mean, you know, one more. Why not?"
DIVISION OF LABOR
Robinson and McNeish speak about the prep for this elaborate event the way most of us would talk about deciding what to have for lunch, that is: no stress, no problem. According to them, it’s simple. “I’m decorating, and Erica’s food,” says Robinson. McNeish adds, “Sam’s also cookie-box designer and ribbon person and tissue paper, and she makes a party favor for each guest every year.
One year, she took some old silver spoons and knives that I had lying around from my food-stylist days, pounded them flat, and then used some antique printing-press letters to stamp ‘tarragon’ and ‘basil’ on them to make little silver plant-pot stakes. And then she made homemade paper with herb seeds in it. And then she cut the homemade paper into little Christmas trees that were packaged with the stakes. It’s bananas what she comes up with. She’s like Etsy on crack.”
Above the island that serves as a cookie-display station hang restored ship lights Robinson found in Texas. The cabinets are wrapped in zinc, fabricated to match the soft blue-gray zinc oven hood
“I start worrying about the cookies I’m going to bake for the party sometime in August,” laughs self-described oldest exchange guest Patricia Hayes, 83. McNeish—who is in charge of preparing the meal for 40-plus guests, creating a gingerbread centerpiece, and baking cookies and dozens of backup cookies (in case guests aren’t able to make their six-dozen cookie commitment)—has a more relaxed timeline. “Sam knows better than to ask me what we’re having for brunch, because I’ve been known to change the menu a week before the party. And I don’t commit to my cookies until a few days before.”
What inspires McNeish’s elegant menus? “I think about what I can make that won’t make our friends have to stand in line for an hour for food. But mostly I’m thinking about my vintage-glass cocktail plates with matching punch cups. I collected them and people gave them to me so I have about 75, and planning the menu has been about what will fit nicely on the plate and in the cup. One year it was quiche on the plate, fruit salad in the cup. One year it was a plated brunch salad with cold soup in the cup. It’s true. I’ve been inspired by what would fit on my plates.”
McNeish preps all the food at her house on the days before the party. Then at 5:30 or 6 a.m. on the day of the party, she and her husband load up her car, with her 14-year-old daughter Olivia perched in the front seat (holding whatever’s most likely to break; this year, it was the gingerbread Notre Dame), and they drive over and unload at Robinson’s.
"It's a new kind of trend to use these signboards, but I found this one at an antique show awhile back. It's vintage and came with letters in three sizes and three colors," says Robinson. Behind the thank-you sign is a pile of holiday hostess gifts to McNeish and Robinson from their grateful guests
For the guests, the party starts at “11? 11:30?” McNeish laughs. “You’d think I hadn’t been doing this for 15 years.” “It’s 11,” says Robinson. They pick a weekend date for the brunch, and they do brunch because, as McNeish notes, “We do this a week or two before Christmas, and with brunch, we’re not competing with all of the other holiday parties. No one throws a Christmas brunch.” With a complete lack of irony, she adds, “And brunch is so easy!”
“Sam has this incredible collection of vintage Christmas decorations, and the visual treat when you come into the house is as great as everything else about this party,’ says longtime attendee Stacey Weiss. The beaded vases are “treasure vases,” Robinson says. “They are hard to find. People would make a clay vase and decorate it with little treasures: an earring without a match, buttons, a special key. Most of mine are from the 1920s and ’30s.”
As guests arrive, they drop off coats and cookies, and Robinson and McNeish make labels for each guest’s contribution. “Some of the cookies are very elaborate, so we put a cookie limit on their labels so there will be enough to go around. While we’re labeling, people are chatting, and we always serve a special cocktail and Erica’s cheese platters.” (Pro tip from Hayes: “Get there early. Get a seat near the cheese board.”)
After mingling and talking and snacking, the guests are treated to McNeish’s brunch. Finally, it’s cookie time. Each guest receives a decorated box and chooses cookies from the platters arranged around the kitchen. “Once everyone’s gone around once, people go around again to get seconds » of their favorites. Some people take just a few, because they’re headed out of town; others take more, because they’ve got families coming for the holidays. It’s a big box of cookies.”
Finally, the boxes are wrapped in coordinating ribbon. “The official end of the party is one o’clock,” says McNeish. “But we love to chat and catch up, so really, by four, most of the guests are gone.”
The Christmas version of Robinson’s front yard. “Literally, Sam has full-on, full-house decorations for every holiday: Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Christmas,” says McNeish. “Her Halloween is a very close second to Christmas.” One year, very early in the morning, Robinson came to McNeish's and transformed her front yard into a field of Easter Peeps, securing each marshmallow candy to a willow branch. “I mean, our yard is small, but we came out that morning to a field of Peeps."
“This party is an event,” says Weiss, “From the very beginning, from receiving the invitation, which is always so beautiful, to the very end of the party, when you are walking out with your big, wrapped box of cookies, it’s a really beautiful experience.” Hayes agrees. “Erica and Sam are so generous and so creative. The house is beautiful, and there’s this delicious meal. And then they’ve made up these lovely gift boxes, and when you’ve picked your cookies, they wrap the box up with a gorgeous bow. How can you not love a party like this?”
"This is our youngest daughter’s room. My grandma had that French painted bedroom set, and Riley wanted it in her room.” When her daughters shared a room, “they had their own Christmas tree,” says Robinson. Now, their rooms are decorated with smaller bottlebrush trees and wooden ornaments and advent calendars crafted by Robinson. And yes, Robinson made the fluffy throw. She did not, however, make the personalized reindeer pillow. “Our own Erica McNeish made those pillows for the girls years ago.”
Robinson renovated her house four years ago. “The extra space does come in handy for the cookie party,” she says, “but the real reason we did it is because the girls [Josi and Riley, now 17 and 15] were sharing a room, and they were getting older and needed their own space.” Although it’s almost impossible to visualize, the house started out as a single-story 1940s ranch house.
The girls’ bathroom was a part of the second-floor pop-up expansion. “I had the table and the shelves and the mirror, so we just attached the mirror to make a cabinet space.” The soft-green tin-tile walls are trompe-l’oeil wallpaper from Vertigo Home
Goldendoodle Ollie taking a break in the master bedroom. The art deco bureau has been Robinson’s since childhood. “As a kid, I loved art deco, and my mom found this bedroom set for me. I don’t collect art deco anymore, but I still just love it.” She mounted the antlers (“I think my brother gave them to me”) on a heart she picked up at a flea market. The painting was a hand-me-down from Robinson’s mom.
Robinson worked with friend Stephanie Lord-Johnson of Berglund Architects to design the planned pop-up. “The added upstairs is about 1,500 feet, with two bedrooms, a large bathroom and an office. Downstairs, we extended the kitchen and the master suite by 5 feet. We love it, and the neighbors love it; they say it looks as if it’s been here forever.”
ARHCITECTURE: Stephanie Lord-Johnson, Berglund Architects