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The party's not over

WASHINGTON — The second Sunday of every December, you'll find Eileen Milner pulling a filet (medium rare) out of her oven as 20 friends crunch on homemade coleslaw and trim her tree.

Like many people, Milner has a busy job and long list of holiday chores to do between Thanksgiving and New Year's. But this gathering doesn't come under the heading of "chore." She and her three brothers, who arrive the weekend of the party, make it fun: They pop in Christmas CDs as they fill window boxes with magnolia leaves, hang a Moravian star on the porch and stage an early morning Costco raid. She calls it "making giving the party into a party."

Milner is part of a kinship dedicated to the annual open house, cocktail buffet or brunch. The keys to pulling it off in a time chock-full of festivities? Start early, keep the same menu.

"There's something comforting about a Christmastime dinner with friends," says Milner of suburban Alexandria, Va., who works at the National Academy of Sciences. "We have a lot of drama and change in our lives. This is a constant."

For Anita Gonzalez, a wardrobe consultant in suburban Accokeek, Va., her traditional tea for 20 girlfriends on a Saturday afternoon in December is a gift to herself.

"We get away from our busy schedules and have a wonderful afternoon of chilling out," she says. Gonzalez pulls out her gold-rimmed plates from Macy's. She collects interesting napkins and finds gourmet teas at T.J. Maxx. She picks up scones and tea sandwiches at a local bakery. Each guest gets a small present. Says Gonzalez, "We spend our afternoon talking about our families, travel and what everybody is doing for the holidays."

On the Sunday before Christmas at Maryann Johnson and Ed Noonan's house, the table is set with heirloom china, starched linens and place cards with names of 15 adults and kids who have gathered since 1995. It began as a gift exchange. "We don't even associate it with work," says Johnson of suburban Bethesda, Md., who works at the American Bankers Association. "It's pure pleasure."

Since they married, Susan Campbell and Mark Pugliese of Washington have had a party with walnut balls and peppermint patties the Saturday before Christmas. Now they have four sons ages 12 to 19, and the tradition has grown to 150 people.

"At first we had only adults, but one year a friend called and said her baby sitter canceled," says Campbell, director of public policy for WomenHeart, a national coalition for women with heart disease. From then on, kids were included; 70 now turn up. Campbell starts early preparing hams and spinach dip. It's always the same menu, by popular request. The day of the party, the boys clear out living-room shelves to arrange Santas, snowmen and nativities received as gifts over the years.

The party is now a reunion of school friends and parents. Campbell asks one thing of the adults: "You have to leave with the same number of children you brought."

The party's not over