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Merry ‘Sismas’: A Holiday Tradition Honors Friendship

LAKE SUCCESS, N.Y. — It was a week before Sismas, the holiday party hosted by the jewelry designer Simone I. Smith, and organizers were on a phone call to discuss the menu.

“Darling, you already know I want oxtail,” Ms. Smith, 52, told her planner, Janice Diamond, and her chef, Nancie Greene, on the call. “Nobody makes a better oxtail than Nancie,” added Ms. Smith, who has known Ms. Greene since high school.

Ms. Smith, who is married to James Todd Smith, the rapper better known as LL Cool J, paid particular attention to the menu this year after skipping her Sismas party in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic. Oxtail was one of several comfort foods she and Ms. Greene chose to serve, along with sweet potato casserole, garlic mashed potatoes and collard greens.

Sismas, which Ms. Smith has hosted for more than a decade, is named after Christmas, but also Ms. Smith’s initials (S.I.S.) and the sisterhood of mostly female friends that she has invited to the event over the years. In 2009, after Ms. Smith and her husband relocated from their native New York to Los Angeles, where they now spend most of the year, she started the party as a reason to return to the East Coast and see people around the holidays.

“My sisterhood is the best hood, nothing is more important to me than my family and my sisterhood,” Ms. Smith said. “I just want to bring everyone together.”

On Friday night, about 56 of her loved ones descended upon the Lake Success home of Revital and Ronny Seliktar, Ms. Smith’s partner in her namesake jewelry company, for the 2022 Sismas party. (Ms. Smith typically has the party at her nearby home, but changed locations this year because her husband did not want a reporter in the house.) Guests including the stylist Misa Hylton, the “Love & Hip Hop” producer Mona Scott-Young and Justine Simmons, an author and the wife of Joseph Simmons (a.k.a. Rev. Run of Run-D.M.C.), arrived to find Mary Mac, a D.J. who has played for Madonna and Mayor Eric Adams of New York, spinning beneath a grand staircase in the palatial home’s foyer.

Ms. Smith, center right, greeted guests as they arrived at the party, which had a “Regency Meets ‘Around the Way Girl’” theme.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
Mechelle Richardson wore hairpins that spelled the words “queen” and “vibes” in rhinestones.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
The party’s theme, a nod to both “Bridgerton” and hip-hop, was “so timely,” said the stylist Misa Hylton, left.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
A caricaturist was on hand to draw portraits of party guests.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

Tables in the dining room were decorated with candelabras and Versace china. Near an entrance to the living room, a caricaturist was stationed to draw portraits of guests. And near a grand piano in the living room, a tree was set up for the occasion. (The Seliktars, who are Jewish, do not normally decorate for Christmas.)

In recent years, each Sismas party has had a theme — glitter in 2019; a “Black Panther”-inspired African motif in 2018; “sheroes” in 2017 — and guests are expected to dress accordingly. Inspired by this year’s venue, a more than century-old property originally owned by William K. Vanderbilt Jr., Ms. Smith at first chose a regal “Bridgerton”-esque theme. But she said that when she shared the concept with her husband, he suggested bringing “a little hip-hop to the mix.” She ended up with a theme of “Regency Meets ‘Around the Way Girl,’” a nod to both “Bridgerton” and her husband’s 1990 love song about girls from the Queens neighborhood where he grew up.

“Something about ‘Bridgerton’ mixed with hip-hop fashion is so timely,” said Ms. Hylton, the stylist, noting that the television series set in Regency-era England has led to renewed interest in clothes from that period, and that oversized hoop earrings, a style long associated with hip-hop culture, have become a modern staple.

Many guests said that they found their outfits on Amazon. Ms. Hylton, 49, who lives in New Jersey, paired a black graphic T-shirt and a long red skirt from the online retailer with Nike sneakers and a gravity-defying white wig from the Etsy seller Veil & Crown. (Hers was one of many elaborate wigs at the party.) Four women wore the floor-length “Daphne” gown from the brand MyheroCos, listed on Amazon for $90, which some paired with Gucci sneakers and others with Nike Air Force 1s.

Ms. Hylton, left, and Ms. Richardson, who wore a floral jacquard coat and a sage green gown that she had made for the occasion.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
A guest showed off one of the wrapped presents brought for the party’s gift exchange.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
About 56 of Ms. Smith’s loved ones attended this year’s event.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
Dressing according to the party’s theme has become a signature component of Sismas.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
Ms. Smith, center, said that her sisterhood, which is not restricted to women, “is the best hood.”Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

Ms. Smith, the hostess, donned a turban and a silk dress by the bridal designer Karen Sabag, which she had custom made when her husband LL Cool J was recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017. Ahead of the Sismas party, Ms. Smith had the dress altered with denim patches and graffiti detailing by the artist Jon Bennett. Her friend Mechelle Richardson, a mortgage broker in Brooklyn, also wore clothes made for the occasion.

“As soon as I heard the theme, I called up my tailor MJ in Brooklyn,” Ms. Richardson, 60, said. Together, they designed a floral jacquard coat and sage green gown that she paired with black knee-high socks from the label Bakery HNY and boots made by Jimmy Choo and Timberland. In her hair, Ms. Richardson wore a tiara she had bought at a bridal shop and hairpins from the brand Kitsch, which spelled the words “queen” and “vibes” in rhinestones.

“I would wear this again to brunch,” Ms. Richardson said of her ensemble. “Maybe without the tiara though.”

Just before 10 p.m. — and just after someone said grace in front of the group — dinner was served buffet style. About an hour later, guests were herded into the living room, where they were treated to a performance by the Grammy-winning violinist Miri Ben-Ari. Then, as midnight approached, they settled in for more performances during a talent show that has become a beloved part of Sismas.

This year’s program featured a rendition of the hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” a soulful performance of the song “I’ll Take You There” and a three-person dance act that began with a waltz of sorts before transitioning into a hip-hop routine. The five guests who judged the talent show — after taking shots of Casamigos tequila — named the dancers as the winner.

“When the other performers started singing, I said, ‘Oh no, we have to step it up,’” said Misty Montes, 53, a friend of Ms. Smith’s from Queens and one of three women in the winning dance act. “So we made a few adjustments to our routine last minute.”

Miri Ben-Ari, a Grammy-winning violinist, performed after dinner.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
During the party’s talent show, Tracy Gayle carried a boombox while performing in a three-woman dance routine.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
Many guests snapped photos of Ms. Ben-Ari, the violinist, as she played.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
Ms. Richardson chatted with Ingrid Hadley on the home’s grand staircase.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

After the talent show came more dancing as the crowd let loose to music played by D.J. Mary Mac. At around 1 a.m. on Saturday, some people gathered for another Sismas pastime: a white elephant gift exchange, for which more than half of the guests each brought a wrapped gift of about $150 in value.

Though white elephant exchanges traditionally allow people to steal gifts from others, Ms. Smith said that the stealing caused “serious chaos” in the past, leading her to modify the rules at Sismas. Participating guests were given a number when they arrived at the party; later, as their numbers were called during the exchange, each chose a present from the pile of gifts, which included a copy of Assouline’s “Louis Vuitton: Virgil Abloh” coffee table book and a hat and scarf from Rag & Bone.

By 2 a.m., some guests were making their way to Ms. Smith’s house for an after party. Others were so full of the Sismas spirit that they could not bear the thought of leaving.

“I’ve got to leave, but it’s too hard,” said Ms. Simmons, who lives in Saddle River, N. J. “How can anyone easily leave a party like this?”

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