Since we began publishing in 1974, one of the distinguishing features of PEOPLE magazine has been the intimate access we are given to celebrities at home. This year, as we barrel into the first holiday season of the new millennium, we decided to devote an entire special issue to Hollywood hospitality. Some two dozen stars opened their doors to show us around and invite us to their private parties. We expected black-tie dress codes, elaborate menus and valet parking—but what we found was surprising. Sure, there were some swanky affairs, such as songwriter Denise Rich's caviar-laden candlelit dinner in her Manhattan penthouse honoring former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. "She's a powerhouse party giver," says correspondent Elizabeth McNeil, who covered the event and experienced Rich's hostessing skills. "Not only did she introduce me to Gorbachev—he held my hand as he spoke to me."

More frequently, though, it's the common touch that prevails among celebs, even Emmy-winning actresses like our cover girl Patricia Heaton. Busy with a full-time job on Everybody Loves Raymond and four sons under age 7, she goes with the flow when she entertains. "If something unexpected happens—which always does when you have four kids—I don't fall a part," she says'. Neither do many of our other party givers, who rarely set out to impress their guests. Providence actress Paula Cale buys junk food at the supermarket and Wayne Brady of Whose Line Is It Anyway? brings in carry out subs. "I'm so bad!" admits Brady, who serves them on plastic plates. What matters more to today's stars is the company they keep—and to that end, many of our hosts and hostesses will use any excuse for a party: Monday Night Football, a card game, a full moon. Spouses pitch in with preparations and table clearing, and nobody sweats a shattered champagne glass. As Family Law's Dixie Carter says, "They're always getting broken. You just have to expect it."

Also in this issue, TV chefs including B. Smith, Sara Moulton and Jacques Pepin share their favorite holiday recipes, country singers like Barbara Mandrell and Billy Ray Cyrus lend us their cherished Christmas snapshots, and Princess Diana's butler Paul Burrell describes his family's traditional British Christmas. "The most important element," he says, "is sharing conversation and having fun." His good cheer—and everybody else's—is contagious. We hope that you get inspired to pick up the phone and invite a few friends over, whether you whip up a fabulous formal meal or kick back with pizza. Happy holidays!