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How to Host a Tea Party

Tea parties aren't just for little girls.
Tea parties aren't just for little girls.
Hemera/Thinkstock

You may spend your summers slinging grub for your brood out on the deck using a grill, a mountain of hamburgers (with cheese) and a fat roll of paper towels. While your home theater system is blaring someone's agonizing effort to hit the high notes of the national anthem, you're working the condiments like a madwoman in a dash to get everything on the table before the game starts -- or the announcer yells "start your engines" -- or someone in the kitchen or the family room shouts "Where's the food?" in that plaintive bellow you've come to love -- and hate -- in equal measure. It's tradition; it's family life; and it's usually just perfect.

Every once in a while, though, the fine china whispers to you from its zippered case, or a filigree of perfectly spaced stitches in a lace tablecloth makes you long for an afternoon on the Orient Express or in the lush, green depths of a formal garden. It may be girly and hopelessly romantic, but sometimes the idea of turning back the calendar to a more leisurely time seems almost irresistible. Tea is more than a collection of blended and dried plant parts. Tea is also a notion, a nostalgic ideal of what it is to live a refined and gracious existence.

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If you've been eyeing your tea service with longing lately, harvest some fresh flowers, polish the silver and have a tea party. The real star of these occasions is your imagination. Tea is the party beverage, sure, but it's also a state of mind.

On the next page, let's look at some gracious, nostalgic and imaginative ways to host a tea party. We have some suggestions for tea parties for the younger set as well as ways to make a relaxing cup of tea a decadent pleasure you won't soon forget. We request the honor of your presence.

Tea is to a tea party what beer is to guys' night in the man cave. Tea isn't the only requirement, though. A good tea party is about creating an old timey, gracious ambience, and that requires attention to detail. You don't have to live in a palace, serve lots of expensive food or hire a wait staff to do the honors. A tea party can be a late morning to late afternoon affair. It can be held indoors or outdoors, and it can include from as few as two people to more than a hundred.

You should also observe some practical rules:

  • Send invitations -- A written invitation will set the perfect tone for a tea party. Remember, a tea party usually conjures visions of rose bouquets, lace, bone china, delightfully decadent sweets and cunningly crafted sandwiches. You may not be including all of those things in your party, but putting together an invitation that plays to those ideas will get people in the mood. Your invitation should also include the date, time, location and planned duration of the party. Request an RSVP, and send the invitations well in advance, too. Six weeks ahead isn't too soon.
  • Consider a theme -- Beyond feeling nostalgic for the good old days, there are lots of reasons to host a tea party. It could be part of a larger wedding celebration. It could also be for a graduation, birthday party or retirement celebration. It isn't too hard to integrate a theme like retirement (think leisure activities like gardening or travel) or graduation into a tea party in the table decorations, invitations and food. You can also stick to classics like a spring fling with lots of flowers. If extravagance is more your thing, think along the lines of Alice in Wonderland/Queen of Hearts, a derby party or a Japanese tea garden. Picking a theme, even if it's just a color scheme, it will be easier to come up with good, specific ideas. Knowing that you'll be using a bouquet of light yellow roses as a centerpiece will make it easier to decide on things like the cake frosting and table cloth design.
  • Establish a dress code -- Tea parties can run the gamut from dauntingly formal to hole-in-your-running-shoe casual. Mention the dress code in your invitations. You don't need to go overboard, but you can, say, recommend dresses for the ladies (oh, and maybe hats!), and dress slacks for the men. If you want things comfortably casual, let folks know that, too.
  • Savory, sweet or both -- Tea party refreshments can be playful and understated with cookies and petit fours. They can also include more robust appetizer trays that add finger sandwiches and other two-bite specialties. You can also host a tea party that includes a complete buffet service. You should keep in mind that "tea" doesn't mean "luncheon," so your invitations should spell out what guests can expect. As important as the food will be, it's the presentation that will win the day at a tea party. Keep the serving sizes on the small side, and pay particular attention to the way food is plated. Stacking cold cuts on a platter may be good form for an office party, but you should include some creative flourish with tea party fare. Roll those cold cuts and include some greenery and nicely displayed fruits and cheeses. Tasty is good, but pretty and tasty is even better.
  • Include entertainment -- Sipping tea to classical music may seem refined, but it gets boring fast. Make sure your tea party is a success by incorporating some entertainment into the afternoon. You can play games, include a craft presentation or even host a jewelry or fashion show. There's lots of potential for innovation here. If you know your friends' particular likes, you'll be able to come up with some great options.
  • Don't forget the tea -- Yes, tea parties include tea, and even if you aren't a fan of the brown stuff, there are some variations that are sure to work for your party. You can go with serving classic teas like Darjeeling, oolong, Earl Grey and English breakfast, or opt for iced tea or sun tea. Iced, fruity teas work particularly well for a spring or summer tea party. You can try something new like chai tea, too. It's a blend of cinnamon, allspice and other spices served with milk. It's a bit like Christmas in a cup. If there will be tea purists present, make sure to brew loose rather than bagged tea, use boiling water (not just hot -- unless it's green tea), and steep the tea precisely. Otherwise, the tea police may cite you for beverage abuse.

Make it special for your young ones; these are the best memories.
Make it special for your young ones; these are the best memories.
Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Little girls and tea parties go together. It's just a matter of observing the niceties, and where there's tea, there may be quite a few niceties involved: Stick your little finger out when you drink, take little sips and always chew with your mouth closed. Wearing mom's high heel shoes (and jewelry) isn't essential, but it does help create the right mood.

A children's tea party will differ from a tea party for adults in a number of particulars beyond the guest list. The duration of the party should run about two hours, and stuffed animals and dolls should be included on the seating chart. The snacks should be downsized, too. You may want to serve cookies, cake and ice cream, but be sure to keep the portions small. These tips will help, too:

  • Send out invitations -- Yes, invitations are important. They'll provide parents with details about the location, time, duration and dress for the party. Mailed invitations are a nice touch, but an invitation via e-mail is OK, especially if this isn't a special occasion celebration like a birthday.
  • Age considerations -- Kids 5 to 7 years old are prime candidates for a tea party, although kids as young as 2 will enjoy the fun.
  • The theme -- From "Alice in Wonderland" to the latest Disney animated film, choosing a theme for a kids' tea party is pretty easy. If nothing else captures your fancy, you can stick to the old standby, a princess tea party (tiaras all around). You can also encourage guests to wear costumes that fit the theme of the party. It adds to the drama.
  • The décor -- The decorative elements you'd find at a party store for a birthday celebration will work for a tea party, as well. Choose pastel colors, and go all out with paper flowers, streamers and garlands. You want to make this one memorable.
  • The food -- Expect to serve cookies, cake (mini cupcakes) and other sweets at a kids' tea party, but do ask the parents involved about food allergies and other limitations before settling on a final menu.
  • The games -- You can arrange for most of the kids' games you'd plan for a birthday party, with a focus on the less rowdy options. After all, this is supposed to be a refined gathering.
  • The tea -- Plain tea may not be quite what your guests are expecting, especially if they've never had hot tea before. To make sure there are no unpleasant surprises, limit tea choices to sweetened fruity varieties or sweetened ice tea. Keeping some hot cocoa, soda or lemonade on hand is a good idea, too.
  • The parents -- Hosting a tea party for your child is a great time to get to know your fellow parents, too. While the kids are playing pretend, you can have your own mini-tea party in the kitchen. This is great for guest parents who would otherwise cool their heels at the mall until it's time to put their chauffeur's hat back on. (Psst! They make great helpers, too.)

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Sources

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