10 Vintage Holiday Party Tips from Old Etiquette Manuals

gregory_lee/iStock via Getty Images
gregory_lee/iStock via Getty Images

The holiday party season is always packed with events, and sometimes it can feel like more of the same. Spruce up your festivities by taking inspiration from party mavens of the past. Here’s some vintage holiday party advice for discerning hosts.

Holiday Party Tip No. 1: “An appropriate rime or jingle by way of invitation adds to the charm of this very delightful season.”

All holiday parties start with an invitation, and Dame Curtsey’s Art of Entertaining for All Occasions (1918) has you covered. The book includes a whole host of suggestions for the wording of your invites. For example, never miss the opportunity to throw in a rhyme:

“We wish you a Merry Christmas
And hope you all will come
To our Christmas tree and party
And help us enjoy our fun!”

Too vague? How about this short and snappy holiday party rhyme: “Come and see, our Christmas tree, Wednesday next, at half-past three.” Or, if you're worried about tardiness, perhaps you might prefer this invitation/warning:

“Won’t you come to our Christmas tree?
We’ll all be glad to see you—
Please come at eight, and don’t be late.”

Holiday Party Tip No. 2: For a fancy dress party, “there is a wide range of historical and mythological characters to select from.”

These days, most of us reach for an ironic novelty Christmas sweater when the invite reads “costumes encouraged.” But back in the days of yore, holiday party looks were rather more elaborate. Etiquette, Health and Beauty (1899) recommends an outfit with a unique design and accessories based on the invitation’s description. Let’s say it’s a wintertime ball: An “ice maiden” look can be easily created from “a short white dress of some thin material, and a veil of the same.” Simply re-purpose glass chandelier drops as icicles; “a fan painted with snow scenes and robins would be a suitable one to carry with such a dress.” Delightful!

Holiday Party Tip No. 3: “Simulate the sparkle of newly fallen snow.”

Vintage Christmas ornaments
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The Good Housekeeping Hostess (1904) recommends using silver and white decorations for your Christmas tree to create a magical feel. Lightly brush the branches with glue and then add a sprinkling of salt, which under the soft lights will have “the appearance of glistening frost.” Etiquette and Entertaining (1903) says that the room should be “gaily decorated” with “long swags of evergreens caught up in the center and at each side with a bow of red or blue ribbon” for a cheerful look.

Holiday Party Tip No. 4: “If you are entertaining 10 or more guests you had better have punch.”

Punch is the classic holiday party drink. The 1930s book Shake ‘Em Up says simple finger food should be laid out on the other side of the room from the punch bowl to “keep the guests in motion.” What goes in the punch bowl? “For the Christmas or New Year at home, egg-nog has long been the accepted beverage,” but the authors admit that it is “a nuisance to make.”

Holiday Party Tip No. 5: “Guests can help themselves from [a] party nut tree.”

A 1956 ad for Royal Nuts recommends that holiday party hosts fashion a fabulous Christmas nut tree for their guests. The “tree” is made by shaping a loaf of brown bread into a cone and then sticking it onto a candle holder so it stands up. Then, the host should spread the cone with cream cheese (made green with food coloring) and stick nuts onto the tree with toothpicks for a fabulously festive appetizer sure to get guests talking.

Holiday Party Tip No. 6: “Let the first care be, not the cakes and apples, but the games and other entertainment.”

Who needs food and drink when you have party games to play? An 1876 article in American Agriculturist exhorts any good party host to provide a constant supply of games and amusements so guests don't get bored. It cautions, however, that non-stop games can become tiring. Now and then, hosts should offer attendees “something which will amuse while resting in their seats.”

But if you’re thinking Spin the Bottle, think again. One of the amusements suggested in the article is to create an elaborate ruse in which a young child is dressed up convincingly as a large doll. Guests would then be encouraged to ask questions of the 'doll,' and be shocked when the supposedly inanimate object responds with a nod. The magazine does admit, however, that "any of these tricks, if poorly done, are very stupid."

Holiday Party Tip No. 7: Have an “exciting, spectacular feature” on the holiday table.

Holiday table
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What could be a more exciting centerpiece than a vegetable en flambé? Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook (1956) recommends a flaming cabbage for your holiday party table. You can make your own by hollowing out a cabbage and placing a small can of Sterno inside, then lighting the Sterno. The lamp should be entirely hidden by the cabbage, while the flames should emerge from the cavity. For a little extra pizazz, stick cocktail sausages on toothpicks into the cabbage’s outer surface. Naturally, guests will then gather 'round and cook their own wieners over the open flame.

Holiday Party Tip No. 8: Set the stage, then “in comes Santa.”

A visit from Santa Claus is the highlight of any holiday party. The Complete Hostess (1906) knows how to set the scene. Christmas music should drift into the room followed by “a recitation of The Night Before Christmas by the little hostess, dressed as a fairy.” Now, the poor soul wearing a red fur costume outside the room should ring sleigh bells, then get nearer and nearer, until who should come into the room, but Santa! Then “with many a quip and jest,” Santa should produce a gift for each guest.

Holiday Party Tip No. 9: “Present[ing] a young lady with articles of jewelry, or of dress … ought to be regarded as an offense rather than a compliment.”

Be careful what you give as holiday presents. An ill-chosen gift can offend the host, according to All About Etiquette (1875). Instead, young men should give the ladies in their lives a bouquet, a book, or “one or two autographs of distinguished persons.”

Holiday Party Tip No. 10: Have a solution on hand “for the party which you know will be too much for you.”

Prevention is better than cure, or so says Shake ‘Em Up. Before you attend a festive party where the booze will be flowing, it recommends a few prophylactic measures. “A quart of milk is a conservative preparation,” while “a physician recommends a large plate of green pea soup.” If neither is available, “a pony of olive oil is reputed to coat the stomach lining and ameliorate the wear and tear of subsequent beverages.” While we can confirm that a “pony” equals 1 ounce, we can’t say if these hangover preventers actually work—so attempt at your own risk.

The Origins of 12 Christmas Traditions

Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images
Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images

From expecting Santa to fill our footwear with gifts to eating cake that looks like tree bark, the holidays are filled with traditions—some of which are downright odd when you stop and think about them. Where did they come from? Wonder no more. Here are the origins of 12 Christmas traditions.

1. Hanging Stockings

While there’s no official record of why we hang socks for Santa, one of the most plausible explanations is that it's a variation on the old tradition of leaving out shoes with hay inside them on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day. Lucky children would discover that the hay they left for St. Nick’s donkey had been replaced with treats or coins when they woke up the next morning. Another story says that St. Nicholas learned of a father who was unable to pay for his three daughters' dowries, so St. Nick dropped gold balls down a chimney, which landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry. But this appears to be a modern telling—traditional versions of the story generally have the gold land at the father's feet after being thrown through a window.

Regardless of what started the tradition, people seem to have realized the need to use a decorative stocking in place of an actual sock pretty early on. In 1883, The New York Times wrote:

"In the days of the unobtrusive white stocking, no one could pretend that the stocking itself was a graceful or attractive object when hanging limp and empty from the foot of the bedstead. Now, however, since the adoption of decorated stockings ... even the empty stocking may be a thing of beauty, and its owner can display it with confidence both at the Christmas season and on purely secular occasions."

2. Caroling

Though it may seem like a centuries-old tradition, showing up at people’s houses to serenade them with seasonal tunes only dates back to the 19th century. Before that, neighbors did visit each other to impart wishes of good luck and good cheer, but not necessarily in song. Christmas carols themselves go back hundreds of years, minus the door-to-door part. The mashup of the two ideas didn’t come together until Victorian England, when caroling was part of every holiday—even May Day festivals. As Christmas became more commercialized, caroling for the occasion became more popular.

3. Using Evergreens as Christmas Trees

Rows of Christmas trees at tree farm on cold winter morning
arlutz73/iStock via Getty Images

Before Christianity was even conceived of, people used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes during the winter; the greenery reminded them that plants would return in abundance soon. As Christianity became more popular in Europe, and Germany in particular, the tradition was absorbed into it. Christians decorated evergreen trees with apples to represent the Garden of Eden, calling them "Paradise Trees" around the time of Adam and Eve's name day—December 24. Gradually, the tradition was subsumed into Christmas celebrations.

The tradition spread as immigrants did, but the practice really took off when word got around that England’s Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree as a nod to her German husband’s heritage (German members of the British royal family had previously had Christmas trees, but they never caught on with the wider public). Her influence was felt worldwide, and by 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree. Today, 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year.

4. The Colors Red and Green

As with many other old Christmas traditions, there’s no hard-and-fast event that deemed red and green the Official Colors of Christmas™. But there are theories—the green may have derived from the evergreen tradition that dates back to before Christianity, and the red may be from holly berries. While they’re winter-hardy, just like evergreens, they also have a religious implication: The red berries have been associated with the blood of Christ.

5. Ugly Christmas Sweaters

To celebrate this joyous season, many people gleefully don hideous knitwear adorned with ribbons, sequins, bows, and lights. In the past, the trend was embraced solely by grandmas, teachers, and fashion-challenged parents, but in the last decade or so, the ugly sweater has gone mainstream. We may have Canada to blame for that: According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book, the ugly sweater party trend can be traced to a 2001 gathering in Vancouver.

6. Leaving Milk and Cookies for Santa

Closeup image of wish list and treats for Santa Claus on table next to burning fireplace
Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images

When we plunk a few Oreos or chocolate chip cookies on a plate for St. Nick, accompanied by a cold glass of milk, we’re actually participating in a tradition that some scholars date back to ancient Norse mythology. According to legend, Odin had an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Kids would leave treats for Sleipnir, hoping that Odin would favor them with gifts in return. The practice became popular again in the U.S. during the Great Depression, when parents tried to impress upon kids the importance of being grateful for anything they were lucky enough to receive for Christmas.

7. The A Christmas Story Marathon on TBS

If one of the highlights of your holiday is tuning in for 24 hours of watching Ralphie Parker nearly shoot his eye out, you’re not alone—over the course of the day, more than 50 million viewers flip to TBS. The marathon first aired on TNT in 1997, then switched to sister station TBS in 2004. This Christmas marks the 20th year for the annual movie marathon.

8. Yule Logs

Chocolate yule log cake with red currant on wooden background
etorres69/iStock via Getty Images

Throwing a yule log on the fire is another tradition that is said to predate Christianity. As part of winter solstice celebrations, Gaels and Celts burned logs decorated with holly, ivy, and pinecones to cleanse themselves of the past year and welcome the next one. They also believed the ashes would help protect against lightning strikes and evil spirits. The practice was scaled down over time, and eventually, it morphed into a more delicious tradition—cake! Parisian bakers really popularized the practice of creating yule log-shaped desserts during the 19th century, with various bakeries competing to see who could come up with the most elaborately decorated yule log.

If you prefer a wood yule log to one covered in frosting, but find yourself sans fireplace, you can always tune in to Yule Log TV.

9. Advent Calendars

Technically, Advent, a religious event that has been celebrated since the 4th century, is a four-week period that starts on the Sunday closest to the November 30 feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle. Traditionally, it marked the period to prepare for Christmas as well as the Second Coming. These days, it’s mostly used as a countdown to Christmas for the religious and the non-religious alike.

The modern commercialized advent calendar, which marks the passage of December days with little doors containing candy or small gifts, are believed to have been introduced by Gerhard Lang in the early 1900s. He was inspired by a calendar that his mother made for him when he was a child that featured 24 colored pictures attached to a piece of cardboard. Today, advent calendars contain everything from candy to LEGOs.

10. Eggnog

Eggnog in two glass cups
GreenArtPhotography/iStock via Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would be inspired to chug a raw egg-based drink, but historians agree that 'nog was probably inspired by a medieval drink called posset, a milky drink made with eggs, milk, and sometimes figs or sherry. These were all pricey ingredients, so the wealthy often used it for toasting.

Eggnog became a holiday drink when colonists brought it over from England, but they found a way to make it on the cheap, nixing the figs and substituting rum for sherry. And how about that weird "nog" name? No one knows for sure, but historians theorize that nog was short for noggin, which was slang for a wooden cup, or a play on the Norfolk variety of beer also called nog (which itself may be named after the cup).

11. Mistletoe

Mistletoe has been associated with fertility and vitality since ancient times, when Celtic Druids saw it as such because it blossomed even during the most frigid winters; the association stuck over the centuries.

It’s easy to see how fertility and kissing can be linked, but no one is quite sure how smooching under the shrub (actually, it’s a parasitic plant) became a common Christmas pastime. We do know the tradition was popular with English servants in the 18th century, then quickly spread to those they served. The archaic custom once allowed men to steal a kiss from any woman standing beneath; if she refused, they were doomed with bad luck.

12. Christmas Cards

Exchanging holiday greetings via mail is a surprisingly recent tradition, with the first formal card hitting shelves in 1843. Designed by an Englishman named J.C. Horsley, the cardboard greeting showed a happy group of people participating in a toast, along with the printed sentiment, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” A thousand of them were printed that first year, and because it cost just a penny to mail a holiday hello to friends and family (the card itself was a shilling, or 12 times as much), the cards sold like hotcakes and a new custom was born. Today, Americans send around 2 billion cards every year.

Scope Out the Best Christmas Light Displays in Your Neighborhood With Nextdoor's Cheer Map

can72/iStock via Getty Images
can72/iStock via Getty Images

For many people, driving around the neighborhood to admire the gorgeous light displays (or laugh at the garish ones) is a beloved holiday tradition. But if you live in a big city or only want to check out the most impressive displays, you might not know where to look. That’s where Nextdoor’s Cheer Map comes in.

Nextdoor is a free and private social network that lets you interact with other people in your neighborhood. It’s used in more than 250,000 neighborhoods around the world, and if yours happens to be one of them, you can use the Cheer Map to find the nearest Christmas light displays in your area. The map is crowdsourced and voluntary, so your neighbors can mark their own homes with a holiday lights icon. And if you're eager to flaunt your own festive decorations, you can mark your home on the map, too.

The results will look something like this:

A woman uses Nextdoor's Cheer Map app
Netxtdoor

You can access the Cheer Map online, or via an iPhone or Android device. To get started, click the Cheer Map link, and you’ll be prompted to create a free online account with Nextdoor if you don’t already have one (signing up is quick and easy). Once you’re logged in, a pop-up window will ask whether you plan on decorating for the holidays; select “I will” or “Not this year,” then click "Continue." If you don’t want to participate, you can also select “Skip” to jump ahead to good stuff and access the map of decorated homes in your neighborhood. And that’s it! If you selected “I will,” a colorful light icon will mark your home on the map.

For those who live in small towns, there’s a chance you’ll be the first person in your neighborhood to join the site. Unfortunately, that means your neighborhood won’t be officially “launched” on Nextdoor unless you get nine of your neighbors to sign up. But even if you aren’t able to use the Cheer Map this holiday season, you could help spread the word (and holiday cheer) to get your neighborhood on the map for next year.

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