10 Vintage Holiday Party Tips from Old Etiquette Manuals
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.”
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.
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.