When planning your next Yuletide soirée, look to the past for inspiration. Some of our ancestors’ traditions and tactics for festive shindigs might be worth adopting this year.
1. LET YOUR GUESTS SEAT THEMSELVES.
In the 18th century, dinner parties were about more than just food: There was a laundry list of rules and expectations to remember and follow. Seating had its own set of customs, but the process of finding a chair was at least a little more relaxed than say, the dress code (dressing for dinner would take upper-class Victorian women upwards of an hour).
To begin seating, the host would enter the dining room with the most senior lady at the party. The host would sit at one end of the table while the senior woman would choose her own seat (more often than not, her preference would be near the hostess, who was seated at the other end of the table). Once the host, hostess, and senior lady were all settled, the remaining guests would be free to find seats of their own choosing. Typically, the guests would try to find a seat next to someone desirable to court. For your own party, take a cue from this tradition and ditch the place cards.
2. MAKE SURE YOUR NAPKINS ARE FOLDED PROPERLY.
Specially folded napkins are an easy and inexpensive way to add some flair to the table. To start, use crisp, well-starched napkins that can hold a shape.
The Steward's Handbook and Guide to Party Catering by Jessup Whitehead (published in 1889) explains the best method for creating handsome napkin configurations: "It is necessary to be always very precise in making the folds, bringing the edges and corners exactly to meet, a rule which applies to all the designs; but without strict attention to which, the more elaborate patterns cannot be represented."
With some creativity, napkins can be transformed into various shapes like crowns, fans, and flowers. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can try for some festive shapes like a Christmas tree or star.
3. NAIL YOUR TOAST.
At smaller parties, it is typically the host’s job to deliver the first toast—one that is best when it’s short and to the point. If you need some inspiration, consider one of these recommendations from 1869’s Mixing in Society: A Complete Manual of Manners:
“Love, liberty, and length of days.” “May we never want a friend, nor a bottle to share with him.” “Our absent friends on land and sea.”
If you would like something more festive for the holidays, American essayist Hamilton Wright Mabie once raised a glass and said, "Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love."
4. PICK THE RIGHT CUP.
When making your excellent retro toast, you’re going to need raise the right vessel. To avoid anyone getting a little too merry, rustle up a Pythagorean cup, an Ancient Roman goblet used for pranks and forced restraint. If you filled this cup beyond a certain point, all of the liquid would spill out the bottom.
5. PICK A THEME.
Think outside the box when deciding on the theme of your holiday party. Sure, snowflakes and holly sprigs are safe and practical, but why not go big with your decorating? Consider the Bradley-Martin Ball in 1897, when Mrs. Cornelia Bradley-Martin poured just under $400,000 (the equivalent of nearly $9 million today) into a costumed shindig at a luxury hotel. With the right decorations—and exquisite attention to detail—she transformed the hotel into the Chateau de Versailles.
In the early 1900s, wealthy businessman James Stillman threw a forest-themed dinner party complete with shrubbery and a working waterfall. While you might not be quick to consider building a water feature in your home, knowing these elaborate themes exist might make you reconsider the Santa window stickers.
6. PLAY A GAME...
The Book of Days, an 1832 guide to holidays, traditions, and curious events, describes the games people of yore would play to distract themselves from the frigid weather. In addition to classics like dice and cards, 18th century Britons would also amuse themselves with more complex games that involved multiple players, props, and elaborate rules. One such game, popular around Christmas, was called Questions and Commands; it was sort of like Truth or Dare without the dares. Instead, the commander would ask his or her subjects a series of “lawful” questions; if the subjects refused to answer or responded with a lie, they would be smutted (ash pushed into their faces) or sat upon as punishment.
7. ... PARTICULARLY ONE THAT ENCOURAGES FLIRTING.
One popular game during the Victorian Era was called Blind-Man’s Bluff. To play, you clear the room of anything sharp or hazardous, and then blindfold a “victim.” The blindfolded player then runs around trying to catch the other sighted players as they scramble around the room. This game, which was featured in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Vixen, offers the opportunity to steal some furtive touches and embraces under the guise of blind ignorance.
8. ADVERTISE YOUR ENTERTAINMENT (BUT ONLY IF IT’S GOOD).
Party-giving on Every Scale, published in 1880, recommends hiring a fine musician or well-known comedian to entertain your guests. Top-notch entertainment should receive top billing on your party’s invitation, the book explains, while the names of lesser-known performers may be replaced with the word “Music” at the bottom of the card.
9. PUT ON A SHOW.
Many party planning books from the 19th century recommend a theater party as a less expensive alternative to a ball or dance. In the Victorian era, it was not uncommon to have a small theater already in your home, but those hosts who weren’t so lucky made do with a portable stage put in their reception room. Once you have a stage, you need to decide on the right play and actors. Party-giving on Every Scale suggests that a pre-existing play be used to avoid unforeseen problems in the production. The actors should not be professionals, but amateurs happy to engage in lighter fare. For your holiday purposes, consider getting your friends to put on a production of The Nutcracker.
10. WARM YOUR GUESTS UP WITH SOME HOT CHOCOLATE.
Victorian women often enjoyed the hot beverage during luncheons and breakfasts, but hot chocolate is a good idea whenever it’s nippy outside. You can delight your guests with a hot cup of cocoa at your next get-together by using an old fashioned recipe. Melt shaved chocolate and a bit of water in a saucepan at a low heat. When it’s fully liquefied, add milk little by little while mixing the concoction with an eggbeater. Soon you’ll have a creamy, delicious treat to pass out at your party (or to enjoy by yourself).
11. HAND OUT CRACKERS.
The hollow paper goods popular on Christmas and New Year’s Eve come pre-filled with tiny toys and prizes that are revealed when the operator pulls both ends. Before paper hats, toys, and confetti became the standard prizes, original crackers yielded candy. British confectioner Tom Smith got the idea for the crackers in 1848 while on a trip to France. Your older guests might welcome sweets instead of plastic toys.
12. PUT A TWIST ON YOUR YULE LOG.
For Vikings, the winter solstice was a time for cleansing. They would carve runes that represented negative qualities into logs before tossing them in the fire in the hope that the gods would react to this symbolic burning by abolishing the unwanted traits from the burners. If you have a big enough fireplace, you can re-enact this practice by having your guests carve things they want to get rid of into logs or sticks.
13. HAVE A FEAST.
Thanksgiving isn’t the only time to be gluttonous. Traditionally, the beginning of winter was an excellent time to have a feast: The abundance of food following the fall harvest led to some serious binge eating during the Middle Ages. King John of England threw a Christmas feast in 1213 that would make even champion eaters feel overwhelmed. The menu featured: 24 hogsheads of wine, 200 heads of pork, 1000 hens, 500 pounds of wax, 50 pounds of pepper, two pounds of saffron, 100 pounds of almonds, and 10,000 salt eels.
14. PLAY SPORTS.
During the holiday season, villages in medieval France liked to play a game called la soule. A conglomeration of modern sports like field hockey, football, and handball, la soule saw two teams from neighboring villages compete to bring a wooden or hay-stuffed leather ball to their opponent’s church by kicking, smacking, or hitting it with a stick—often traveling long distances across difficult terrain. Anywhere from 20 to 200 people would play at a time. If you want something a little tamer at your holiday gathering, maybe settle for a game of touch football or capture the flag.
15. TELL STORIES.
As detailed in Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, the end of Christmas dinner meant the beginning of story time. The elders would collect by the fireplace and tell all sorts of stories, some real and some fantasy. You could likewise end your evening around the fire by swapping tales and stories with your friends and family.