15 Historical Tips for Hosting a Holiday Party

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.

7 Top-Rated Portable Air Conditioners You Can Buy Right Now

Black + Decker/Amazon
Black + Decker/Amazon

The warmest months of the year are just around the corner (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), and things are about to get hot. To make indoor life feel a little more bearable, we’ve rounded up a list of some of the top-rated portable air conditioners you can buy online right now.

1. SereneLife 3-in-1 Portable Air Conditioner; $290

SereneLife air conditioner on Amazon.
SereneLife/Amazon

This device—currently the best-selling portable air conditioner on Amazon—is multifunctional, cooling the air while also working as a dehumidifier. Reviewers on Amazon praised this model for how easy it is to set up, but cautioned that it's not meant for large spaces. According to the manufacturer, it's designed to cool down rooms up to 225 square feet, and the most positive reviews came from people using it in their bedroom.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Black + Decker 14,000 BTU Portable Air Conditioner and Heater; $417

Black + Decker portable air conditioner
Black+Decker/Amazon

Black + Decker estimates that this combination portable air conditioner and heater can accommodate rooms up to 350 square feet, and it even comes with a convenient timer so you never have to worry about forgetting to turn it off before you leave the house. The setup is easy—the attached exhaust hose fits into most standard windows, and everything you need for installation is included. This model sits around four stars on Amazon, and it was also picked by Wirecutter as one of the best values on the market.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Mikikin Portable Air Conditioner Fan; $45

Desk air conditioner on Amazon
Mikikin/Amazon

This miniature portable conditioner, which is Amazon's top-selling new portable air conditioner release, is perfect to put on a desk or end table as you work or watch TV during those sweltering dog days. It's currently at a four-star rating on Amazon, and reviewers recommend filling the water tank with a combination of cool water and ice cubes for the best experience.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Juscool Portable Air Conditioner Fan; $56

Juscool portable air conditioner.
Juscool/Amazon

This tiny air conditioner fan, which touts a 4.6-star rating, is unique because it plugs in with a USB cable, so you can hook it up to a laptop or a wall outlet converter to try out any of its three fan speeds. This won't chill a living room, but it does fit on a nightstand or desk to help cool you down in stuffy rooms or makeshift home offices that weren't designed with summer in mind.

Buy it: Amazon

5. SHINCO 8000 BTU Portable Air Conditioner; $320

Shinco portable air conditioner
SHINCO/Amazon

This four-star-rated portable air conditioner is meant for rooms of up to 200 square feet, so think of it for a home office or bedroom. It has two fan speeds, and the included air filter can be rinsed out quickly underneath a faucet. There's also a remote control that lets you adjust the temperature from across the room. This is another one where you'll need a window nearby, but the installation kit and instructions are all included so you won't have to sweat too much over setting it up.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Honeywell MN Series Portable Air Conditioner and Dehumidifier; $400

Honeywell air conditioner on Walmart.
Honeywell/Walmart

Like the other units on this list, Honeywell's portable air conditioner also acts as a dehumidifier or a standard fan when you just want some air to circulate. You can cool a 350-square-foot room with this four-star model, and there are four wheels at the bottom that make moving it from place to place even easier. This one is available on Amazon, too, but Walmart has the lowest price right now.

Buy it: Walmart

7. LG 14,000 BTU Portable Air Conditioner; $699

LG Portable Air Conditioner.
LG/Home Depot

This one won't come cheap, but it packs the acclaim to back it up. It topped Wirecutter's list of best portable air conditioners and currently has a 4.5-star rating on Home Depot's website, with many of the reviews praising how quiet it is while it's running. It's one of the only models you'll find compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant, and it can cool rooms up to 500 square feet. There's also the built-in timer, so you can program it to go on and off whenever you want.

Buy it: Home Depot

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12 Facts About Avatar: The Last Airbender

Zach Tyler in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Zach Tyler in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Nickelodeon

One of the best cartoons of all time has come to save the summer of 2020. Avatar: The Last Airbender's arrival on Netflix could not have come at a better time, and a slew of old fans (now in their thirties) and new ones (all other ages) are reveling in the epic journey of Aang (Zach Tyler), Katara (Mae Whitman), Sokka (Jack De Sena), and Toph (Michaela Jill Murphy) to best the Fire Lord.

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko for Nickelodeon, the animated series—which chronicles the adventures of the reincarnated master with the ability to psychically move air, water, fire, and Earth in order to bring balance to the world—originally ran from 2005 to 2008. Stuffed with a variety of Asian fighting, design, and philosophical influences, the mature-for-kids action show challenged preconceived notions (and fate itself) with intelligence, empathy, and beauty. And its resurgent popularity is proving its young status as a classic.

1. Bending is based on real martial arts styles.

Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, the show's creators, consulted Northern Shaolin master Sifu Kisu to craft distinct styles to correspond to the four main elements that are bent within the series: Tai Chi for water, Hung Gar for Earth, Northern Shaolin for fire, and Bagua for air. The styles are tonal matches for the elements; Tai Chi is smooth and controlled, for example, while Northern Shaolin is aggressive and dynamic.

2. Avatar: The Last Airbender exists because of a documentary about Ernest Shackleton.

Sir Ernest Shackleton was an early 20th century explorer who led many expeditions, the most famous of which was a journey to the South Pole aboard a ship called the Endurance. The trip went dangerously awry, but Shackleton was able to get everyone back alive. DeMartino was watching a documentary about Shackleton around the same time Konietzko had doodled a funny drawing about a bald kid with an arrow on his forehead. Those two elements merged together and became the beginning of Aang's journey.

3. There's a simple reason Avatar: The Last Airbender included heavy themes like genocide and imperialism.

When you think of kids shows, you don't usually think about genocide, which is why most people express astonishment that Avatar: The Last Airbender was able to explore such dark material alongside all the Sokkasm and Appa burping. Konietzko, however, has an easy explanation. "Kids are deeper than a lot of people, and especially corporations, give them credit for," he told The Mary Sue.

4. Bryan Konietzko got beat up a lot for Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The team made reference videos to make the animation rooted in real-world fighting, typically doing about three video sessions per episode. Sifu Kisu usually portrayed one fighter in the scene, and Konietzko (who was also one of Sifu Kisu's students) would portray the other. That meant a lot of time being pulled around by the thumbs or dumped on a practice mat by a world-class master. Great art requires sacrifice.

5. The voice of Azula on Avatar: The Last Airbender got the job because she didn't yell at the audition.

The team was looking for a famous actress to voice the villainous Fire Nation royal, but didn't find the right fit, so Grey Griffin got an opportunity to audition. When she did, she stood out by avoiding yelling lines that clearly beg to be yelled from a character with an explosive temper. "I was very contained and quiet because I felt like Azula was just so powerful she didn't need to yell at anybody," Griffin told Syfy.

6. Avatar: The Last Airbender's Commander Zhao was inspired by the actor who would eventually voice him.

Jason Isaacs in Dig (2015)
Jason Isaacs in Dig.
Virginia Sherwood/USA Network

Zhao is the vicious big bad for season 1—a zealot who is willing to destroy the moon in order to weaken the water tribes. When writing his character, the team drew inspiration from Jason Isaacs's portrayal of Colonel Tavington in The Patriot. DiMartino asked casting director Maryanne Dacey to find someone like Isaacs. "A few days later, she got the real deal," DiMartino said.

7. Avatar: The Last Airbender's Fire Lord Ozai is Luke Skywalker

Mark Hamill is famous both for playing that scruffy nerf-herder who loses his hand in a laser sword fight with his (spoiler alert!) dad, and for crafting an indelible voice acting career marked by disappearing into roles. The ultimate villain of Avatar: The Last Airbender is on that list, which is why you might detect just a hint of The Joker's voice from Batman: The Animated Series when Ozai scolds Zuko. When Hamill originally got the script, he thought the show wouldn't last because it was too intelligent.

8. Avatar: The Last Airbender's scariest bending technique had a silly nickname.

Bloodbending! It's terrible! As a more nefarious version of waterbending, bloodbending has some spooky implications. We get to see just how creepy it gets when Katara accidentally learns it from Hama. It's sometimes called the "Puppetmaster Technique" in the show's universe, but the production team called it the "Stop Hitting Yourself Technique" as a joke.

9. Toph and her parents are the only characters with last names.

Aang, Sokka, Katara, Toph Beifong. The quartet travels the world trying to train the savior of the world in anticipation of a devastating, comet-fueled invasion, but only one of them gets a family name. Even the royal Zuko and the rest of the Fire Lord crew are last-nameless. The creators haven't weighed in on this specifically, but Toph is also introduced in the context of her wealthy family's celebrity within the Earth Kingdom, and she also uses her last name to score instant tickets for the ferry to Ba Sing Se, so the name is vital to the plot.

10. Toph was originally going to be a 16-year-old boy.

Michaela Jill Murphy in Avatar: The Last Airbender
Michaela Jill Murphy as Toph in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Nickelodeon

The team wanted to add a muscular foil to Sokka in the second season, but as they explored the possibility, they found it far better to create a blind 12-year-old girl who absolutely wrecks larger, physically stronger Earthbenders. Her original animation design became the basis for Sud, Avatar Roku's Earth-bending instructor.

11. In the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe, toys are used to identify the Avatar.

At least they are among the air nomads. The method is to show thousands of toys to children, and if they pick only the four Avatar relics to play with, it's highly likely that they've found the reincarnated Avatar (who is picking the toys already familiar to them). The relics are a clay turtle flute, a pull-string propeller, a wooden monkey, and a wooden hand drum, all owned by previous Avatars.

12. Avatar: The Last Airbender was largely inspired by Studio Ghibli films and FLCL.

Crafting Katara's character also created a tragic backstory for the Southern water tribe. When developing Katara (originally named Kya until Nickelodeon's legal department axed it), the show's creators wanted her to have the waterbending power instead of her brother, and they didn't want her to be a master of her element like Aang is with air. Because of that, they decided Katara was still a novice because there were no waterbenders left to learn from—which required inventing a painful past, one of the terrible consequences of the war, and a key motivating factor for both her and Sokka.