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.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Great Gifts for Teens

Fjallraven/Polaroid
Fjallraven/Polaroid

If it’s been a few years since you were a teenager, you might be feeling at a loss when it comes to finding the perfect gift for the teen in your life. But you don’t have to worry—we’ve culled the internet to figure out what’s cool these days, and we found 10 items to suit any teen (and any price point).

1. Fjällräven Kånken Mini Classic Backpack for Everyday; $70

Fjällräven/Amazon

Fjällräven’s Kånken backpack was originally introduced in 1978 as an affordable and comfortable bag for Swedish schoolchildren, but it recently took off as a trend among American high schoolers and college students. With 43 different color options, chances are you’ll be able to find the perfect trendy backpack for the teen in your life.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Hydro Flask Standard-Mouth Water Bottle; $30–$35

Hydro Flask/Amazon

Hydro Flasks aren’t only trendy, they’re sturdy and environmentally friendly. Plus, they keep hot drinks warm and icy drinks cool for an absurdly long amount of time. The standard-mouth water bottle is currently available on Amazon in 17 different colors, but the brand also offers tumbler cups and coffee mugs depending on your niece/nephew/cousin/friend/child’s preference.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Polaroid Originals OneStep+ Bluetooth-Connected Instant Film Camera; $140

Polaroid Originals/Amazon

Teens can kick it back old school with this Polaroid camera that hides some surprisingly contemporary features. Using a special app, users can fine-tune their camera settings to suit their personal tastes. Plus, this camera makes it possible to capture two scenes in a single frame, so it's that much easier to create uniquely artsy Polaroid pics.

Buy it: Amazon

4. 4th-Generation Echo Dot with Clock; $60

Amazon

Tech-wise, the fourth-generation Echo Dot is almost identical to its third-generation predecessor. But the updated spherical design seems poised to make the Echo Dot a worthy contender for traditional alarm clocks—the speaker face shows the time and it even includes a tap-to-snooze function for drowsy sleepers.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Bubble Tea Kit; $38

Uncommon Goods

Part of the reason bubble tea is so popular is that it’s customizable—and what could be more customizable than making it yourself? This kit, made by an Atlanta-based couple, comes with two reusable straws and enough supplies to make up to eight servings.

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

6. Mixtape Card Game; $20

Uncommon Goods

This party game challenges players to find the perfect songs to suit specific prompts. Some cards might prompt players to use Spotify or Youtube to search for the songs with the best guitar solos, while other cards call for participants to play their “favorite slow dance love jam from junior high.” This game is sure to be a hit at any high school sleepover or house party—or, in true 2020 style, at any digital hangout or Zoom meeting.

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

7. Giant Flour Tortilla Throw Blanket; $18-$35

Mermaker/Amazon

This goofy double-sided blanket turns any human into a giant-size burrito, and it comes in four different sizes to suit any height. One reviewer even went so far as to say that “once you wrap yourself in it, you will be convinced that you are a burrito.”

Buy it: Amazon

8. The Cup of Destiny; $22

Shelter Harbor Press/Amazon

Here’s a prediction: Your hunt for the perfect gift is almost over. This kit is ideal for the teenager who is fascinated by the supernatural and loves exploring new ideas. Included, you’ll find a 96-page illustrated instruction book along with a cup and a saucer marked with patterns and symbols.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Wreck This Journal: Now in Color; $9

Penguin Books/Amazon

This journal is not intended to be pretty. It’s made for messiness and exploration and a little bit of chaos. Artistic-minded teens will love filling out pages that prompt them to catalog various stains or poke holes through the paper. Reviewers say it’s not only a source of creative inspiration, though—it’s also a stress reliever. And considering that the middle-school and high-school years aren’t exactly known for being relaxing, this journal could be a welcome reprieve from the daily pressure of managing homework and a social life.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Therapy Dough; $15

Uncommon Goods

Some teens focus better and relax more easily when they have something to fidget with. If the teen in your life fits that description, this therapy dough may be the perfect gift for them. Each 4.5-ounce container is infused with essential oils like lavender, eucalyptus, orange, or pine, making relaxation smell delicious (and all natural!).

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.