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Tea Party Etiquette

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Overhead view of people having tea
Tim Macpherson/Cultura/Getty Images

The old fashioned tea party has become a favorite way to entertain friends or celebrate a special occasion. Typically more elegant than simply having a bunch of friends hanging out over coffee but not as formal as a cocktail party, the tea party host may ask guests to wear decorated hats and bring a favorite tea cup.

Food is generally simple because the tea is the central theme and the star of the get-together. Follow basic etiquette rules that you would use for any other party.

Invitations

Invitations can be purchased or handmade, following the dress code of the party. If you want your guests to dress up and wear fancy hats, your invitations should reflect it by being more formal than you would send for a come-as-you-are party. For an impromptu party, all you need to do is pick up the phone to invite your guests, but your turnout probably won’t be as good as if you had planned in advance.

Guest Etiquette

Guests at a tea party need to follow certain etiquette rules that start with the dress code and include how to pour the tea. Most of the time, a floral or other brightly colored dress is appropriate for women and a suit or trousers and jacket are fitting for men who attend a tea party. If the host makes a special request regarding the dress code, honor her wishes.

Guest manners:

  • Always RSVP.
  • Arrive on time.
  • A hostess gift isn’t generally expected for a tea party, but if you choose to bring one, keep it simple. The hostess will appreciate some flavored loose tea, a new tea ball, or a candle.
  • If there are place cards on the table, find yours as soon as you get there. You may mix and mingle if the party hasn’t started yet, but it is always a good idea to know where the host wants you to sit.
  • If there is a guest of honor, greet him or her and chat for a moment or two, but back away if there is a line of others wanting to chat.
  • Never put too much food on your plate. Tea party fare isn’t supposed to be a meal; it is a snack.
  • If you spill something, blot it quickly to prevent staining. Let the host or hostess know and offer to pay the cleaning bill.
  • Leave when the party starts to wind down. Always say goodbye to the host and the guest of honor before you leave.

Table Setting

When setting the table or tables for a tea party, start with a clean tablecloth. You may use white, off-white, or a color that reflects the theme of the party. Lacy or appliqued tablecloths are perfect for tea parties.

If your table is round or square, place your teapots in the center, beside a floral centerpiece that is short enough for guests to see each other from across the table. Small creamers and sugar bowls should be scattered around the table, making it easy for guests to reach them. If your table is rectangular, you may place the teapots on both ends, with the creamers and sugar bowls beside them.

Each person’s place setting should consist of a teacup, saucer, teaspoon, snack plate, napkin, and whatever utensils they will need for the refreshments. If you are serving snacks at a buffet, you may use this setting, or you may choose to have the snack plates at one end of the buffet line.

The Tea

Ideally, the tea should be served from teapots and not with individual teabags in guests’ cups. If you are hosting the event, heat the teapots by pouring boiling water into them and then pour out the water before making the tea. This prevents the brewing water from cooling off too quickly.

It is a good idea to offer a variety of teas. Some of the favorite party teas include Darjeeling, jasmine, peppermint, green tea, and black tea. You may use loose tea with or without tea balls or teabags in the pots.

Tea Party Food

Ideally, most food served at a tea party can be eaten without utensils. Finger food favorites include scones, muffins, cookies, tea sandwiches, and artisan breads. Break off a bite or two and put a small amount of butter on that. Never butter the entire muffin at once. If clotted cream is offered, that should be added to the scones after the jam.

When eating at a tea party, remember that this isn’t a meal designed to fill you up. Take small bites and enjoy the conversation. Sip the tea without gulping. If the tea is too hot to drink, don’t blow on it. Let it rest a few minutes so it can cool off before sipping again.

Entertainment

Most tea parties don’t need special entertainment because conversation will keep guests busy. Everyone can mix and mingle as they sip their favorite teas. You may want to distribute a facts sheet about the different teas.

If you want to include entertainment, here are some ideas:

  • Have someone tell the history of tea parties.
  • Have a hat contest with prizes for the prettiest, funniest, or most elegant hats.
  • Play tea-themed word games.
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