Afternoon tea or coffee is a great way to host an elegant event, with good friends in a relaxed environment.
There are many reasons for holding an afternoon tea. They can honor someone for a birthday, anniversary or to celebrate some life event such as a new job, a promotion, a new baby or engagement. Or perhaps to welcome a new neighbor, or a new member to your family.
An afternoon tea is also a great way to hold a business meeting. It’s a relaxed atmosphere and provides a way for business professionals to get to know each other.
You don’t have to have a special occasion or a guest of honor to host afternoon tea. Some of the best afternoons I’ve had at tea were simple gatherings with friends to catch up on each others lives and families. Being a business woman, afternoon teas are also nice ways to thank clients for their patronage or to hold small teaching moments. My clients ask questions they may not normally have an opportunity to ask and we always have great conversations.
Whatever your reasons for holding Afternoon tea, or coffee, you can make it an elegant and memorable event by following a few rules of Proper Etiquette and planning the proper menu for Afternoon or “Low” Tea.
Guests & Invitations:
A proper afternoon tea party can be held for two to six people. More than six and your quaint party can be both unmanageable and less intimate. Not only does the limited number help you manage the preparations for your guests, it will also help to limit emotional conflicts or the creation of drama during your gathering.
If you like Patty and Kathy, but you know Patty can’t stand Kathy, then someone should be left out of your invitation. This is the most common type of drama problem I’m asked about. The solution is actually a simple one. Plan for two afternoon tea parties. One this week where you’ll invite Patty, but not Kathy. And one next week or later in the month, when you can invite Kathy, but not Patty. Really, it is best to keep your event to six or less and seriously ensure all of your guests get along!
With your guest list set, it’s time for invitations. Invitations are sent out by mail and are always hand written. No store bought invitations with blanks to fill in the time or place etc. Don’t print them off from your computer. Part of the elegance is an expression of caring about who you have invited. You’ve taken the time to write out an invitation by hand. In today’s busy world, that says a lot about your character and kindness along with the effort you’re making for your afternoon and how much you think of your guests.
Traditional Victorian invitations were written on tea cards, also called tea notes. They depicted lovely tea sets, or a cup of tea with an elegant sweet, such as decorated cupcake. They may also have depicted an English garden scene set for tea time, or simply a tea set with English roses or some other flower from the garden.
Mail your invitation at least one week in advance. Today, people are extremely busy and they need time to plan their schedule. It’s acceptable to mail an invitation two weeks in advance to accommodate all schedules, but not more than that. You can include an RSVP, or word your invitation in any manner you see fit. If you’re inviting someone new to your home, you may want to include your address.
You can still find tea cards at any greeting card or stationery store. Simply look for a box of blank note cards with a lovely decoration on the front. While you’re there, look for a box of thank you cards as well. You may want to send a handwritten thank you to your guests for coming.
Afternoon tea is generally “low tea” because it’s held in a living or sitting room on a low table, such as a coffee table. But many people like holding their event on a table. This does not make your tea a “high tea”. Please don’t get these two events confused. There’s a significant difference between the time of day and the menu (High & Low – What Time Is Tea?)! If you want to have afternoon tea at a table, while you’re at the stationery store, pick up a box of place setting cards. A card with your guest’s name on can be a special memento for them to take home and it’s also a nice touch to your table.
Afternoon Tea Preparations:
Make sure you are prepared for the day of your event. Several days prior, make your menu list and ensure you have everything you need for any recipes you’ll be using. You may want to review A Proper Menu: What To Serve Your Guests for low tea.
Do your best not to prepare the baked items until the day of the party. If you’re serving tea sandwiches, resist the urge to make them early and store them in the fridge. This will dry out your bread and it will allow the spread to soak into the slices, resulting in an undesirable snack.
Your sandwiches should be prepared 30 to 40 minutes prior to the arrival of your guests. Time it right and they will be ready right as your guests enter the door. You can create your sweets and treats, early unless they’re cupcakes. Again, those should be as fresh as possible. If you’re going to purchase dessert from a local bakery, visit them in the morning on the day of your event, at the earliest.
If you will have fruit on your serving trays, make sure they are room temperature at the time of serving. Take them out of the fridge 30 minutes before your guests arrive and allow them to warm up. They should be perfect by tea time. Of course if your tea is outside, don’t set them in the heat of the day. Keep them inside until it’s time for everyone to gather at your table.
Speaking of your table, whither you’re preparing for low tea or afternoon tea at a table, it should be covered with your best linen. Many people insist on white linen as this is the tradition of old. Today, this isn’t written in stone. But it should be a solid color. You can place a decorated linen beneath the solid cloth to provide color to your setting. Or you can place a fine lace cloth over the solid color linen to bring out additional elegance for your table.
You should also use linen napkins if possible. Though today, a high quality paper napkin can be acceptable for low tea. You would never-ever do this for High Tea.
If your table is small and intimate, you may use a serving cart for your tea and coffee service. Or your chocolate pot if it’s a cold winters day. There is a difference between pots, take time to know what that is Coffee, Tea & Chocolate Pots. While this is afternoon tea, don’t assume everyone you have invited likes hot tea. Prepare a pot of coffee for those who would prefer it over tea. Only if it’s summer and warm outside should you prepare an iced tea.
Your menu items should be placed on the table for your guests to easily access during your event. Keep this in mind as you’re deciding what type of serving tier you might want to use, as well as a centerpiece. You don’t want your guests having to look over or around trays and flowers to see the other guests at the table. Nor do you want them reaching around tall objects on a low tea table either.
Thank you For Coming:
It’s proper practice to provide a small and inexpensive gift for your guests. It’s a way of saying thank you for coming. The gift can be anything from a lovely tea spoon, to a cup and saucer wrapped in a bow for your guest to take with them. Generally the expense is small. But small is all based on perspective.
This gesture is not only fun for your guests, it also gives them something to do while you’re pouring their tea.
Here are a few ideas:
- Pick up a few tiny tins at your local dollar store. Place a few individually packaged tea bags in the tin and wrap a bow around the package.
- Select 3 flavored teas, wrap them in chiffon with a tiny decorative spoon.
- Look around your local stores for tea themed refrigerator magnets, or potato chip clips. Or anything one might use in the kitchen.
- Gift cards for the local tea or coffee house are always nice. But you can stir things up a little and acquire a gift card for the local bakery or flower shop as well.
- Sticky Notepads and notepad books can be nice. Or wrap a grocery list magnet pad that your guests can hang on their fridge.
- Find some scented soaps or votive candles and wrap them in gift tissue paper with a bow. Everyone loves to unwrap presents.
- A small tin of nuts or hard candy can be a pleasing gift. They may also stir up some old memories of childhood or favorite relatives.
- Miniature jars of honey, with tiny honey dispensers are one of my favorite ideas. You can find small jars & dispensers at most craft or dollar stores.
One of my favorite gifts that I received at Afternoon Tea was a cinnamon filled hot pad. Any time I placed a hot-pot on the table the cinnamon would waffle through the dining room and made everything smell so inviting.
If you and your guests share a passion, you can always find something to share with each of them individually. It not only shows how much you care about your friends, but it’s a great example of putting your words into action. Perhaps your friend Patty loves working in her Fairy Garden. You can pick up miniature fairy garden pieces at local craft stores for less than $5. Or perhaps Kathy loves to cook. Check the local market for tiny recipe books by the check out counter.
Keep on the look out for local artisans who offer their creations on consignment at gas stations. It might sound odd, but out here in the country, it’s the thing to do. Last year I discovered a beautiful handmade pouch with a ‘D-hook’ to hang on the side of my purse. It was the perfect size for my cell phone. And at $3 each, it was a fantastic item for a tea party gift.
Serving Tea & Entertaining:
For the Do’s and Do Not’s of serving tea, let me refer you to the previously mentioned post, rules of Proper Etiquette. You’ll find information for entering the tea room, seating your guests, who pours the tea and prepares the cup and so on. Here let’s focus on what you do once your party is underway.
In order to make the afternoon memorable, prepare a few topics to talk about to get the ball rolling. If you and your guests are family or old friends, you won’t need a lot of help starting a conversation. But if you are welcoming new visitors, such as a new neighbor, or getting to know new acquaintances, then having a list of things to discuss can be very helpful in getting your party started.
Of course there are the topics to stay away from, money, religion and politics. Tea, books, movies, family and kids are nice topics to start with. If you have a guest of honor who’s new to you, it’s nice to talk about where they came from and how they ended up here. It sounds simple and obvious, but you might be surprised at how many people get so caught up in making sure everything is “proper and perfect” for their party that they forget about the “entertaining” of their guests. It’s good to be prepared.
If you find something exceptionally interesting to give as a gift, you’ll have a built in topic to begin your conversation as well. And if you’re holding your tea party for a specific purpose, there’s another breaking the ice conversation. “What was your most memorable birthday?” or anniversary?
Ending Your Tea Party:
At some point your tea party needs to end. A proper tea lasts a minimum of one hour, but no more than two. The best length for tea is generally an hour and a half. Who your guests are will also determine the length of your event. If this is a business meeting, an hour maybe all you have. If your tea is with family, you maybe able to continue the event into dinner. Use your best judgement.
One thing that’s worth repeating from the Etiquette post. Tea never begins until the guest of honor arrives. And no one leaves until the guest of honor leaves first (you might inform them of this). This is a practice that is still in place today at formal events. Especially those at the White House or any diplomatic function. If you do not have a guest of honor, tea does not begin until everyone arrives. But don’t wait longer than 10 or 15minutes at the most for someone who’s late.
If you are a guest, you should send your host a thank you card. If you were the host, it’s not generally practiced to send a thank you to your guest for coming. But some do this and include personal antidotes about the afternoon’s conversation (that’s means comments that are specific to that person, something they said or discussed).
Hosting a tea is like anything in life. It takes a little effort and time. It’s also a learning process. Your first tea is never going to be perfect, so don’t put that pressure on yourself. Don’t let little mishaps discourage you from hosting another afternoon tea. Practice makes perfect! Have a good time and enjoy the afternoon! ☕