How to Host an Afternoon Tea Party

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Having worked at a high tea room in my teenage years, the ladies in my family adopted a love for afternoon tea. Baby shower? High tea. Birthday party? High tea. Going away party? High tea. It never gets old. Every tea party is a new adventure and lends itself to beloved memories. The best part is that you always feel so special, classy, and cared for after a lovely tea time. Here are some of my best tips to consider when creating a Christmas tea. The photos from this tea are from a Christmas tea we celebrated a few years ago, but the principles are still timeless.

christmas tea table setting with pine garlands runner and gold plates

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High Tea versus Afternoon Tea

Before we move forward, I know someone will be wondering, “What’s the difference between high tea and afternoon tea?” Here is a brief little chart to help you understand a brief history. Nowadays, most people use high tea and afternoon tea interchangeably.

high tea vs afternoon tea infogram

What you’ll find in this post:

  1. The Venue
  2. The Vibe
  3. The Food
  4. The Tea & Drinks
  5. Other Considerations to Lavish your Guests

The Venue

Oftentimes we refrain from hosting get-togethers because we are afraid of what other people will think of our house or space. Even if those guests are our best friends, we often think that they will judge us if everything isn’t perfect. However, I have found that in the same way that I love just being together and celebrating a beautiful occasion or season together regardless of the surroundings, my guests feel the same. A perfectly groomed space is not the goal; connection is. That being said, you can host an afternoon tea anywhere you’d like! In your backyard (if the weather permits), at your kitchen table, do buffet style at your kitchen island, or even set up a table and chairs or blankets at your local park. The options are endless!

The Vibe

The People

Once you decide on the venue, decide on the people you would like to invite. Do you want to host just one of your closest friends? A whole group of ladies? A co-ed party that is afternoon tea-themed? This decision will largely impact how you proceed. Remember to take the pressure off of yourself. Although afternoon tea has a reputation of being fussy, it will only be like that if you make it so. If you think of it more as a get-together with a special theme, then things may go much smoother if you have never hosted an afternoon tea before. But if you like going big, then feel free to get as dressed-up as you’d like!

  • Some considerations when inviting people are to think about how those guests may vibe together. For example, if you want to invite your super shy mother-in-law and your loud best friend, maybe consider placing your mother-in-law next to a family member she trusts on one end of the table, and your best friend with you or another girlfriend on the other end of the table.
  • It is entirely optional, but if you are doing a sit-down afternoon tea (as opposed to a buffet-style), then you may want to consider having name cards for each guest so that they don’t feel awkward if they were to “sit in the wrong place” or so that there isn’t any guesswork.

Tea cups, Serving Dishes & Silverware

A huge part of the tea experience involves actually drinking from tea cups. While you can get the fake stuff or plastic cups, an afternoon tea is one place where it is a good idea to use real cups. Here is a list of the typical types of plates and utensils you will see at an afternoon tea.

For each person’s place setting:

  • Tea cup and tea saucer
  • Small tea spoon (placed on the tea saucer)
  • Plate: doesn’t have to be a full-sized dinner plate; it can be the smaller dessert-size
  • Silverware: fork, spoon, and knife and a dessert spoon (if you will be serving foods that require them)

Set out at each table (if you have multiple tables):

  • Tea pots to serve tea in (I usually do 2-3 tea pots per table for a variety of flavors)
  • 3-tiered trays for serving (porcelain white, floral, glass, or rustic boho bamboo are a good start)
  • Sugar bowl with sugar or my absolute favorite raw sugar cubes
  • Small pitcher for cream or milk
  • Little bowls of clotted cream, jam of choice, and lemon curd for scones

Don’t own any tea cups? Borrow some from a beloved friend! Or even better, go to a thrift store or an antique store and start your own collection. There are some really great options on amazon as well that are a complete set for relatively cheap. One set that I adore that I got for my birthday from my sister is this one here.

Other tea sets I think are beautiful and a good price:

Quirky Vintage blue set of 6

Classic White Floral set of 6

British-style white with gold trim

Fun floral tea tups

Decor

gather farmhouse sign with christmas decor on stand

Once you know how many people to expect you can enjoy the next step in the party-planning process: decorations! Again, the theme and decor are VERY customizable. Keep it super simple with rustic undertones and simple flower arrangements with baby’s breath, poinsettias and eucalyptus, or go big with all the decor your heart desires. I like somewhere in between.

For Christmas afternoon tea in particular (and honestly for any party), I recommend that you choose a color scheme and go from there. You can go bright & bold or more subtle & soft, but either way, stick within that theme or you may find your decor looks chaotic and cluttered.

Decor decisions to consider:

  • Tables and chairs: Do you care if they’re matching? Do you want a rustic, natural-looking table or a covered table with a tablecloth? Do you care if your chairs or matching, or do you want to use ones that you have from around your house?
  • Table centerpiece: What do you want your centerpiece to look like? Do you want one large vase or a few small ones? Do you want extra foliage like pine branches or eucalyptus trailing the center of the table? How about added poinsettias, tapered candles, candle votives, or ornaments? If you’re not sure what you like, pinterest is a fantastic place to explore what others have done and choose what fits your style best. A few tips:
  • Keep a centerpiece on the shorter side since you want your guests to be able to talk to each other comfortably from across the table without having to lean too far over just to see the face of the person they are talking to.
  • Think about where you will put the food and tea pots on your table. You want to make sure you have enough room to comfortably lean forward to grab your finger sandwiches within an arm’s length.
  • Surrounding layout: Will you have a separate buffet table for the food instead of having the food in the center of the main table? Will you need a separate table for extra drinks like champagne? Will you need any other areas/display tables for games or interactive activities for your guests?

The Food

desserts on christmas afternoon tea buffet

Deciding your menu is very important. After all, the food at a tea party are integral components of the tea time and overall feeling of your party! You may want to create a little menu card that can give your guests an idea of what they are eating, but it is not necessary as long as you explain to your guests what they have on each tier to enjoy.

In general, afternoon tea consists of a few different “courses” that you’ll find displayed on each tier. When I work at the tea room, we occasionally began with a starter of some kind (soup or salad) and ended with an extra special dessert (like a mousse or ice cream) that would be served separately from the main tiered trays. This is not necessary unless you want to. You can customize your food however you would like, but here is a typical framework for you to work from. Unless you are doing a buffet option like you see here, you should have most of your finger foods on your tiered tray.

Bottom Tier: Finger Sandwiches

This is where you will place all of your finger sandwiches. They should be dainty (about half the size of a regular sandwich, cut into triangles or rectangles) and you should have 2 or 3 different finger sandwiches for each person. Recipe ideas include your classic egg salad sandwich, cucumber and herb butter sandwich, smoked salmon and cream cheese open-faced baguette, turkey, gorgonzola and pear sandwich, curry chicken salad cup, or apple and brie cracker. Get creative!

Middle Tier: Scones & Savories

The middle tier is where you will have your warm scones and savories. You can make your own scones or buy them; it doesn’t matter either way. They can be flavored (cinnamon raisin, chocolate chip, blueberry, lemon, or savory like herb and cheese are popular flavors) or plain, and it is recommended to serve them with lemon curd, clotted cream, and your jam of choice. The jam toppings for the scones are traditionally placed separately on the table, not on the tiered tray.

On the middle tier, you can also place any warm savories. This would include mini quiches, asparagus and egg tarts, mushroom tarts, shredded bacon and brussels sprouts in filo cups, salmon frittatas or bruschetta on mini toasts. Feel free to look up good recipes online, or you can also buy pre-made tartlets from Trader Joe’s and Costco.

Top Tier: Desserts

Your top tier is the crown of your tray: desserts. These can include macaroons, cookies, petit fours, madeleines, mousse cups, and fruit. Whatever your heart desires! You will typically find 2-4 little desserts per person on this tier. Add in little garnishes like fruit or flowers to bring additional beauty.

woman pouring tea at christmas themed party

The Tea & Drinks

If you’re reading this post, you likely already love tea so you don’t necessarily need me to go over the types of tea you could offer at a tea party. Here are some considerations though when hosting a tea party.

  • Have a variety of tea flavors for your guests as some may prefer caffeinated teas and others may only like herbal teas. I usually offer one black tea (English breakfast, Earl Grey, or flavored black teas like Black Currant or Apricot & Almond are great options), one green tea (jasmine or floral blends), and herbal teas like peppermint, chamomile, rooibos, lavender, or fun Christmas blends.
  • You can pre-select which teas you will serve, or you can create a tea list and let the ladies choose the teas they would like. Either way has worked out great for me in the past.
  • For placement of tea pots, you can either set up a separate drink table or have your tea pots sitting on each table (the latter is preferred).
  • If you are going to be offering other drinks, consider what types of pitchers you will have them in and if they will be sitting on the tables or if they will have their own table. Additional drink offerings may include champagne, mimosas for a brunch tea, a sparkling beverage or punch, infused water, coffee, lemonade, Arnold Palmers, or a sweeter “kid-friendly” tea flavor like strawberry kiwi. Be sure to add additional cups or glasses you will need for the other drinks as well.

Other Considerations for Afternoon Tea Parties

  • Try to make any of the food/preparations beforehand that you can. If you can set up the table or make the cookies a few days ahead, do it! You don’t want to be rushing around the day of the party if you don’t have to. Your calm, loving presence means more than a nicely set table.
  • Make sure you have enough help on the day of the tea party. Do you need someone to help pour the tea or clean dishes during the party? There have been many times when we have hired a family friend’s teenager or a responsible college kid who needs money to work the “back end” of the kitchen and help create a smooth atmosphere so that you can focus on your guests during and after the party.
  • At the tea room, our main goal we were reminded of often was to lavish your guests. Make them feel special and cared for! You can do this simply by your presence and showing up for good conversation. But if you want to a add a few extra touches, here are some suggestions.
  • Provide hot hand towels (lavender or vanilla scented is extra special) for each guest to wipe their hands with. You would typically do this as soon as all the ladies sit down in their seats, but before the food has been served. We carried out the rolled towels in a little basket, pass them out with silver tongs to each guest, and then walked around the table again to collect them back into the same basket. It was amazing how much this set the mood for the ladies and made them feel so pampered!
  • Write an encouraging note on the back or inside of their name cards. It could be something that you love about each person, or a kind word or bible verse for them.
  • Place a small shortbread cookie on each tea saucer for the guest to dip into their tea while waiting to eat.
  • Take a few minutes during the tea time to give encouraging words to the entire table. It doesn’t have to be a huge sermon or anything, just maybe say a few words about gratitude or a theme like hope or joy. It could also be a topic that you have been thinking about recently, like contentment or treasuring loved ones.
  • Offer a party favor for each guest to take away. This could be something small like a chocolate truffle next to the place setting or a little succulent plant for each person to take home.
Christmas tea tablescape
woman pouring tea at christmas themed party
top view of christmas tea tablescape

Overall, I hope above everything else that you enjoy your time with the people you love. It’s easy to forget why we do what we do, so don’t get so wrapped up in the fuss of the tea party that you forget to just enjoy yourself too! Make sure to sit down, enjoy your own cup of tea and finger sandwiches, and bask in the wonderful season!

peaches on tree

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