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Tranquility With Friends

Planning the perfect tea party.

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Tea parties aren't just for little girls anymore. They've become one of the most popular social gatherings in homes — and with good reason. They add a sense of eloquence and grace to any household and give you a good excuse to invite some friends over to relax.

Yet they can be intimidating to plan. So we checked in with some of the experts — folks at the helm of two of the growing number of tea shops and tearooms blooming all around Richmond. Here's some advice from Melody Walton, owner of Whispering Willow Tea Time Memories, and Becky Lillywhite of Becky's Tea Café.

1. Plan, plan, plan.

Tea parties take time to plan. Walton advises that you allow three to four weeks of planning to arrange the perfect tea party in your home. Preparations start with jotting down ideas and continue through the execution of food, the choice of napkin rings and the details of place cards. Allot an hour to prepare the food and another hour to prepare the table, Lillywhite says.

2. Let them eat cake.

Don't purchase the food; create it yourself. It shows you've "put your whole self in it," Walton says. You don't have to go overboard. Walton says it's not about how much food there is, but guests should leave full and satisfied. Lillywhite recommends tea sandwiches as the food of choice for any party. And remember, the details added to the food's presentation are what really make the party special.

3. Consider a theme or follow the seasons.

Themes add a sense of direction to the party and help decide how it should be organized. Even general themes such as birthdays, princesses and friendship gatherings help define the party. Or stick with the seasons in organizing and arranging table settings, choosing colors and adding special touches to the party. For spring, gardens and flowers make great themes and can add playful colors suitable for any occasion.

4. Hats, gloves and dresses, oh my!

Give guests the option to dress up. Tea parties are a great reason to "pull out dresses worn once," Walton says. Hats and gloves bring sophistication to the table. After all, today's culture doesn't really give people much time or opportunity to get fancy, Walton says. Tea parties are the perfect occasion to wear something special.

5. Table talk.

Being a hostess requires the proper table settings, the necessary food and perpetual conversation. When guests are conversing, Walton says, "be careful what you say, because it may fall on someone's ear." Encourage conversation by inviting your guests to bring their favorite teacup and saucer from home. This showcases the individuality of the guests and makes a great conversation piece. An important rule to remember, Lillywhite says, is "whatever happens at the tea party, stays at the tea party."

6. Let everyone contribute.

Ask guests to provide recipes for cookies and food for the party. Not only does this take a little pressure off the hostess, but it also allows everyone to feel as if they've contributed to the party's success. According to Lillywhite, when people have added to the party, they feel more comfortable upon arrival.

7. Do your research.

Lillywhite recommends that the hostess do her research before hosting any tea party. Study the history of tea, the rituals of afternoon tea, foods typically served at a tea party and other fine points. Learning more will help the hostess be more prepared. Lillywhite encourages incorporating what is learned into the conversation. Guests will appreciate the rich background of tea and walk away having learned something new.

8. Provide some variety.

While food should fit the theme of the party, tea is the most essential part of the table. Lillywhite emphasizes the importance of different tea options for guests. Having three different types of tea available allows guests the choice of their drink. Keeping the tea hot is important because, Lillywhite cautions, "cold tea is just dreadful." Use tea lights to keep the teapots piping hot for guests.

9. Slow down.

Afternoon tea is typically held between 3 and 5 p.m. This time should be used to enjoy the company of the guests and unwind from the "instant world" we live in, Lillywhite says. Tea parties do not usually have a definite start and end time. Allow guests the flexibility to linger. Before running off to do errands or clean the house, enjoy the tranquility of a nice cup of tea.

10. Have fun!

There are many reasons to host a tea party: to sit, to relax and to talk with friends. But the main reason is to have fun, Lillywhite says. Playing hostess may be stressful, but allow yourself the opportunity to enjoy what you've put together. Tea parties give you a reason to relax and make time for those you care about.

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