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.

13 Surprising Facts About George Orwell

Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Before he assumed the pen name George Orwell, Eric Arthur Blair had a relatively normal upbringing for an upper-middle-class English boy of his time. Looking back now, his life proved to be anything but ordinary. He's best known for penning the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four—regarded as one of the greatest classics of all time—but writing novels was only one small facet of his life and career. In remembrance of Orwell, who was born on June 25, 1903, here are 13 facts about his life that may surprise you.

1. George Orwell attended prep school as a child—and hated it.

Eric Blair spent five years at the St. Cyprian School for boys in Eastbourne, England, which later inspired his melodramatic essay Such, Such Were the Joys. In this account, he called the school’s proprietors “terrible, all-powerful monsters” and labeled the institution itself "an expensive and snobbish school which was in process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive." While Blair's misery is now considered to be somewhat exaggerated, the essay was deemed too libelous to print at the time. It was finally published in 1968 after his death.

2. He was a prankster.

Blair was expelled from his "crammer" school (an institution designed to help students "cram" for specific exams) for sending a birthday message attached to a dead rat to the town surveyor, according to Sir Bernard Crick's George Orwell: A Life, the first complete biography of Orwell. And while studying at Eton College, Orwell made up a song about John Crace, his school’s housemaster, in which he made fun of Crace’s appearance and penchant for Italian art:

Then up waddled Wog and he squeaked in Greek:
‘I’ve grown another hair on my cheek.’
Crace replied in Latin with his toadlike smile:
‘And I hope you’ve grown a lovely new pile.
With a loud deep fart from the bottom of my heart!
How d’you like Venetian art?'

Later, in a newspaper column, he recalled his boyhood hobby of replying to advertisements and stringing the salesmen along as a joke. “You can have a lot of fun by answering the advertisements and then, when you have drawn them out and made them waste a lot of stamps in sending successive wads of testimonials, suddenly leaving them cold,” he wrote.

3. He worked a number of odd jobs for most of his career.

A photo of Orwell with a BBC microphone
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Everyone’s got to pay the bills, and Blair was no exception. He spent most of his career juggling part-time jobs while authoring books on the side. Over the years, he worked as a police officer for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (present-day Myanmar), a high school teacher, a bookstore clerk, a propagandist for the BBC during World War II, a literary editor, and a war correspondent. He also had stints as a dishwasher in Paris and as a hop-picker (for breweries) in Kent, England, but those jobs were for research purposes while “living as a tramp” and writing his first book about his experiences, Down and Out in Paris and London. (He chose to publish the book under a pseudonym, George Orwell, and the name stuck.)

4. He once got himself arrested. On purpose.


The National Archives UK // Public Domain

In 1931, while investigating poverty for his aforementioned memoir, Orwell intentionally got himself arrested for being “drunk and incapable.” This was done “in order to get a taste of prison and to bring himself closer to the tramps and small-time villains with whom he mingled,” biographer Gordon Bowker told The Guardian. At the time, he had been using the pseudonym Edward Burton and posing as a poor fish porter. After drinking several pints and almost a whole bottle of whisky and ostensibly making a scene (it’s uncertain what exactly was said or done), Orwell was arrested. His crime didn’t warrant prison time like he had hoped, and he was released after spending 48 hours in custody. He wrote about the experience in an unpublished essay titled Clink.

5. He had knuckle tattoos.

While working as a police officer in Burma, Orwell got his knuckles tattooed. Adrian Fierz, who knew Orwell, told biographer Gordon Bowker that the tattoos were small blue spots, “the shape of small grapefruits,” and Orwell had one on each knuckle. Orwell noted that some Burmese tribes believed tattoos would protect them from bullets. He may have gotten inked for similarly superstitious reasons, Bowker suggested, but it's more likely that he wanted to set himself apart from the British establishment in Burma. "He was never a properly 'correct' member of the Imperial class—hobnobbing with Buddhist priests, Rangoon prostitutes, and British drop-outs," Bowker wrote.

6. He knew seven foreign languages, to varying degrees.

Orwell wrote in a 1944 newspaper column, “In my life I have learned seven foreign languages, including two dead ones, and out of those seven I retain only one, and that not brilliantly.” In his youth, he learned French from Aldous Huxley, who briefly taught at Orwell’s boarding school and later went on to write Brave New World. Orwell ultimately became fluent in French, and at different points in his life he studied Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Burmese, to name a few.

7. He voluntarily fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Like fellow writer Ernest Hemingway and others with leftist leanings, Orwell got tangled up in the Spanish Civil War. At the age of 33, Orwell arrived in Spain, shortly after fighting had broken out in 1936, hoping to write some newspaper articles. Instead, he ended up joining the Republican militia to “fight fascism” because “it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” The following year, he was shot in the neck by a sniper, but survived. He described the moment of being shot as “a tremendous shock—no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing.” He wrote about his war experiences in the book Homage to Catalonia.

8. His manuscript for Animal Farm was nearly destroyed by a bomb.


Thomas D, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 1944, Orwell’s home at 10 Mortimer Crescent in London was struck by a “doodlebug” (a German V-1 flying bomb). Orwell, his wife Eileen, and their son Richard Horatio were away at the time, but their home was demolished. During his lunch break at the British newspaper Tribune, Orwell would return to the foundation where his home once stood and sift through the rubble in search of his books and papers—most importantly, the manuscript for Animal Farm. “He spent hours and hours rifling through rubbish. Fortunately, he found it,” Richard recalled in a 2012 interview with Ham & High. Orwell then piled everything into a wheelbarrow and carted it back to his office.

9. He had a goat named Muriel.

He and his wife Eileen tended to several farm animals at their home in Wallington, England, including Muriel the goat. A goat by the same name in Orwell’s book Animal Farm is described as being one of the few intelligent and morally sound animals on the farm, making her one of the more likable characters in this dark work of dystopian fiction.

10. He coined the term "Cold War."

The first recorded usage of the phrase “cold war” in reference to relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union can be traced back to Orwell’s 1945 essay You and the Atom Bomb, which was written two months after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the essay, he described “a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.” He continued:

“Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly centralized police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace.’”

11. He ratted out Charlie Chaplin and other artists for allegedly being communists.

Orwell self-identified as a democratic socialist, but his sympathy didn’t extend to communists. In 1949, he compiled a list of artists he suspected of having communist leanings and passed it along to his friend, Celia Paget, who worked for the UK’s Information Research Department. After the war ended, the branch was tasked with distributing anti-communist propaganda throughout Europe. Orwell's list included Charlie Chaplin and a few dozen other actors, writers, academics, and politicians. Other notable names that were written down in his notebook but weren’t turned over to the IRD included Katharine Hepburn, John Steinbeck, George Bernard Shaw, Orson Welles, and Cecil Day-Lewis (the father of Daniel Day-Lewis).

Orwell’s intention was to blacklist those individuals, whom he considered untrustworthy, from IRD employment. While journalist Alexander Cockburn labeled Orwell a “snitch,” biographer Bernard Crick wrote, “He wasn’t denouncing these people as subversives. He was denouncing them as unsuitable for counter-intelligence operation.”

12. He really hated American fashion magazines.

A woman reads a fashion magazine in the '40s
Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images

For a period of about a year and a half, Orwell penned a regular column called As I Please for the newspaper Tribune, in which he shared his thoughts on everything from war to objective truth to literary criticism. One such column from 1946 featured a brutal takedown of American fashion magazines. Of the models appearing on their pages, he wrote, “A thin-boned, ancient-Egyptian type of face seems to predominate: narrow hips are general, and slender, non-prehensile hands like those of a lizard are quite universal.”

As for the inane copy that accompanied advertisements, he complained:

"Words like suave-mannered, custom-finished, contour-conforming, mitt-back, inner-sole, backdip, midriff, swoosh, swash, curvaceous, slenderize, and pet-smooth are flung about with evident full expectation that the reader will understand them at a glance. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random: 'A new Shimmer Sheen color that sets your hands and his head in a whirl.' 'Bared and beautifully bosomy.' 'Feathery-light Milliken Fleece to keep her kitten-snug!' 'Others see you through a veil of sheer beauty, and they wonder why!'"

In the rest of the column, he went on to discuss traffic fatalities.

13. He nearly drowned while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One day in 1947 while taking a break from writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell took his son, niece, and nephew on a boating trip across the Gulf of Corryvreckan in western Scotland, which happens to be the site of the world's third-largest whirlpool. Unsurprisingly, their dinghy capsized when it was sucked into the whirlpool, hurling them all overboard. Fortunately, all four survived, and the book that later came to be called Nineteen Eighty-Four (originally named The Last Man in Europe) was finally published in 1949, just seven months before Orwell's death from tuberculosis.

This story has been updated for 2019.

20 Freaky Facts About the Giant Squid

Canadian Illustrated News, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Canadian Illustrated News, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Last week, scientists aboard a NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research ship in the Gulf of Mexico captured video of an elusive giant squid—the first recorded sighting in U.S. waters. In the 28-second clip, the cephalopod emerges from the blackness of the deep sea and attacks an electronic jellyfish. After wrapping its tentacles around the luminescent bait, the squid loses interest and disappears in the murk. Since ancient times, philosophers and naturalists have puzzled over this rarely seen enigma. There’s plenty we still don’t know about giant squid, but we’ve learned a lot over the past 20 years.

1. Giant squid eyes are the size of Frisbees.

Woman next to a preserved giant squid eye
Smithsonian Institution, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A staggering 10.5 inches across, a squid’s eyeballs lack the jelly-like substance that gives ours their shape. Instead, they’re filled with water, which leaks out once the invertebrate dies. "The eyes collapse. It's like a collapsed plastic bag,” biologist Dan-Eric Nilsson told NPR in 2012.

2. Female giant squid are bigger than males.

On average, female giant squid are around twice the size of males from the tip of their beaks to the ends of their two longest tentacles.

3. Giant squid suckers can leave ugly battle scars.

The giant squid's main enemy is the sperm whale. While under attack, the squid often retaliate by inflicting large, circular wounds, courtesy of the serrated rings around each sucker.

4.The giant squid’s maximum length is about 43 feet.

At least, that’s what the available evidence tells us. Reports of 60- and 70-footers have never been verified scientifically.

5. Instead of a proper tongue, they use a radula.

This organ rests inside their beaks and is covered with seven rows of denticles—sharp, toothy, backwards-pointing protrusions.

6. There may be just one known species.

A genetic analysis in 2013 suggested that Architeuthis duxis the only species of giant squid, as revealed by a comparison of 43 specimens from around the world. The giant squid gene pool seemed abnormally shallow—all 43 subjects were pretty much indistinguishable in this regard. “It’s completely bizarre,” geneticist Thomas Gilbert said. “How can something be global but have so little variation?” Other researchers, however, argue that there may be as many as eight Architeuthis species out there.

7. Giant squid tentacles can regenerate.

One giant squid corpse found in Canada in 1968 had a partially regenerated tentacle. According to a study of the specimen in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, "the regenerated club differed in length and width, and in the size and pattern of suckers, when compared with the normal tentacular arm." Many cephalopods besides squid are capable of this feat, including octopuses.

8. An estimated 4.3 to 131 million get eaten by sperm whales each year.

The squid regularly show up inside sperm whale stomachs. Approximately 360,000 of these mammals swim the oceans. So, if every sperm whale on Earth devoured an average of one giant squid per month, that means 4.3 million would be offed annually.

But some experts think this figure is way too low. Every single day, male whales put away 300 to 400 squid of various species, while females consume an outrageous 700 to 800 squid. Should Architeuthis represent even 1 percent of their diet, then the whales eat 3.6 million daily. That’s 131 million giant squid killed annually.

9. Giant squid may have helped give rise to sea serpent legends.

In one of Moby-Dick’s more memorable chapters, an Architeuthis slithers towards Captain Ahab’s whaleboat. Apparently, Herman Melville wasn’t a fan—Ishmael describes the squid as a “vast, pulpy mass” complete with “innumerable long arms radiating from its center, curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas.” But Melville wasn't alone. Many believe that this predator’s writhing, snake-like limbs have long inspired sea serpent yarns.

10. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea grossly overestimates the giant squid’s usual weight.

Jules Verne’s 1869 masterpiece remains impressive today: his novel predicted the invention of both scuba tanks and taser guns. But there are still a few gaffes to be found, particularly during the book’s most iconic scene. When hordes of giant squid attack, the narrator, a French professor named Pierre Arronax, estimates that each one must weigh “between four and five thousand pounds.” But as far as modern scientists can tell, the heaviest animals weigh around a ton—although most are less than 1000 pounds.

11. Like all squids, giant squids have three hearts.

A median heart pumps oxygenated blood throughout the body, which it receives from two smaller ones that pump blood through the gills.

12. Architeuthis penises are about a yard long.

Nobody has ever documented a pair of giant squid getting busy. But biologists suspect that males use their sex organs like syringes, injecting sperm into a female’s skin, where she stores the cells until her eggs need fertilizing. When that happens, the mom-to-be pulls them out of storage (though we’re not sure how).

13. The first giant squid photo ever shot was taken inside of a bathroom.

First photo of a giant squid
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1873, Newfoundland minister Moses Harvey acquired a dead Architeuthis which he laid out over his shower curtain rod and preserved for posterity. He’d purchased this specimen for just $10 from a few local fishermen who’d ensnared it with their nets while out in Logy Bay.

14. Giant squid might be cannibals.

Bits and pieces of one Architeuthis showed up in a live giant squid's stomach. But this doesn’t necessarily prove that giant squid dine on one another—some scientists speculate that the squid may have accidentally swallowed a few parts of itself somehow.

15. The Smithsonian has two giant squid on display.

You can see them in the National Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall. The pair represents both sexes—here’s a quick look at their 25-foot female (it was probably 36 feet while alive):

16. Their brains are donut-shaped.

But that’s not the weird part. What’s truly bizarre (at least from our mammal-centric perspective) is the fact that its esophagus passes through the hole in the middle of its brain. Giant squids have to be really careful while swallowing, because if a given meal isn’t broken down into small pieces first, it can rub against the brain and cause damage.

17. Before 2004, nobody had ever snapped any pictures of a live one …

History was made by residents of the Ogasawara Islands (located 600 miles south of Japan) on September 30, 2004. Using a line baited with shrimp, zoologist Tsunemi Kubodera and whale-watcher Kyochi Mori attracted an Architeuthis about 2950 feet beneath their vessel. Five hundred still images were then snapped by a submerged camera before the squid took off—leaving behind an 18-foot severed tentacle.

18. … And the world’s first giant squid video didn’t arrive until 2006.

Kubodera would top himself that year when his crew videotaped a young female as they dragged her up to the surface. “We believe this is the first time anyone has successfully filmed a giant squid that was alive,” he said. “Now that we know where to find them, we think we can be more successful at studying them in the future.” Sadly, Kubodera’s prize died during the ordeal.

19. Jellyfish help Architeuthis hunt.

They say the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Certain jellyfish are bioluminescent, which means that they can light themselves up and illuminate the ocean’s inky depths. Predators like giant squid eat many of the fish that hunt jellyfish. So, if a bioluminescent jelly finds itself under attack, it can issue a cry for help by flashing a distress signal, in the hopes that it might attract an even larger carnivore and scare off its assailant. That was the theory behind luring the giant squid with an electronic jellyfish, as seen in the recent NOAA video.

20. It’s not the only monster-sized squid out there.

Meet Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, better known as the colossal squid. Though Architeuthis probably exceeds it length-wise, M. hamiltoni is heavier on average, has even bigger eyeballs, and wields swiveling hooks on its tentacles. This isn't a creature you’d want to mess with.

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