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.

7 Fun Facts About Cards Against Humanity

Pabo Punk, Flickr // Public Domain
Pabo Punk, Flickr // Public Domain

Since 2011, the popular party game Cards Against Humanity has managed to make being offensive a cottage industry. Using a deck of cards filled with off-color commentary, players are tasked with filling in phrases using answer cards that create scenarios ranging from the merely obscene to the downright scandalous. The rules are loose—players can keep going until they decide they want to stop—but the game has proven to be a hit. Check out some facts about Cards Against Humanity's origins, its Black Friday specials involving poop, and the time the creators pondered whether to cut up a Picasso.

1. Cards Against Humanity started as a game made of construction paper.

In 2009, Max Temkin, Josh Dillon, Daniel Dranove, Eli Halpern, Ben Hantoot, David Munk, David Pinsof, and Eliot Weinstein—a group of friends, most of whom had attended high school together—got together over their winter break and decided to design a game that could entertain guests during their annual New Year’s Eve parties. While they thought of a variety of games, only one of them—which they called Cardenfreude, after schadenfreude, the German word for delighting in another’s misfortune—stuck.

They continued working on the game after they all headed back to their respective colleges, using pieces of construction paper to print out questions and answers. Later, Temkin and his friends released the game for free under a Creative Commons license. Thanks to early word of mouth, a 2011 Kickstarter campaign was successful and allowed them to produce a commercial edition of the game—which, despite being free to download and print, became an immediate hit. Cards Against Humanity sold nearly 500,000 copies in its first two years and became Amazon’s bestselling game during that period of time.

2. Cards Against Humanity was so popular, people didn’t mind paying triple the price.

From the beginning, Temkin and his friends knew that they wanted their venture to be an independent one, not an investor-financed endeavor, so they secured their own manufacturer for the game: Ad Magic, a New Jersey firm specializing in playing cards. They outsourced the work to a factory in China, but as the game racked up sales online, production couldn’t keep up. As a result, copies of Cards Against Humanity sold for up to three times its $25 retail price on the secondary market until production increased.

3. The team successfully sold bull dung to consumers.

For a 2014 Black Friday promotional stunt, the Cards Against Humanity company promised to send consumers a box of “bullsh*t.” The company sold and shipped boxes containing a solid piece of real bull dung that was procured from a cattle ranch in Texas. All 30,000 pieces, which were priced at $6 each, sold out within a half-hour the day they went on sale.

According to Temkin, the fecal matter was intended to be a commentary on the sensationalist nature of the hype surrounding Black Friday sales. They’ve made a tradition of attention-grabbing projects each holiday season. In 2015, they held a “promotion” in which people could send them $5 and get nothing in return. (They collected $71,145 and split it among their employees.) In 2016, the company dug a purposely pointless “holiday hole” in an undisclosed area using funds donated by customers. In 2018, the company held a 99-percent-off sale which featured bizarre items at a steep discount like a cheese wheel and an actual car for $97.50. The items were purportedly all real and delivered to purchasers.

4. The company doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about copycats.

Though Cards Against Humanity has drawn comparisons to Apples to Apples, a wordplay game that was released in 1999, the company is not prone to tolerating lookalike products. While people are free to make expansion packs that build on the game’s premise, the company frowns upon them monetizing their creations and will often enlist their lawyers to discourage unauthorized games. Decks like Cards Against Originality and Cards and Punishment, which resemble the now-familiar black and white color scheme and Helvetica font of the original Cards Against Humanity, can invite problems. The company says it has concerns because fans often confuse the third-party projects with official expansion packs.

5. Cards Against Humanity might be the only game with a writer’s room.

To keep the material of the expansion packs fresh, Temkin and his partners enlisted Chicago-area comedians to convene for a writer’s room at the company’s offices beginning in 2016. As a result, the game reportedly became raunchier and weirder. The writers also act as a focus group of sorts, making sure the cards are offensive but not excessively so. That system doesn't always work, however. In 2017, Target removed an expansion pack from stores after it was criticized for being antisemitic.

6. The staff contemplated destroying an original Picasso.

In December 2015, the staff of Cards Against Humanity acquired Tête de Faune, an original work by Pablo Picasso. Though it was never conclusively determined how they had come to acquire it, it was likely from a Chicago-area art dealer. The team ran an online poll to decide whether it should be donated to the Art Institute of Chicago or sliced into 150,000 pieces and distributed to consumers. Of the 50,000 people who voted, 71.3 percent opted to keep it intact.

7. The company opened a pop-up store.

In 2017, the team behind Cards Against Humanity opened a pop-up store in Chicago in collaboration with the Chicago Design Museum. Located in Block 37’s Chicago Design Market, the storefront sold a variety of games and other Cards Against Humanity-related merchandise, as well as work from local artists. The store was temporary, but the company still sells products via retail outlets like Target and Walmart.

17 Facts About Apocalypse Now On Its 40th Anniversary

Martin Sheen stars in Apocalypse Now (1979).
Martin Sheen stars in Apocalypse Now (1979).
Paramount Home Entertainment

We love the smell of facts in the morning. Here are some things you might not have known about director Francis Ford Coppola’s loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which arrived in theaters on August 15, 1979.

1. Screenwriter John Milius was inspired to write Apocalypse Now because of his college English professor.

Screenwriter John Milius credits his obsession with war from never getting to fight in one. Milius attempted to volunteer for the U.S. Marine Corps to fight in the Vietnam War in 1968, but was deferred due to his asthma. Instead, he studied film at USC with fellow classmate and Star Wars creator George Lucas. There, during a lecture, a professor named Irwin Blacker convinced the class that no screenwriter had ever perfected a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. The would-be filmmaker’s Vietnam-focused mind and Blacker’s challenge gave Milius the idea of combining the two in what would eventually become Apocalypse Now.

2. Apocalypse Now was supposed to be directed by George Lucas.

After directing 1969's The Rain People, Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope, was given a development deal from Warner Bros. Pictures to produce films from new scripts. The script Coppola liked out of the bunch his friends gave him was Milius’s Apocalypse Now. After years of development, the plan was to have George Lucas shoot the movie on 16mm black and white film in Stockton, California on a shoestring budget in a pseudo-documentary style similar to the famous war film The Battle of Algiers. The project languished in development for years, and Lucas eventually dropped out of the project to direct a script he had written. The movie he eventually made was Star Wars. Following his successes with The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation, Coppola agreed to direct the movie.

3. Apocalypse Now’s title came from John Milus making fun of hippies.

Dennis Hopper and Martin Sheen in 'Apocalypse Now' (1979).
Paramount Home Entertainment

An early title Milius had for the movie was The Psychedelic Soldier, but it was soon changed to the moniker it is today. Milius got the label by putting a contrarian spin on “Nirvana Now,” a slogan used by California hippies, which meant to get high and reach a state of pure consciousness. The actual title is never mentioned in the actual movie, but graffiti saying “Our motto: Apocalypse Now” can be seen on the front of Kurtz’s compound as Willard walks up the stone steps. It was added by Coppola because the title and copyright legally had to appear somewhere in the movie according to union regulations.

4. Apocalypse Now’s opening shot was created from leftover footage that was sitting in the trash.

Coppola shot an unprecedented 1.5 million feet of film for the movie, and came upon the opening shot by accident during the post-production process. In the editing bay, Coppola asked editor Richard Marks (who was one of four people who edited the movie) about reels of footage that were in the garbage. Marks replied it was static footage from an unused angle from one of the six cameras used to shoot the napalm scene. Coppola liked the eerie geometry of the trees and the helicopters whizzing by, and told Marks to cut it together with a song from The Doors called “The End,” because he thought it would be humorous to start the movie with "The End."

5. Harvey Keitel was the first actor to play Willard.

Coppola held exhaustive audition sessions for his primary cast, but the part of Willard proved to be a problematic one for Coppola. He first offered the part to actor Steve McQueen, who turned down the role because he didn’t want to shoot in the jungle on location. Al Pacino, James Caan, and Jack Nicholson all turned down successive offers from Coppola until he gave the role to Harvey Keitel. Coppola then fired Keitel six weeks into production because he thought the actor’s performance wasn’t as introspective as he needed for the character. So he called Martin Sheen, who had previously auditioned for the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather and passed on Apocalypse Now because he was shooting The Cassandra Crossing in Rome.

6. Francis Ford Coppola risked every cent he had on Apocalypse Now.

The director invested $30 million of his own money into the project to get the budget to the amount required to execute his vision. That total included the valuations of his house and his winery, which he signed over to Chase Bank as collateral on the amount. The interest rate for the amount began at seven percent, but when production ended it was up to 29 percent. If the movie tanked, Coppola faced financial ruin, which understandably made the filming process fairly stressful. Coppola suffered an epileptic seizure while shooting, had a nervous breakdown, and allegedly threatened to commit suicide at least three times.

7. Apocalypse Now went famously over budget and way over schedule.

Coppola planned an initial 14-week shoot for the movie in the Philippines in the spring of 1976, which was on schedule until Typhoon Olga ruined nearly all of the sets and equipment, forcing the production to shut down for eight weeks. Coppola continued to shoot with reckless abandon thereafter, and principal photography didn’t conclude until May of 1977. Post-production on the movie lasted for a further two years, and the movie was finally released in August of 1979.

8. Harrison Ford appears in a (technically) pre-Star Wars role.

Coppola hired a young actor named Harrison Ford to appear as Colonel Lucas (a nod to George), one of the military officers who gives Willard his orders to assassinate Kurtz. Ford had previously appeared in Lucas’s American Graffiti and Coppola’s The Conversation, but was still relatively unknown when the filming of Apocalypse Now began in 1976. He would later become a megastar after appearing as Han Solo in Star Wars when it was released in 1977. Apocalypse Now, which was shot before Star Wars, was released afterwards. Ford was apparently so nervous when shooting his scenes that Coppola added a story beat for his character to drop his dossier about Kurtz as a way to incorporate the then young actor’s anxiety into the scene.

9. Apocalypse Now was shot on location near Vietnam.

Inspired by Haskell Wexler's 1969 film Medium Cool, which had shot footage during the 1968 Democratic National Convention riot in Chicago and incorporated it into the plot, Milius wanted to shoot the movie on location in Vietnam while the war was still being fought. Coppola rejected the idea, and eventually shot the movie on location in the Philippines because President Ferdinand Marcos has agreed to lend the production as many helicopters and gunships as they needed. The U.S. Department of Defense, then led by Donald Rumsfeld, had denied the film any assistance due to its anti-Vietnam message.

10. Coppola has a quick cameo in Apocalypse Now .

Coppola, along with production designer Dean Tavoularis and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, appears in a cameo as the newsreel director telling Willard and the boat crew not to look at the camera during the rendezvous scene with Colonel Kilgore.

11. Author Michael Herr wrote the narration for Apocalypse Now.

Part of the extended post-production process included the addition of an entire voiceover track for Willard. In 1978, Coppola hired writer and Vietnam War correspondent Michael Herr to write whole selections of possible voiceover parts that he could pick and choose from to give to the character. Coppola initially got in touch with Herr for the narration because he loved his book Dispatches, a collection of Herr’s experiences during the war.

12. Francis Ford Coppola was friends with The Doors, which is how their music ended up in Apocalypse Now.

Coppola went to UCLA film school with all of the members of The Doors, including Jim Morrison, who agreed to let Coppola use the master recordings of their music for his Vietnam film. The five-and-a-half-hour early assembly cut of the movie was scored entirely using songs by The Doors before an actual score was created.

13. Francis Ford Coppola had to get creative while shooting Marlon Brando.

Marlon Brando, who previously won an Oscar as Vito Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather, showed up on location in the Philippines weighing in at over 300 pounds. All of his costumes had to be scrapped because Coppola expected the actor to show up as an astute and fit Green Beret soldier. This forced Coppola to have to come up with a way to shoot around Brando’s weight, so he and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro thought of shooting him in shadows and silhouettes to make his character seem more mysterious.

14. Brando did Apocalypse Now for the paycheck.

Brando’s contract stipulated that he would be paid $3 million for four weeks of work on weekdays only, and that he would not be required to work past 5:30 p.m. For his first four scheduled days of shooting, Brando didn’t show up to set, but instead wrangled Coppola in his trailer to talk about random topics to ostensibly stall the movie and simply collect his acting fee. When Coppola finally got him on the subject of how to play Kurtz, Brando rejected all of his ideas, including the suggestion to play him as a bald man like in the book. When Brando said he’d sleep on it, he finally showed up to set the next day with a shaved head and told Coppola he’d finally read Heart of Darkness the night before and decided to play him like the character in the book.

15. Dennis Hopper’s Apocalypse Now character was improvised.

Originally, Hopper was supposed to play Colby, the Special Forces Captain (eventually played by actor Scott Glen) who abandons his mission to join up with Kurtz’s primitive followers after he is sent in to assassinate Kurtz before Willard. But Coppola didn’t like him in the part once he got on the set. Instead, Coppola created the drugged-out war correspondent photographer on the spot, giving Hopper a peasant shirt, necklaces, and a bunch of cameras to hang from his neck. The director modeled the new character after a character in Conrad’s book simply referred to as The Russian. Nearly all of Hopper’s dialogue, including the T.S. Eliot quotes, was improvised.

16. Francis Ford Coppola made up the ending to Apocalypse Now as he went along.

The original ending in Milius’s script had North Vietnamese forces attacking Kurtz and his followers in a giant climactic battle, but Coppola scrapped that because he felt it didn’t fit with the movie he was making. Instead, he took the advice of his UCLA friend Dennis Jakob and actor Dennis Hopper to create a more mythical ending of the concepts of death and rebirth. Using the story of the “Fisher King” found in books like The Golden Bough and From Ritual to Romance and the poetry of T.S. Eliot (all of which can be seen in Kurtz’s possession in the film), Coppola devised a new ending wherein Willard would kill Kurtz and ostensibly become his followers’ new king.

17. Coppola didn’t want Apocalypse Now to have any credits, but a credits sequence does exist.

Original presentations of the movie came with a specially made program that included a full list of cast and crew to stand in for the credits, which Coppola intentionally left out of the film. But the studio forced him to create a credit sequence to tack on to subsequent showings of the movie. Coppola eventually created one that featured the credits over images of Kurtz’s camp being firebombed. When Coppola felt the anarchic message of destroying Kurtz’s leftover followers went against his downtrodden but anti-war message, Coppola decided against the credits sequence.

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