A tea party could be said to be quite simply an event at which tea is served. However, the tradition of tea parties is long and hallowed, and these venerable social events are about much more than tea. Although tea is certainly served, this event also features delicate snacks, friendly conversation, and good manners. Traditionally, tea is served in the afternoon, in the hours between lunch and dinner, and in some regions, this event has been specifically the province of female hosts, although men are sometimes welcome.
A full on formal tea can be quite an event. Fine china and silver are used, and servants may assist with the tea service, although they generally withdraw once everyone has been made comfortable. Guests at a formal tea should expect things like sugar tongs and tea strainers, and they should be familiar with using them. A formal tea will also classically feature an array of tea sandwiches, scones, cupcakes, and other delicate snacks; since tea is traditionally held between lunch and dinner, most people eat lightly.
In some regions of the world such as the American South, a tea party is hosted by a group such as a church or a charity organization. At the tea, people are encouraged to socialize with each other, and opportunities for charitable service or donation may be provided. In these areas, a tea party is a common way to welcome a new member of the community, especially a religious officiant or someone who is new to public office. Such teas may also feature punch, in the summer, or coffee and hot chocolate in the winter.
Hosts can also hold tea parties in their private homes. A private party tends to be more intimate; women might welcome a new female member of the community with a private tea, for example, or a party might celebrate a select few friendships. This type of party can also accompany a baby shower or another event focused on women.
There is something appealingly genteel about a tea party, whether it is a weekly event held among friends or a child's birthday party. If you have an interest in planning such a party, numerous cookbooks are centered around the subject, and many of them also offer suggestions for service and decorations.