Afternoon tea is a wonderful ritual that brings beauty and grace into the life of your family and friends. There is something uniquely gracious about the etiquette and manners we bring to afternoon tea that recaptures the romance of past ages. Henry James wrote, "There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as an afternoon tea." Afternoon tea was invented by Anna Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857), one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting. Anna was quite fond of taking tea and petite-sized cakes in her boudoir during the late afternoon hours. Many followed the Duchess' lead, and thus the ritual of afternoon tea was birthed. In fact, a culture of sorts emerged around the tradition of drinking tea. Fine hotels began to offer tea rooms, while tea shops opened for the general public. Tea dances also became popular social events at which Victorian ladies met potential husbands. A Victorian tea party also provides the perfect opportunity to fellowship with other ladies or get to know some of your neighbors. A regular afternoon tea makes a relaxed context for a ladies Bible study, prayer group or neighborhood book club. Even young girls can be included in tea time. And lest you think that you need to buy fancy china and learn all of the proper tea etiquette, it is more important to extend a hand of friendship and open your heart and home to others.    Begin by drawing up a list of ladies that you would like to invite over to your home. Consider centering your tea around a special theme. For example, throw a special "Tea at Pemberley" to discuss your reading of Jane Austen's works, or "An Afternoon with Elizabeth Gaskell" as a precursor to watching an installment of the miniseries, "Wives and Daughters." Whether you choose a theme or not, you can set a pretty table using your finest china and silver (or any variation of dinnerware). Gather or purchase a few fresh flowers to put in a vase, or use a silk arrangement for a lovely centerpiece. Then prepare your tea! You can either brew a pot of tea and use a strainer to fill each teacup. Or fill a stainless steel infuser with loose tea and allow the flavor to seep in each teacup. Or, you can always use teabags, the simplest of all methods! Provide a selection of teabags in a nice crystal container and let your guests choose their own teas. And it is always thoughtful to include herbal teas for those guests who do not care for caffeine.  Many hostesses like to offer a motley collection of teacups for each guest to choose from. Consider mixing and matching teacups and saucers for a delightful, whimsical effect. This is a charming (and inexpensive) alternative to purchasing a full set of fine china. Bargain department stores such as T.J. Maxx and Marshall's often offer mismatched fine china from your favorite makers such as Royal Doulton, and it can be a fun shopping experience to browse through their unlikely collections! Don't forget to set out a few pretty plates for your bite-sized tea time treats! Stack your dessert plates atop pretty charger plates or even plain white Corelle plates... and your tabletop immediately takes on a formal, elegant look! You can also mix and match linens, giving each guest a different placemat, with matching cloth napkins.    What should you serve for your tea party? For a traditional English tea, staples include scones with clotted cream and lemon curd and an assortment of tea sandwiches (watercress, tuna, etc.) If you are interested in an Asian tea, serve Cantonese Dim Sum delicacies such as bite-sized dumplings and pastries. But you don't have to be limited to traditional tea fare. Some freshly baked cookies will always do, as well as store-bought cupcakes if you don't have the time to bake! Whatever you serve, remember that truly, the best part of afternoon tea is the fellowship and conversation. As you let time catch up with your heart, you can share your life with others and they can share their lives with you. Afternoon tea is a great context for prayer, testimony, and even confession! The old phrase, "Tea and sympathy" really is a good idea for today's busy world.