Engagement parties date to a time when marriage signified an allegiance between families as much as a romantic link between two people. In parts of England, for instance, a formal betrothal party known as a flouncing used to be held for a newly engaged couple. This event allowed the bride-to-be and her fiance to meet friends of both their families, and it also created what was essentially a legally binding contract. If either person broke the engagement thereafter, the wronged party could claim half of the other person's property.
Customs such as these slowly evolved into engagement-announcement parties, which were less binding but no less socially significant. By the early 1900s, newspapers were superseding parties as the preferred method of announcing a new engagement, prompting guidelines such as those Emily Post describes in the 1922 edition of her classic book on etiquette: "The prevailing custom in New York and other big cities is for the party to be given on the afternoon or evening of the day of announcement. The engagement in this case is never proclaimed to the guests as an assembled audience. The news is out, and everyone is supposed to have heard it."
With email, telephones, and far fewer social formalities to follow, the news these days is usually out before the bride-to-be has had time to realize she has said yes. But that doesn't mean your engagement should not be celebrated, or even formally announced, with a party. While traditionally the engagement party is hosted by the bride's parents, in these untraditional times it often turns out that friends of the bride and groom, or other relatives, want to host an engagement party as well. In that case, you may opt to have two or more parties: one for relatives and family friends, for instance, and another for your own friends. All the same, a good rule of thumb is to let the bride's parents have the opportunity to be the first to celebrate the engagement; even if a veritable stream of parties follows, theirs should be first.
It is nice if the engagement party comes soon after the engagement, while the news is still fresh. You might even decide to announce your engagement at the party, although for maximum impact you will need to concoct a good excuse for gathering so many friends and relatives together in one place.
The traditional rules of etiquette suggest that guests invited to the engagement party should also be invited to the wedding; however, the guest list will likely be shorter. Often the idea is to make this a more intimate event than the wedding itself. When Joyce Flinn of Hoboken, New Jersey, gave an engagement party for friends at her restaurant, Amanda's, she told the couple that the dining room would hold forty people, "and then I let them choose the guest list," she says. "I didn't want to put them in an uncomfortable situation later on."
But this is no longer the only accepted approach. Now, because so many people have very small weddings or hold their ceremonies far from friends and sometimes even from family, the engagement party is becoming an accepted way to include those who will not be able to attend the wedding.
For a traditional party (which is to say, one given by the bride's parents), both families should be invited, whether or not all members will be able to attend the event. You will also want to invite close friends of both your families as well as your own close friends.
Even though gifts are not customary at an engagement party, some guests will inevitably arrive bearing them. This is a natural impulse: It is part of the celebratory nature of weddings and parties. Consequently, you may want to compile at least a preliminary list of selected gifts and china and flatware patterns at a wedding registry; the couple's parents should be apprised of where guests can find this information so they can tell anyone who asks. For an informal party given by friends, it is unlikely that the guests will arrive with anything more substantial than a bottle of wine or some flowers, the same tokens they might bring to any festive event. But it is still a good idea to inform your host about where you have registered.
What type of party is most appropriate? A cocktail party hosted by the bride's parents at their home is the classic example, but it is by no means the only option. Part of the delight of an engagement party is that it allows the host room for improvisation and inventiveness. Jessica Strand of Los Angeles says, "My own engagement party was very formal, at a country club." But to celebrate a good friend's engagement, she gave a casual backyard party one warm spring evening. "We put up tables on the grass," she says. "I made flower arrangements, and I made the food myself -- all things I knew I could prepare well in advance, like a poached salmon with cucumber scales, and a fruit salad with honeydew, blueberries, lime, and mint."
Alison Schafer of Washington, D.C., who gave an engagement party in New York City for a friend several years ago, says, "We were just out of college and poverty-stricken, but a friend lent us a loft. We bought some beer, and the only other thing we had was a bag of chips. Somehow we thought we were terribly soigne. But the bride and groom loved it!" Needless to say, if your guest list includes your grandparents and your father's business partners, a more formal event is in order, such as a catered party at a friend's house or dinner at a restaurant. Another approach is to organize the party around an idea. Why not a wine-tasting party to select your wedding wine, with different bottles for the guests to discuss and compare? Or a cookout on the beach, with activities such as volleyball and kite flying? Or a party filled with details from your personal history; for instance, if you got engaged at a baseball game, serve hot dogs and popcorn. If you met on a train, use a copy of the ticket stub in your invitation design.
When Flinn hosted her friends' party at her restaurant, she says, "We tried to give it an Italian slant since they were both of Italian heritage. So we served a five-course dinner matched with five appropriate wines, because we knew the families would enjoy that." And for her own engagement party, she says, a good friend made them a cake out of Rice Krispies Treats, because the friend knew that had been their favorite late-night snack during college. In the end, such personal details are one of the most memorable aspects of an engagement party. To capture them, ask a friend to take photographs.
Because of the engagement party's traditionally smaller size, the host has a chance to do something quietly extravagant that might not be possible in the larger context of the actual wedding. "My wife's father is a wine collector," says Paul Coyle of Brooklyn, New York. "He held an elegant cocktail party for us in his backyard under the stars, which we loved. But the best touch, something we did not expect, was that all the wine he served was from my wife's birth year."
Whichever approach is used, there are some tips to keep in mind. Everyone at the party will want to have a chance to speak to the happy couple, so create a space where the bride and groom, and their respective parents (if they are attending), can comfortably greet guests as they arrive -- a sort of informal receiving line. Once the party is underway, there is also the matter of toasts. At an engagement party given by the bride's parents, the etiquette regarding toasts is quite clear: First, the bride's father proposes a toast to the bride and her fiance. Then, the fiance rises and toasts his bride-to-be and her parents, and then his own parents. After that, the floor is open. At informal events hosted by friends, of course, anyone can make a toast at any time. Certainly, the engaged couple will want to toast the host.
Finally, giving an engagement party is a special act of generosity and affection on the part of your family and friends. Among the many memorable stops along the road to a wedding, it is the first, and so lingers in memory with a special significance. The bride-and groom-to-be may want to give a thank-you gift to the host that's as special as the party was; for example, tickets to a show, or a first edition of a book they love. It need not be grand; it can be just something that reflects the bond between you. For that, your best resource is your imagination.