February 14, 2010 12:42:00 AM
Jan Swoope - firstname.lastname@example.org
"It is the social event of the season ... for 3, 4 and 5-year-olds," Edwina Williams smiles. She is referring, of course, to the annual Victorian Valentine tea party at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. This festival of pink bows, doilies, red velvet and tulle is more than a sparkling dress-up party. Cupid''s annual holiday provides the perfect opening to talk about etiquette, too. One is never too young, after all, to learn how to escort a lady or properly eat a sweet treat.
The Victorian tea party is a long-standing tradition. It originated as a suggestion from former library director Chebie Bateman about 15 years ago. Williams -- Mother Goose to the adoring youngsters who flock to the library''s story hour weekly -- presides over the grand occasion each February. On Thursday, her trademark flowered straw bonnet was replaced by an elegant, feathered black sequin hat. The fairytale blue smock, temporarily set aside for a velvet skirt, ruffles at the neck and a soft, fur muff.
"This a way for little boys and girls to get dressed up in their mother or father''s outfits or special Sunday clothes ... or ballerina outfits, princess outfits ... why, I''ve even had an alligator come to the tea party!" laughed Williams. "They just love to get dressed up; they love to see what everybody else is wearing. The little boys are so cute in their daddies'' ties or hats. Some have even worn their daddy''s shirt over their outfits. They all have a ball."
Judging by the number of cameras at the ready, the parents do, too.
Erika Allison was on hand with her 3-year-old twins, Isabella and Landry.
"Isabella''s had her dress on all morning, asking if it''s time to go yet," she said with an indulgent grin. "This their first year, and they''re really excited."
Four-year-old Chyla Howard was visiting from Colorado. Her grandmother, C.C. Coggins, brought her to the party.
"This is great; she''s getting a good dose of Southern manners," Coggins smiled.
Manners on parade
Outside the story hour room''s doorway Thursday, the partygoers gathered. Some wore floor-length dresses, fabric trailing behind. Others wore dress-up high heels, tiaras or fashionable hats. The young ladies lined up, to be escorted to their seats by the gentlemen. No pushing or shoving allowed.
But first, the children are introduced to a puppet, Sally Lou. Williams, a former elementary school teacher, is accustomed to working with a sidekick -- usually a stuffed goose, or even Quackle, the duck. But today, Sally Lou, with her atrocious manners, helps get the point across.
"Boys and girls," Williams announces, with a dramatic gasp, "Sally Lou puts her elbows on the table! Would you ever do that?"
"Nooo," comes the chorus of response.
With raised eyebrows and a shocked voice, she goes on, "Sally Lou hollers across the table if she wants more punch! Is that what we should do?"
"Nooo," the children answer, gravely shaking their heads.
Etiquette pointers continue, the party guests learning to put their napkin in their lap, wait until everyone is served before they eat, to chew with mouths closed and never take food off someone else''s plate.
"We are old-fashioned in our manners," Williams says later. "We even keep our little finger up when we''re drinking ''tea'' (apple juice)."
At the table
After escorting young ladies to tables festooned with balloons and red, pink and gold decor, the gentlemen courteously hold out chairs.
"One year, one little boy got tired," Williams chuckles. "So he got down on the floor, put his feet up and used his little legs to push the chair, with the little girl in it, to the table."
When everyone is seated, heart-shaped cookies and plump, pink marshmallows are served on silver trays.
These youngsters will know soon enough about text messaging and Facebook, but Williams hopes they might first learn the art of polite conversation.
"We find out everybody''s name, and even talk about the weather," she says. Everyone patiently waits until the whole room is served before taking their first bite.
"And we wipe our little lips with our napkin when we''re done and put it on the table, on the left side of our plate," their mentor points out.
"They''re learning manners at home, but this is good reinforcement," Williams states.
Some, like Kay Box, are well-known to the library. She was in attendance with her 4-year-old grandson, Ethan, son of Mark and Jenny Box.
"I used to bring my children to story hour," she says. "Now I''m bringing my grandchildren up here to the library."
Can children begin absorbing lessons in manners at such early ages? Williams believes so.
"I''m telling you they do; I''ve been most impressed," she affirms. "They really listen. They''re afraid they''ll miss out on something, especially when Sally Lou is messing up."
As the party comes to a close, the girls and boys say polite "thank you''s" and eagerly find their parents or grandparents. Each leaves with a red heart-shaped Valentine from Mother Goose clutched in their small hand.
"Oh, you have the nicest manners," she''s heard to say, praising several children as they depart.
" I love what I''m doing. I love children," she says later. "They expect you to be you, and I am what I am. They''re cute, sweet kids -- just darling. And they don''t know they''re learning ... they''re simply having a fun time."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.