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Two more articles below… Enjoy!

Holiday High Tea at the Museum

Written by Vivian Rittenhouse

This year in December, the Historical Society will be presenting a Holiday Tea. Preparing for this event peeked our curiosity about the origins of tea drinking in general and the ritual Afternoon and Holiday Teas in particular.

Tea production was an intensely guarded secret for hundreds of years in the hilly subtropical and tropical transitional forests of Southeast Asia, predominantly China, to which the tea plant is native. As trade routes were established between Asian lands and the West, tea made its way to Middle Eastern, European, African and finally American societies.

As it migrated west, the tea ceremony changed dramatically, adapting to the cultural norms of the time and place.  While the original tea ceremony of the East remains a meditative, precisely choreographed ritual, afternoon tea for Westerners has become a casual daily respite or regal social affair replete with savories and sweets.  The earliest reference to tea drinking is from a 28th Century BC Chinese mythological tale.  It describes Chinese Emperor Shen Nung sipping boiled drinking water, into which a tea leaf has floated.

In the fourteenth century the practice of infusing tea leaves began in China. “Steamed leaves were dried, added loose to water and left to steep before being poured into white porcelain to display the tea’s color.”

In 1557, Portugal colonized the Chinese port Macau, and began bringing tea back to Europe. Arabs also brought tea to Europe by way of  their trade with the Venetians in Italy, during the late 1550s. During this period Tea also became very popular in Russia.

“The Russian aristocracy enjoyed English-style tea ceremonies even before the British made it a part of their culture. There were lavish parties at which society women drank tea as their male companions downed cold vodka.”

Though Portuguese and Dutch traders had for decades been importing tea to Western Europe, it was King Charles II’s marriage to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza that ultimately made tea-drinking popular among the British aristocracy. “When Catherine married Charles, she was the focus of attention; everything from her clothes to her furniture became the source of court talk. Her regular drinking of tea encouraged others to drink it. Ladies flocked to copy her and be a part of her circle.”

"Her regular drinking of tea encouraged others to drink it. Ladies flocked to copy her and be a part of her circle."

“By the 18 th century tea had become a national passion in England and, even though it was so expensive, was brewed throughout the land. Once gentlefolk had drunk the first brew, their servants would make tea for themselves from the used leaves, and then in turn sell the twice-used leaves at the back door.”

As artificial lighting became widespread in the 1800s, dinner hour moved from midday to later and later in the evening, and the ritual of taking tea after dinner migrated to an earlier slot in the late afternoon.   By the 1830s, there was a 7-hour gap between lunch and dinner, so light refreshments were served as part of the tea ritual during afternoon social visits.



The popularity of afternoon tea is often attributed to Anna Maria Russell, 7th Duchess of Bedford. In the mid-1840s, the Duchess purportedly complained of feeling faint around five o’clock and would call for a pot of tea with light savory and sweet refreshments. The Duchess invited friends to afternoon tea, popularizing the custom in her upper-class social circles, which included the Court of Queen Victoria.

Afternoon tea really was more of a social event than a meal. Ladies did not go to afternoon tea gatherings to eat but to meet their friends, catch up on gossip, chat about the latest fashions and scandals, be seen in the right places among the right people and, in passing, to drink tea and nibble daintily on a small finger of bread and butter or a little sweet biscuit.

Once the trend had been set, all fashionable society started to hold tea parties to suit almost any occasion, drawing room teas for groups of 10 or 20 visitors, small intimate teas for 3 or 4 friends, tea in the garden, ‘at home’ teas, tea receptions for up to 200 people, tennis teas, croquet teas, and picnic teas. The growing middle classes imitated the rich and found that tea was a very economical way of entertaining several friends without having to spend too much money. Pots of tea and a few small tea-times treats such as crustless sandwiches, hot buttered toast, little pastries, and a cake or two were all that were required. 

Before the 1830s, holiday celebrations in England were known for having wine and ale in excess. A counter-movement started to try to sober up some of the holiday celebrations by introducing spiced black tea called “wassail,” after the spiced German ale.  All kinds of spices and dried fruits were mixed in to give it incredible flavors, but the most common were ginger, cinnamon, and orange peels.  Great Tea Parties were orchestrated with cheap tickets available for everyone to attend, and these events grew to be more popular than the alcohol related celebrations.

Singing groups with fresh, hot wassail would go from neighborhood to neighborhood to share the beverage and spread holiday cheer through songs. Creating a celebration around the drinking and sharing of tea eventually grew into a Christmas tradition in Europe. Americans took note and celebrated Christmas with similar gatherings. Across the world Afternoon Tea and Holiday Teas bring a touch of flavor, community, and festivity to the holiday season.  Please join us, this Holiday season as the Historical Society continues this tradition.


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