“I believe it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o’clock.” Oscar Wilde.
Tea parties have been a part of childhood play for centuries. Like so many of you, I have a clear memory of my mom sitting at a child size table as my guest for tea.
The tea party was where I learned to be a hostess. My table was set using a miniature tea set in the blue willow pattern. It had been my mothers when she was a child. I can still hear the spout of the tea pot clinking on the cup while I carefully poured trying not to spill a drop. I offered vanilla wafers as our snack. We said please and thank you to each other. Our cloth napkins lay across our laps. We chatted and giggled. Then dishes were carefully washed and it was put away in a Maas Brothers cardboard box.
When my sister was old enough, she joined us. It was one young girl showing another how to carefully pour the tea and treat guest with kindness. Years later, our daughters played tea party using the same set.
Tea parties with the little china tea set were special fun. My love for tea and beautiful dishes began in those moments.
As an adult, tea parties tend to go away like nap times, an infrequent luxury, if they happen at all. Having tea turns into swiping a teabag through some hot water in a mug. Thankfully, shows like Downton Abbey came along and reminded us that a daily ritual is good for the soul and perhaps we should have some tea in a china cup.
Every once in a while, we should step back to our childhood tea party days. Dust off the china tea pot and bring out the cookies. Grown up tea parties aren’t difficult. Gift yourself the time to laugh with a friend and notice the artwork of pattern on the china.
There are no set rules when it comes to a menu but a standard afternoon tea would include several items arranged in small portions. Consider a biscuit served with jam, crustless finger sandwiches and a “showstopper” dessert item like a petit four or macaron.
Grocery stores offer a large selection of tea bags that will produce a lovely cup of tea, but don’t be intimidated by loose tea leaves. They are easy to use by purchasing a tea strainer or infuser. The extra flavor will be worth it.
Loose tea can be found in markets and specialty stores.
Tea time doesn’t have to be a big formal affair or party. Let’s not forget the simple luxury of a private party, cupping our hands around a warm cup of tea, a blanket across our legs, our favorite book at hand and new package of pepperidge farm cookies. In the end, is all about enjoying the rituals of tea time and letting go of daily stress.
Tea party 101. You have been invited to tea and you are wondering what it is all about. It has been a long time since you attended a tea party as a child.
What kind of tea is this?
There are high teas and low teas, afternoon teas and elevenses just to name a few. Call your party by the right name.
Afternoon tea or Low Tea is the social event that emerged in the 1830’s when Anna Duchess of Bedford requested a small afternoon snack and tea be brought to dispell the “sinking feeling” during the long gap between meals. She began to invite others to join her and it soon became a habit. Afternoon tea was usually served in the parlor sitting on arm chairs and settees with low tables which is why it is also called “low tea.” This was far from a humble event. In fact, this fancy affair is where you might spot Lady Mary from Downton Abbey. Afternoon tea is served around 3 or 4 p.m. and lasts for about an hour. It is a time to mind your manners.
High tea, despite its name, actually originated with the lower classes. The workers didn’t have the luxury of an afternoon tea break, so they took tea right after work. Food served at a high tea is a heavier fare, more meats and cheeses. It is called a high tea because it is served at a higher dinner table.
Elevenses is a newer tea custom that evolved in the 20th century. It occurs, as you would guess, at 11 a.m. as a morning break with tea and light snack.
What do I do?
Proper etiquette is an important part of the experience and knowing what to expect will help you enjoy your time.
Manners start with the napkin. Once you are seated, you should place your napkin in your lap. It should not return to the table until the tea is finished. If you need to get up your napkin should be placed in your chair. Never use your napkin as a handkerchief.
Don’t place other items like your cellphone, glasses or purse on the table.
When holding your teacup, don’t over raise your pinkie. It serves no purpose and is considered pretentious. It is the most common faux pas at tea.
If seated at the table, do not lift your saucer. But, don’t take the cup away from the table without the saucer. If you are standing, hold the saucer in the opposite hand while drinking tea.
Eat a scone by breaking small pieces off rather than biting into it. Spoon a small amount of jam or butter onto your plate – not directly onto each piece as you eat them.
Don’t place the used teabag on your saucer. Instead use a bowl or small dish called a slop bowl.
When adding sweetener to your tea, don’t clink the side of the cup with the spoon. Gently swirl the tea in the center of the cup. While both lemon and milk are offered, don’t add both to your tea or you will have a curdled mess.
Don’t slurp or glup your tea. Don’t dunk your cookie in your tea. Take small bites. The tea is to enjoy not to wash down your food.
The hostess will signal the end of the tea by picking up her napkin.
What do I wear?
We associate tea with fancy dress, but that isn’t always necessary. The location should be considered as some restaurants and clubs have required attire. If the host is trying to create a certain atmosphere and theme, that should be indicated on the invitation.
In most cases a casual dress, skirt or slacks are appropriate for women. For men, kahkis and a polo shirt.
Many hosts have garden tea parties in the spring, summer, and early fall. Depending on the temperature, a sundress is perfect. Men wear khakis, slacks, or shorts with a collared shirt or polos. A garden party is the perfect occasion to wear a hat decorated with ribbons and trim.
The important thing is to choose clothes that are presentable and comfortable. Avoid excessively revealing clothing, ripped jeans, tennis shoes, and t-shirts.
For more on tea, learn to make the perfect cup of hot tea