A British Touch to the Holidays: Afternoon Tea

For many Americans, the first thing that comes to mind when we think of British culture—other than the Royal Family—is tea. The idea immediately conjures mental images of old aristocrats with their pinkies in the air, fine china, and finger sandwiches. In fact, according to the BBC and the Tea and Infusions Organisation, in 2016 Britons were drinking 60 billion cups of tea per year! That number is further broken down to being more than 900 cups for every man, woman, and child in Great Britain! Despite it being so prevalent in everyday life, there are still important cultural cues to consider if you plan on having tea like the Brits.

Believe it or not, the popularity of tea in Great Britain is a modern cultural phenomenon. According to NPR, Britain was first introduced to tea when Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, married King Charles II in 1662. However, tea at that time was extremely expensive and could only be afforded by the upper classes and aristocracy, only 3% of the population. However, tea prices dropped in the late 1700s making it affordable for everyone. The modern idea of tea as a small meal came about in the early-mid 1800s when Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford invented a way to fight off hunger pains between lunch and dinner, at that time served around 8pm. She ordered tea and snacks to her bedroom and would often invite other ladies to socialize with her. This trend caught on in aristocratic circles, and soon became an everyday custom.

The Duchess of Bedford pioneered what is referred to as afternoon or “low” tea. Considering Britain’s staunch class system, this seems like it should be reversed with the “high” tea of the lower classes. The names suggest the height of the furniture in which the tea time takes place. For the upper class and aristocracy, afternoon tea traditionally took place with the ladies sitting on low arm chairs while the high tea of the lower class refers to the tea being taken at a tall dining table. Here are some more key differences between afternoon and high tea:

Manners: Etiquette is incredibly important for afternoon tea. Jo Bryant, a British Etiquette and Weddings Consultant says traditionally, one person pours the tea for everyone else, and this is done one at a time: pour someone’s tea and hand it to them before pouring someone else’s. Never add cream or sugar for another person, it their personal preference. Also, when stirring the tea, move your spoon in a back-forth/up-down motion. Circular motions can be seen as inelegant, and place the spoon lengthways along the back of the saucer when you are done.

Additionally, sit up straight and put your napkin on your lap, put the cup down between sips, don’t slurp, and never ever raise your little finger. The idea of raising one’s little finger to drink tea is an American invention and is not true to the actual British custom. Usually, afternoon tea includes drinking two cups; one is never enough and three is seen as excessive. High tea is more relaxed than afternoon tea. High tea demands some of the same basic manners one would expect when having tea, such as putting your napkin on your lap, keeping your feet of the table, sit up straight, etc.

Food: The food served at afternoon tea—usually called “accompaniments”—is typically sweeter and lighter than those served at high tea, and usually also has its own set of rules. For example, small, crust-less cucumber finger sandwiches are very popular at afternoon tea. However, be sure to take just one, and eat it in more than one bite, no matter how small it is. Scones—pronounced “sconn”—are individual, circular cakes eaten with jam and cream. The jam and cream are spooned onto the edge of the plate, and after the scone is broken lengthways by hand, they are spread onto the scone with a knife. Never put the two pieces back together to make a sandwich and never use a form to eat it; these are meant to be eaten by hand. The only cutlery present should be the knife for spreading the jam and cream.

High tea is drastically different in terms of food. While afternoon tea originated with the idle upper classes of the Victorian era, the working class needed something more substantial to feed themselves after a hard day’s work. Instead of taking tea at about 3 or 4pm like the upper classes, the working class did not have a lunch break and so when they got home for tea, they would usually eat things like pies, meats, and cheeses. Because this was a more substantial meal, working class citizens would typically have a very light dinner a few hours after tea.

Tea is a well-developed and complicated custom in Great Britain. The mannerisms and food display Britain’s unique history, and it continues to be a sought after experience by tea drinkers from all over the world. As anxiety-inducing as some of these strict rules may be, it is important to remember that tea time is meant to be a relaxing break from the demanding pace of everyday life.

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