A tea party is a traditional afternoon social gathering that has been cherished by many societies for centuries. It is an occasion that can be used for formal business meetings, social celebrations, or simply as a refreshing afternoon break.
Historically, a tea party would feature loose leaf tea served from a teapot, along with milk and sugar. A variety of foods, such as sandwiches, scones, cakes, pastries, and biscuits, would be arranged in a tiered fashion alongside the tea. The selection of food would be tailored to the season, with solid foods preferred in winter and fruits and berries in summer and spring.
Formal tea parties are often characterized by the use of prestigious utensils, such as porcelain, bone china, or silver. Tables may be set with matching cups, plates, and napkins.
While afternoon tea parties were once regularly hosted in homes, today they have become more of a social gathering event. Many high tea restaurants offer traditional tea and food presentations for those seeking a classic tea party experience.
The afternoon tea party has been a staple in great houses in the United Kingdom, the United States, and across continental Europe for centuries. Even today, it remains an event in some affluent American communities, such as debutante teas. Traditionally, servants would stay outside the room until needed to maintain the intimate nature of the afternoon tea. This custom showed the hostess’s desire to encourage free conversation among her guests. Though most of the formalities of that age have disappeared, afternoon tea still provides a good opportunity for intimate conversation and a refreshing light meal.
Queen Victoria reportedly ordered an extensive spread for a tea party at Buckingham Palace. Nowadays, Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite tea cakes include honey and cream sponge and chocolate biscuit cake, while tea sandwiches might include smoked salmon, egg mayonnaise, or ham and mustard, among other offerings.
“Kettle drums” are informal large afternoon parties for tea that came about in the 18th and 19th centuries. At kettle drums, guests mingled and conversed with little formality and partook of tea, chocolate, lemonade, cakes, and sandwiches. Guests were expected to dress for ordinary daytime visiting, but not more formally. The name “kettle drum” is said to have originated in the informal tea gatherings hosted by British camp officers’ wives during the British occupation of India, during which kettle drums served as tea tables in the camps. Alternatively, “kettle drum” may have been an amalgam of “drum” – 18th-century slang for a vivacious party – and “kettle” for the tea served.
The customs and accepted standards of behavior during a tea party depend on the time period and place. During the 1900s, manners were of utmost importance, and etiquette was linked to conservative and rigid gender roles. Some of the etiquette rules noted during the 19th and 20th centuries included learning to be patient, restraining one’s temper, refraining from speaking in anger, and valuing silence more than speech.
Tea parties are sometimes hosted by young children, and the guests consist of stuffed animals, dolls, friends (both real and imaginary), and family members.
Alice’s Tea Party
In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in the chapter “A Mad Tea-Party”, Alice becomes a guest at a tea party along with the March Hare, the Hatter, and a sleeping Dormouse who remains asleep for most of the chapter. The other characters give Alice many riddles and stories, including the famous ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’. The Hatter reveals that they have tea all day because time has punished him by eternally standing still at 6 pm (tea time). Alice becomes insulted and tired of being bombarded with riddles and she leaves, claiming that it was the stupidest tea party that she had ever been to.
Yum cha is the Chinese equivalent of a tea party, usually held in a restaurant. The German “Kaffeeklatsch”, literally “coffee gossip,” is an afternoon gathering stereotypically of housewives, in which coffee or tea is drunk, cakes are eaten, and gossip is exchanged.