Tea has had a role in holiday traditions across the United States and Europe for centuries.
English and American Tea Traditions
Two centuries ago Christmas Eve halls set for 4,000 were the model of temperance for raucous England.
Drinking wine and ale to excess was a widespread tradition that teetotalers countered with extravagant Christmas Eve tea parties offering snacks and festive blends. Spiced tea was a blend popular in Europe that originated as wassail, a German ale with mulling spices. In the 1830s the practice of singing carols and sharing wassail became popular in Victorian England with black tea as the base flavored with ginger, cinnamon and orange peel. Tables held nutmeg and sugar cookies and nougat, a candy made with honey, roasted nuts and egg whites.
Tea parties funded by a combination of philanthropic contributions and low-priced tickets turned a profit and financed temperance projects well into the 20th Century, according to the article Tea Party published in Livesey’s Moral Reformer (1831-1883).
“In Liverpool 2,500 of the town’s “wealth, beauty and intelligence” listened to “an Englishman, a Welshman, and a Scotchman” and 500 immediately signed the pledge of total abstinence in one meeting in 1836,” according to the Reformer.
Americans took note and celebrated Christmas with similar gatherings.
“Members of the movement in both the U.S. and the U.K. would hold massive tea parties, often on Christmas Eve, in halls festooned with pine tree boughs and fruit. As many as 4,000 working and middle-class attendees would drink tea at long tables, while listening to a sermon or the testimony of reformed alcoholics preaching the virtues of an alcohol-free life,” wrote Whitney Blair Wyckoff for NPR’s “The Salt.”
She quoted Erika Rappaport, a professor of English history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “Christmas was one of the few times during the year that working-class men had off, and many would use it to blow their wages drinking and gambling at the pub, she said. It was not uncommon to see women storming into bars with frying pans raised to drag home their inebriated husbands—and what was left of their paychecks.”
Rappaport, who has written about temperance tea parties, said they set the stage for afternoon tea.
Russian and Eastern European Tea Traditions
The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas in early January, with a traditional feast on the night of the 6th. Kissel is for toasting and hot tea from the samovar keeps everyone warm. Black tea from China was preferred among the upper class which first began drinking tea in 1638. Ordinary Russians steeped a range of fruits and herbs from Siberia including hopcones, chamomile, bearberry (a wild cranberry), and comfrey, a popular medicinal.
The Republic of Tea describes a beloved holiday tradition for Jewish families in Eastern Europe.
“The ceremony involves soaking a sugar cube in brandy, placing it in a teaspoon, and lighting it on fire. Then, everyone sings a holiday song while the brandy-soaked sugar cube burns. As soon as the singing ends, everyone drops their flaming sugar cube into a glass of tea and drinks it, according to the News & Notes tea blog.
“This Hanukkah ritual is mostly performed in Russia and other Eastern European countries, although it can be celebrated by anyone who wants to embrace the spirit and history of the Jewish “Festival of Lights” this holiday season,” wrote News & Notes.
Christmas Markets and Tea
Christmas markets, known as marchés de Noël are a destination for thousands of French shoppers before the holidays. The market at Strasbourg, known as the Christkindelsmarik dates back to 1570. In the Middle Ages Alsatians played ‘Games of Paradise’ – performances that depicted the history of creation that featured a fir tree covered in apples and biscuits. A tree was placed before every church. In time glass blowers produced decorative versions of the apples and smaller trees became popular in homes.
As Paris freezes the scent of Esprit De Noël from Mariage Freres rises from city’s tea parlors and tea parties. First introduced 30 years ago, it is a popular black tea with mandarin orange, cinnamon, almond and Bourbon vanilla.
The night before Christmas is the festive meal le Réveillon, taken from the verb reveiller which means to wake up. A Yule log decorates a table of foie gras, oysters, snails with turkey or goose stuffed with chestnuts. In France teetotalers are few. Everyone drinks wine with their meal, tea follows.