A tea party is a formal, ritualised gathering (usually of ladies) for afternoon tea.
It is characterized by use of the best tea service for presenting tea (and often coffee as well), accompanied by thin sandwiches, sliced cake, little cakes and cookies served on the best china. In warm climates, cool drinks may be offered as well; in cold climates, hot pastries may be added to the menu.
The tea party was a feature of great houses in the Victorian and Edwardian ages in the United Kingdom and the Gilded Age in the United States. It is somewhat passé today, but still survives in the rituals of some communities, (for example, the debutante tea in the U.S.). Teas are still given for visiting celebrities and honoured guests, or when a hostess desires to make a statement for a special occasion.
A tea party is the only afternoon tea at which servants stay outside of the room untill asked to take dishes or bring new ones. It is permissible for a formal tea to be given without help at all; as nothing has to be passed. In this case the hostess sets everything out and brings in boiling water after the guests are settled. Writing in 1922, Emily Post asserted that servants were never to enter the room unless rung for, or to bring in fresh water and dishes or to remove used dishes.
At a tea party, as opposed to afternoon tea, ladies are required to wear "good" afternoon dresses or suits with perhaps hats and gloves (gloves are removed; in winter they are left with the coat) and gentlemen wear business suits.
Tea (a meal, as opposed to the beverage), has different meanings according to country. It can refer to a light meal taken in the afternoon or a major meal at midday or at the close of the working day.
The term high tea is sometimes used in North America to refer to afternoon tea or the tea party, a very formal, ritualised gathering (usually of ladies) in which tea, thin sandwiches and little cakes are served on the best china. This usage comes from understanding the term "high" to mean "formal". Most etiquette mavens advise that such usage is incorrect; (Judith Martin's tongue-in-cheek interpretation is, "It's high time we had something to eat.")
This form of tea is occasionally served in high-end U.S. and Canadian hotels, often during the holiday season, where it is usually correctly described as Afternoon Tea (see the meal's history, below).
The Tea Party is still occasionally given in North America, either for a special occasion or in honor of a visiting celebrity or guest. This occasion is a formal one in which ladies wear "good" afternoon dresses or suits and gentlemen wear business suits, but otherwise afternoon tea is an informal gathering of friends. In 1922 Emily Post wrote that servants should not enter the room during afternoon tea except if summoned to bring fresh hot water or remove soiled dishes, so as not to interrupt the intimate nature of the gathering and its conversation.
Most Americans today regard the terms "high tea", "afternoon tea", and "tea time" as conscious Britishisms or an affectation of upper class manners. It is not uncommon for US situation comedies to center a joke around a British character having his afternoon tea. However, Hollywood used afternoon tea as a device to indicate social class or status; in movies such as Notorious, Marnie (both directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who was English, but set in the United States) and Pocketful of Miracles specific reference is made to the fact that a lady would have afternoon tea. Popular culture portrays upper class ladies as taking afternoon tea with friends at restaurants or serving it to friends in their homes; by-and-large middle class ladies by contrast have a coffee break in their kitchens.
UK and Ireland
In Britain, the North American gathering described above is always called Afternoon Tea (or just tea) and generally would take place some time between 3.30 and 4.30 pm. This meal was developed by "ladies of leisure" in the 19th century.
Tea in England has been associated with wealth, aristocracy, and fine china, ever since the late 1650s, when it first became fashionable with the royal family. At that time, tea leaves were so expensive that servants were not allowed to handle them, and the lady of the house would store them in Chinese jars in her private closet. The ritual of fixing one's own tea has persisted ever since.
During the 18th century, dinner was served at a gradually later and later time until by the early 1800s, the normal time was between 7:00 and 8:30 pm and an extra meal called luncheon had been created to fill the midday gap. But since this new meal was very light, the long afternoon with no refreshment at all left people feeling rather hungry.
Anna Maria, the 7th Duchess of Bedford of Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, had the idea of asking her maid to bring all the tea making equipment to her private boudoir at 5 o'clock so that the Duchess could enjoy a cup of tea with a slice or two of bread and butter. Anna Maria found this afternoon tea such a perfect refreshment that she soon started inviting her friends to join her in her sitting room for this new social event.
Eventually, the growing middle class imitated the rich and found that 'tea' was a very economical way of entertaining several friends without having to spend too much money, and afternoon tea quickly became the norm.
Since the number of women who do not work has now declined, afternoon tea has come to be seen as old-fashioned by some. It is not the case that all or most Britons eat such a meal every day.
The Tea Party may still be given on the same occasions as it is in North America.
A cream tea is a variant meal from the south of England. It is now sold in tea houses and restaurants, particularly tourist spots, all across the country and the Commonwealth.
Afternoon tea was served daily in upper class homes in Commonwealth countries through the end of the 20th Century. The tradition continues in some countries, in others tea is not served daily but is still served more frequently than in North America. Afternoon tea is generally available in high-end hotels, restaurants and cafes.
Afternoon tea is not served daily but is served more frequently than in North America. The meal is sometimes called "high tea" on the same understanding as in North America (see above) but purists consider such usage erroneous. Cream teas are referred to as Devonshire Teas and are available in all high-end restaurants and cafes.
Afternoon tea is not served daily, but is generally available in high-end hotels, restaurants and cafes.
In Germany the traditional intake of sustenance in the afternoon is called "Kaffee" (coffee) or "Kaffee und Kuchen" (coffee and cake). Only sweet foodstuffs are served, with cream-based cakes (such as Black Forest gateau) taking priority, although drier forms of cake, fruit tarts and pastries may also be served.
The tradition of consuming extremely rich concoctions flourished during the German economic recovery period ("Wirtschaftswunder") of the 1950s and 1960s as a reaction against the austerity and rationing of the war and immediate post-war years. Traditionally coffee is the only drink served (with cream or condensed milk and/or sugar), but in recent decades tea has become more popular. In East Frisia and Friesland, however, tea has always been traditional.
In Hong Kong, afternoon tea is common, although not a meal served daily. Usually some light snacks such as sandwiches, toast, or chicken would be served together with milk tea, coffee, Horlicks, Ovaltine, yuenyeung or lemon tea. Some fast food restaurant such as Cafe de Coral sell afternoon tea sets.
High Tea is a term used mainly in the United Kingdom and Ireland to describe an early evening meal, typically around 7.00 pm. Although, it does not necessarily include tea, it has the following formal structure:
- Main course This is usually either a light fish or meat course.
- Tea and cakes
The cakes may either be full sized and cut into slices, or smaller individual cakes, or muffins, toast or other sweet breads.
In a family, it tends to be less formal and often it is essentially either a regularised snack, usually featuring sandwiches, cookies, pastry, fruit, and the like (in Spain, this is called a merienda), or else it is supper.
The term "High Tea" comes from the meal being eaten at the "high" (main) table, rather than the smaller table common in living rooms. The term is now rather old fashioned, and is little used except by a fairly small number of mainly upper and upper-middle class families, and some elderly people.
On farms in the United Kingdom, high tea is the traditional and very substantial meal enjoyed by the workers immediately after dark, and combines afternoon tea with the main evening meal.
By contrast, Tea is the afternoon/evening meal, called that even if the diners are drinking beer, cider, or juice. It traditionally takes place at sometime around 6pm (though these days, it often takes place as late as 9pm).
In Scotland, Northern England, a significant part of the English Midlands, New Zealand, and sometimes in Australia and Northern Ireland, tea as a meal is synonymous with dinner in Standard English. Under such usage, the midday meal is sometimes termed dinner, rather than lunch. The prominence of this usage in Australia and New Zealand is almost certainly due to the influence of Scottish people for whom dinner is a meal eaten at midday and tea is the evening meal, the proportion of Scottish settlers being much greater in New Zealand than in Australia. Note that in modern New Zealand, the midday meal is still termed lunch. Hence Australians and New Zealanders commonly describe the three main meals as breakfast, lunch and tea.
In cricket, the second and usually shorter of the two intervals during a match lasting a full day or more is known as the tea interval. The interval is an opportunity for the players and umpires to take a comfort break and to partake in light refreshments.