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The History of Christmas Tea
December 16, 2018

The History of Christmas Tea

Tea isn’t a traditional Christmas drink. Traditional Christmas drinks are things are egg-nog; mulled wine; and of course, hot chocolate. Perhaps the closest we get to tea at Christmastime is when we go for Christmas tea. But what if we told you that tea has a long history with Christmas?

When the Temperance movement picked up steam in the 1830s, one of their targets was Christmas. Not so much the holiday itself, but the habit of getting terribly drunk during the festive season. To advocates of temperance, the consumption of alcohol was tied to less money for the family (as the men’s paycheck would go to drinks), as well as domestic abuse as women and children suffered at the hands of their drunken husbands and fathers [1].

But if you take away alcohol, what can you replace it with? Like the Chinese centuries before them [2], the temperance movement decided that tea was a good substitute, as it was seen as a drink that helped sharpen concentration and helped men remain sober [3].

They hosted large tea parties, with as many as 4,000 guests, who would all come together to drink tea and listen to arguments for why alcohol is bad. And since Christmas was a time where men would get very drunk, Christmas tea parties came about. One of the earliest tea parties was held on Christmas of 1834 at Preston’s Cloth Hall, attended by over 1,200 men and children. 192 meters of tables was used to serve the guests, and the entertainment consisted of temperance hymn singing.

At these parties, it was common for “social and economic elites to serve food and drink to their social inferiors, inverting social norms and hierarchies” [4]. There was also an abundance of food served with the tea, in an effort to persuade the tea party guests that giving up alcohol would lead to an abundance of food.

Although these temperance tea parties started in the evening, they eventually developed into what we know as the modern afternoon teas. And as you know, Christmas-themed teas are very popular this time of the year. Ironically, we now not only have tea, but champagne with our Christmas teas!

If you and your loved ones decide to hold or attend a Christmas tea this year, take a moment to think about the long history of the tea in your cup. You’re not just having a meal, you’re partaking in the long history of tea and helping to shape its future.

[2] It has been argued that the emergence of tea was partly as a replacement for alcohol, which was forbidden by Buddhism. This explains why many tea gardens in China were near or at monasteries, and why monks were among the first to start drinking tea.
[3] This was not always the case, but the history of the perception of tea is a topic for another blogpost.
[4] Rappaport, Erika. A thirst for empire: how tea shaped the modern world. Princeton University Press, 2017.