Why Traditions like “Tea Time” Matter

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ~C.S. Lewis


If you’ve spent any time in the United Kingdom (or watched Masterpiece Theater, or read any novel set in Great Britain), then you probably know that most Brits love a good cup of tea. I picked up the craving for a pot of Earl Grey and a dense, buttery scone while spending a summer in Northern Ireland and a year in Scotland as a graduate student, and the afternoon tradition has followed me back to the U.S.—sadly, minus the scones (but Paleo banana muffins made with gluten-free coconut flour are just as good, right? No, they are not). If the sunlight is deep gold, my mind is getting fuzzy, and I’m feeling a bit peckish (to use the British phrase), I’ll glance at a clock and, sure enough, it’s usually about 4 p.m.

This is just a guess, but I suspect that 3-5 p.m. is the period of the day when people are most likely to break their diets. I know it’s about the time I’m ready to consume half a bag of tortilla chips and some homemade guacamole (No, wait a minute—my guess may be right).

Aristocrats in Victorian England apparently experienced a similar urge to snack. The story of afternoon tea begins with Anna—Duchess of Bedford and friend of Queen Victoria—who needed a little something to spike her energy levels a few hours before dinnertime. So on behalf of those of us who get a little crabby late in the day and just can’t stomach the cherry cough syrup flavor of 5-Hour Energy, thank you, Anna, Duchess of Bedford. And God bless the queen.

Perhaps you’re wondering why a daily ritual like afternoon tea matters, beyond the practicality of an afternoon pick-me-up. To start, in the U.K. tea time is often a social affair—one with etiquette and longstanding customs (turns out Merry and Pippin’s fondness for elevenses is rooted in reality). These formalities are why the ritual is sometimes intimidating for Americans who’ve watched one too many seasons of Downton Abbey, but it’s really not that stuffy of an affair—though good manners and inside voices are always appreciated. If you happen to work in an office environment, a short break for tea with your co-workers might be a great way to break up the day, while chatting around something more aromatic than a water cooler.

You should know that I never owned a tea set as a little girl, and I certainly never played “tea party”—I was more of a Capture the Flag and tree-climbing kind of kid. Yet I’ve recently started a vintage teacup collection, and making use of it has become one of my favorite parts of the day. Since I work from home, afternoon tea is typically time I spend in solitude, but as someone who also spends much of the day on the computer (and even more time in her head), this daily ritual provides a chance to unplug from technology and check back into physical reality. That means thirty minutes spent holding a warm mug, curled up in a cozy chair, reading a hardcover book. It’s amazing how a thirty-minute tea break is enough time to remind me that I’m not my latest social media update, or a mind that just happens to be transported by legs, but a human being with a soul and a body. Whether you enjoy tea or not, consider what rituals you might incorporate into your day, to remind you of this fact.

And while you think on that, I’ll be boiling water in the kitchen. It’s about 4 o’clock . . .

Ashlee Cowles

Ashlee Cowles is the author of the Young Adult novel “Beneath Wandering Stars” (Merit Press, August 2016), the story of a teen girl who walks an ancient pilgrimage route on behalf of her wounded brother. She blogs at The Wandering Writer. (Photo credit: Lancia E. Smith.)

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