Though tea gatherings do occur worldwide, we Americans tend to associate them with England. We think of a sophisticated "high tea" in a British parlor with tiny crustless sandwiches and clotted cream (what is that, anyway?). In actuality, "high tea" was the heavy evening meal eaten by working class families at the end of the day. A few sources state that tea was deliberately brought into this evening meal in order to steer workers away from alcohol -- certainly an optimistic diversionary tactic.
Actually, the word "high" referred to the height of the dinner table rather than the sophistication of the gathering or the company. Tables in parlors and sitting rooms were, by contrast, lower to the ground. So, "low tea" now often called "afternoon tea," is the true parlor gathering of guests for gentle conversation -- not to mention tea, snacks, sweets and ostensibly, that clotted cream.
Of course, the most ritualized tea gathering is usually thought to be the Japanese tea ceremony. This ceremony, based on Taoism and influenced by Zen Buddhism, is performed by an expert practitioner and served to a small group of guests. The practitioner is extensively trained in tea preparation and a wide variety of ceremonial procedures related to tea, calligraphy, flower arranging, kimono wrapping and more. Interestingly, not only the practitioner, but also the guests are expected to have mastery of the tea ceremony, down to the last gesture, phrase and rule of deportment.
Well, to each her own, I say. I myself favor tea gatherings as informal breaks in our increasingly rushed daily routines. (Masala chai & samosas this afternoon, anyone?)
This approach seems to be catching on here in the U.S., as evidenced by the recent proliferation of tea salons and tea houses, particularly on the coasts and in larger cities. Tea salon owners often say that they expect their clientele to settle in and spend the afternoon talking. I love this trend! As we become even busier and every minute seems to be spoken for, we must make the conscious effort to pause and come together, to connect and share our lives. What better way than over tea?