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High Tea and Afternoon Tea – What’s the Difference?

Confused about these tea terms? You’re not alone. With the newly regained popularity of tea (the drink), tea time traditions are making a comeback as well. But their re-emergence has been served up with more confusion than crumpets, so there are a few distinctions you’ll want to understand.

First, don’t let the terms fool you. Jacqueline Church, gourmet food feature writer at Suite101.com explains that, while “high tea” sounds quite aristocratic, the term originates from the height of the dinner room table it was served on. Traditionally high tea was a rather heavy meal consumed by the common people in the evening. “’Low tea’ was, ironically, the more posh tea being served to upper classes in their drawing rooms at lower tables.” And, by comparison, low teas featured fine china with snack foods: small pastries, petite sandwiches and scones.

The issue becomes even more complicated when we throw what’s called “afternoon tea” into the mix. Today “afternoon tea” is often used interchangeably with “high tea” in error. When we think of the tea parties enjoyed by ladies in wide-brimmed floral hats on a weekday afternoon, we are really recalling low or afternoon teas.

“Low tea” is seldom used as an expression these days, so casting it off simplifies things. And realizing that “high tea” is highly misunderstood helps us cut through the confusion. Which brings us to another distinction you’ll want to remember: no matter what we call them today, teas are all about atmosphere.

According to my trusted edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, “a tea, no matter how formal it pretends to be, is friendly and inviting. We do not go to be impressed or instructed, but to enjoy seeing our friends and to been seen by them.”

So, whether you refer to your event as a tea party, afternoon tea, or (heaven forbid!) a high tea, don’t let elaborate names get in the way of an occasion that’s meant to be friendly fun.

For more information on tea parties by any name, check out these links:

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