I have a wonderful friend who, years ago, sent me a vine wreath for Christmas. It hung horizontally from a red ribbon, like a frizbee. From the bottom of the wreath hung twelve small, felt stockings, about three inches long, each a different colour. There was one for each of the twelve days of Christmas, beginning on Christmas Day and going until January 5th. She filled each little stocking with a small gift, all with an overall theme. I was absolutely delighted with this gift, more because of the thoughtfulness than because of the gifts. My friend had one of her own which gave her the idea to make one for me.
The next year, she suggested that I return the wreath to her so that she could fill it again. I suggested instead that I send her gifts for her stockings and she could send me new ones for mine. And so began our own little tradition of filling tiny stockings according to a theme. It has become quite a creative challenge to find a theme, with twelve parts to it, and get it in the mail in time for Christmas. The pay-off isn’t just in opening the interesting little packages; it’s in the giving.
This year my theme for her was tea. I found twelve different teas, wrapped them in 1-ounce packages and sent them off. Next I started researching about tea. I thought I would put a ‘factoid’ about tea in an email each day and send it off to her, so that she could enjoy a little information with her cups of tea. My research project grew and grew and became an education for me, never-mind her!
What I expected was to find out where tea is grown, how it is harvested, how to make the perfect cup of tea, even about tea pots and cups and saucers. What I didn’t expect was to find out about how tea has affected world economics and politics. It is the single most consumed beverage in the world. It helped prevent water-born diseases from spreading because the water had to be boiled. It contributed to the Opium Wars in China and the “Boston Tea Party” in the US. In some parts of the world, it has even been used as currency, being more valuable than little disks of metal. Tea is light, it travels well, keeps for a long time, quenches thirst, imparts a physical and mental pick-me-up, doesn’t have bad side effects, and the leaves can be used more than once.
But what I wanted to highlight today is how drinking tea is a ritual that fosters community. Because we need to boil the water, prepare the pot, pour the milk or cut the lemon, we have to take time. Whether we are communing with ourselves or with others, we take a little time – something that I mentioned in my Christmas blog. For me, tea is more than just a drink, it is a pause.
I suppose everyone does something different in their ‘pause’ but for me I can associate tea with most of the daily and momentous events of my life. I guess you could say that it’s a gentle addiction. I have gone without it for periods of time in my life and, although I miss it, it’s physically not bad to get over. What I miss more than the substance of the leaves is the ritual. And the ritual can take place almost anywhere. Although tea houses are on the rise, or re-rise, as they were the places to see and be seen in England in the 1800’s, we can practice the tea ritual, in any of its forms, at home or in public.
The Japanese have made it an art form. To really do the Japanese tea ceremony ‘right’ you would have to take classes, which are offered in just about any major urban centre, to those who are interested. What’s really sacred here is not so much the tea as the relationship between the person who makes and offers the tea and the person, or people, who drink it. To my mind, it’s about the sacred act of nurturing relationship and therefore, community.
In my life I have solved problems over a cup of tea, brain-stormed, deepened friendships, shared sorrows, waited, celebrated, met people for the first time, done deals, nursed sick tummies and head colds, and just plain old quenched my thirst. It gives ‘put the kettle on, would you?’ a richer meaning!