There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.
Henry James

Afternoon tea, royal tea, high tea, low tea, elevenses, and cream tea – their meanings can be confusing, but their purpose is clear: to leisurely savor tea and refreshment in a social setting. The holidays are a perfect time to experience this British tradition, and a few tips can make the gathering all the sweeter.

Fragrant loose-leaf tea, delicate sandwiches, and lavish sweets are the mainstay of an afternoon tea, typically served between 3:00 and 5:00 pm. Curiously, one might think high tea and high society go hand-in-hand, but it’s actually a contradiction. Afternoon tea, also called low tea, is an elegant affair while high tea was dinnertime for the Victorian working class. High tea and low tea referred to serving table height – afternoon or low tea was served at a low-sitting coffee table; high tea was served at a dinner table. These days, if an establishment offers high tea, it usually means afternoon tea.

Originally, afternoon tea was a sophisticated gathering of upper-class Victorian ladies to assuage their hunger between lunch and a late formal dinner. As a light meal, it consisted of tea served with dainty finger sandwiches neatly presented to avoid soiling gloves, scones with clotted cream and jam, and an array of cakes. While some experts believe the afternoon tea was a natural culinary progression, others argue that Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford and Queen Victoria’s personal attendant, came up with the idea in the mid-1840s.

“Aristocrats didn’t have to get up early for any job. Dinner could start at 9:00 pm and last until midnight,” explains Barbara Gulley, tea etiquette consultant, owner of Barb’s Tea Service in Bloomfield Hills, and author of Twelve Etiquette Essentials:  Formal Dining and Tea Time.

Gulley offers several tips for attending an afternoon tea:

  • Keep an eye on a venue’s calendar, especially before the holidays, to secure a reservation.
  • Wear something nice – men should wear a nice shirt and dress slacks, and women should wear a nice blouse, dress slacks, skirt, or dress.
  • Hats, fascinators (a type of ladies’ headpiece), and gloves aren’t necessary, but they are making a comeback. Hats and fascinators may be worn during afternoon tea but should be removed if there is a program and placed on the lap. Do not eat while wearing gloves.
  • Place the napkin in your lap and only place it on the table when finished; if there is a need to leave the table for a few moments, place the napkin on the seat.
  • While the sweet and savory offerings are finger foods, proper tea etiquette allows the use of a knife and fork for a scone. It is also acceptable to break a scone into bite-sized pieces by hand.
  • If a tea bag is used, do not wrap the bag and string around a spoon to squeeze out the last drops of tea. Place the used tea bag on a saucer provided for that purpose, not the saucer under the teacup.
  • Cream is added to tea after it is poured, not before.
  • To hold a teacup, the index finger curls around the handle while the thumb and middle finger act as a support. Look into the cup, not over, and sip the tea quietly. Do not lift the pinky – it’s considered gauche.

Throughout Michigan, there are many opportunities to experience an afternoon tea, and everyone is welcome. In addition to afternoon tea and children’s tea, The Townsend Hotel in Birmingham offers the Gentlemen’s Tea that includes a flight of cabernet or bourbon. The W.K. Kellogg Conference Center and Manor House in Hickory Corners near Kalamazoo hosts several holiday-themed teas throughout December, and the Royal Eagle in Harper Woods offers a seven-course Russian tea luncheon twice each week.

Making time to attend an afternoon tea is a chance to gracefully suspend a hectic schedule and savor the ambiance of a centuries-old tradition. Gulley suggests, “Taking your time and not rushing – that’s what afternoon tea is all about.”


Traditional Afternoon Tea
The Townsend Hotel, Birmingham

The Whitney, Detroit

The Royal Eagle, Harper Woods

Holly Hotel, Holly

Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island

Royal Park Hotel, Rochester

Henderson Castle, Kalamazoo

Holiday Afternoon Tea
Ford Pagodahouse, Grosse Ile

W.K. Kellogg Conference Center and Manor House, Hickory Corners

Crocker House Museum, Mount Clemens

Meadow Brook Hall, Rochester