Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay

Afternoon Tea
October 1, 1999

"Tradition -- Tradition" --sings Zero Mostel as Tevya in that wonderful musical, "Fiddler on the Roof." As the century closes, Tevya is still pleading for Tradition, and with good reason. Over the years we have discarded a lot of traditions -- some good, some bad.
What brought that to my attention was a "tea party" I recently attended. It was not exactly what my mother would have had in mind, but tradition was there, at least in the memory of several over-70 guests.
"Tea parties" were once a standard of social intercourse, but they have now taken their place with washboards and whale bone corsets. We have a more casual life style now.
The first article I ever wrote for the Sentinel was about tradition. I had helped a friend celebrate her 75th birthday. Until the end of the party, when the hostesses were sitting around with our shoes off rehashing the event, I had not stopped to think how utterly incongruous the whole thing was for women of my generation. On the table were a beautiful centerpiece, a birthday cake with a floral bouquet, a family heirloom sterling silver service -- and paper plates and cups. There were several generations symbolically tied together on that table.
We got to reminiscing about "teas" and suddenly I realized we all had the same mother! Our mothers were Victorians, raised on propriety and they raised their daughters the same way -- or tried to. Some of them were already scenting freedom and were destined to become active in the battle for women's rights, but "form" was still all important. All of us had grown up in the twenties being prodded and trained and threatened by our mothers as we learned to move socially, more or less graciously, with our hats and white kid gloves.
We went off to college to find that "tea" included all sorts of social activities. There were rush teas and faculty teas and tea dances where we spent a lot of time standing around drinking tea -- out of cups with saucers (mugs came later). Perhaps I should mention that this was during Prohibition, and tea was the drink of choice.
The sixties children shake their heads at all this and accuse me of making it up. Nobody is any happier than I am that Queen Victoria exists today only in the history books and that her influence on social mores is long gone, but in the twenties we were living through the last vestiges of Victorianism. We are living in a different world in the nineties, for which I am eternally grateful.
But although we grow past one set of customs, we don't forget them. Here we were that day with a beautiful silver tea service -- and paper plates. Same idea; different equipment. My mother would never have considered using anything but her best China. I would never consider using anything I would have to wash by hand.
A British critic named Stephen Bayley explains the difference somewhat more intellectually. "The assumption must be that those who can see value only in tradition, or versions of it, deny man's ability to adapt to changing circumstances."
At our elegant "tea party" last week we had wonderful non-alcoholic, tea-stimulated conversation. We covered art, the theater, travel, politics, philosophy. We talked about changing customs. We felt sad over the things our grandchildren missed out on, but we were so very glad we can relax now and let them create their own customs. We laughed at the fact that after all these years, when I heard the word "tea party" I automatically reached for a skirt instead of my usual slacks, while the men showed up in sports shirts.
We are living in a vastly different world from that which our mothers occupied. Personally I much prefer this one. Social relationships are more casual comfortable and generally more honest. We are more interested in the people than the form. But the basic ingredients of social intercourse have not changed. Consideration, courtesy, humor, honesty still work, no matter what the current rules of etiquette may be.
But we don't ever quite forget some things. Even now, some 70 years later, I catch myself glancing over my shoulder to see whether my mother is looking if I put on white dress shoes after Labor Day.