It has, of course, become a cliché of the cynical surveillance of the retail activities associated with the ending of calendar year to complain about the modern-day ‘commercialisation’ of Christmas. The endless anxiety occasioned by our collective participation in the meaningless circulation of material goods — especially those whose consumption is typically fleeting and unmemorable — becomes almost as exhausting as the annual round-up of the festive goods itself.
Tea is no exception to this merry-go-round. Nor should we expect it to be. One critical lesson that we have learned from writing the history of the eighteenth-century uptake of tea — set to hit bookshop shelves in the late spring — is that whilst tea might be ubiquitous in British culture, a quotidien experience, consumed in all households ‘from the palace to the cottage’, it nevertheless retains its status as a ‘luxury’. Tea offers little of any alimentary worth. Its purported medicinal properties remain unproven. Yet throughout the country tea preparation remains a daily ritual at breakfast tables, among office workers, at high-street cafes. Fleeting stolen moments of necessary luxury, many would claim, among the more taxing, more stressful moments of the day. And while we might forget to notice the daily infusion of our regular tea blends as the remarkable products of a global trade spanning three centuries, the Christmas Teas produced by the leading tea retailers seek to remind us both of the exotic nature of tea, and its inherent luxury.
Twinings, the seller of fine teas whose flag-ship store on London’s Strand claims an unbroken historical connection to the eighteenth-century, offers three blends as part of its ‘Christmas Caddy gift set’. Alarmingly, one of these describes itself as ‘caffeine free’, and contains no tea at all. The remaining two offer, on the one hand, an Assam tea blended with ‘Christmas Spices’, and on the other, the tastes and flavours of ‘Christmas cake in the afternoon’. Those lucky enough to find some of this stuffed in the toe of a Christmas-morning stocking are invited to consider ‘taking a flask to work with you as your guilty afternoon secret’.
Piccadilly grocer Fortnum & Mason, on the other hand, also offers a ‘Christmas Tea Caddy’, in their case a single blend offering a high-grade Chinese tea from Yunnan province. The connection to other Christmas treats is – like the offerings from Twinings – made clear. The tea is enlivened with ‘wintry spices’ including cloves, star anise, ‘and mulled wine flavours’. The infusion thus produced will – we are assured – be ‘perfect with mince pies and Christmas cake’.
Smaller tea retailers also join in on the act. Brighton-based ‘mixologists’ ‘Bluebird Tea Co’ offer a ‘Christmas Tea Giftbox’ containing sample pouches of ‘Gingerbread Chai tea’, ‘Christmas Cake tea’, ‘Mulled Wine tea’, ‘Mulled Candy Cane tea’, and ‘Snowball tea’. ‘Imperial Teas’ of Lincoln, meanwhile, offer a ‘Christmas Tea Blend’ which conveys a ‘visual feast of flowers and festive berries’. Indeed, the fragrance of this infusion ‘captures the run up to Christmas’. Internet retailer notonthehighstreet.com, in the meantime, offers perhaps the most beguiling of all Christmas tea offerings: a Tea Advent Calendar (sadly no longer available at the time of writing). This is ‘the perfect advent calendar for grown-ups who love tea’, containing ’25 gorgeous teabags packaged individually in paper envelopes’. The assortment includes such non-tea teas as Peppermint, Lemon & Ginger, Berry Infusion… The packaging of the tea bags features ‘encouraging quotes for the Chirstmas season, from Christmas carols to nativity scriptures’.
Tea’s propensity to be infused with the spices and flavourings associated with varying culinary preparations of the Christmas season reminds us of its versatility. That these almost limitless seasonal offerings presumably find customers demonstrates further, should any proof be necessary, its wide appeal, even if the flavour-notes described appear to emphasise the taste of everything else apart from the tea-leaves themselves. But should one of these Christmas Teas have emerged from underneath the Christmas Tree of 2014, a certain disposition is recommended. Infuse your healthy cynicism about Christmas commercialisation. Add a teaspoon of guilty pleasure, and a splash of secret anticipation. Enjoy your brew, whist acknowledging the distant echoes that all these festive teas contain (albeit in a distorted fashion) of a tea as a rare luxury, delivered (perhaps literally, by an internet retailer near you) through the contested mechanics of global trade.