Celebrate Tax Day with a Tea Party

April 15, 2011

tea party

Although you still have until Monday, the 18th, to pay taxes this year, the 15th of April still sends a shiver of PTSD through the minds of many Americans, for whom doling out more money to pay the public or simply sitting down to add and subtract all those dollars coming in and going out, is simply too unbearable.  But our founding fathers and mothers faced far more troubling times with their taxes than we do today.  

For one, Turbo Tax had yet to be invented, and most people had to actually calculate their income.  For another, neither Natives nor Colonists were happy with paying taxes to a government they did not believe represented them.  Taxation by the British government, in the form of high taxes on tea – the stimulating beverage that so many colonialists made a part of their daily fare – was a source of great fury by the emigrants who had come to the New World to break free of the King.  It was enough to drive them not to drink – tea that is.  And we all know what came of that – the infamous Boston Tea Party.

The Boston Tea Party, which took place on December 16, 1773, was not about high taxes, as some contend, but was a protest about being taxed without representation.  Previously, the East India Company, a British monopoly, controlled the sale and distribution of teas.  But the British Empire limited the East India Company to selling only to London merchants, a restriction that kept the costs of tea exorbitantly high, and out of the reach of most colonialists.  Thus, colonialists began drinking herbal teas introduced by the Natives, while a black market emerged for lower quality contraband tea smuggled from Europe, thereby threatening the profits of the East India Company. 

The British responded by instituting the Tea Act in May of 1773, in an effort to expand the global monopoly of the East India Company.  The Tea Act allowed the East India Company to expand its markets to the Americas, suppressing the black market by providing less expensive and better quality tea for the colonialists.  The Tea Act, however, also included a tax on tea, which served to funnel money from the colonies to the British Empire.  But as we well know, you don’t mess with people’s caffeine supplies or their money.  The British found that the citizens of the New World would rather dump that tea into the deep blue sea than allow their tea addiction to fund the Empire they’d left behind., which is exactly what they did by the end of the year. 

But what was it about tea itself that inspired such emotion?  Perhaps it could be argued that they weren’t about to toss their ale into the sea, so tea leaves were the next best thing.  But the truth was, tea had become an indispensible part of the European diet and lifestyle – indeed, social identities and relations were centered around tea drinking, and tea was considered an indispensible elixir for restoring and maintaining good health. 

Tea drinking dates to around 2700 BC in China, when a traveling emperor, Shen Nong, is said to have stopped at the home of a peasant who brewed some hot water to serve the thirsty ruler.  When some leaves from a nearby tree blew into the boiling water, the emperor declared the brew delicious.  Soon, as these things do once the ruling class takes to them, everyone was adding leaves to their boiling water and tea drinking spread through Asia faster than an ad campaign for cigarettes and Coca Cola (things do go better with Coke!). 

Tea drinking reached Europe via India, when explorers brought the drink back to the Empire and King Charles II and Queen Catherine de Braganza began serving it to their guests.  Although royalty had been drinking tea in Europe since the 16th century, at $100 per pound – pricey enough in the 21st century, let alone the 16th! – tea was out of reach for all but the most wealthy.  By the 17th century, however, the price began to plummet, and tea soon replaced ale in many taverns as the popular drink of choice.  As tea drinking spread to France and Holland, the tea party tradition took hold.

The tradition of high tea, however, was not a tradition passed down from the aristocracy, however, but the middle and lower classes, including the peasantry.  The aristocracy enjoyed “low tea,” tea served at low tables (what would now be termed “coffee tables”) while enjoying live music, aromatic gardens, and outdoor lawn games.  Snacks such as small sandwiches or sweets were served with this “low tea.”

“High tea” became a way for people of lesser means – the vast majority of people – to enjoy the indulgences of the wealthy, while suppressing their appetite for food with the hot satiating beverage.  Hence, for middle and lower classes, tea was served in late afternoon with meats and breads and constituted a dinner – enabling the hostess to put on an elegant but modest meal and stretch her few provisions much further. 

So why not celebrate this tax day with a hot pot of tea at the end of the day, along with your favorite appetizers and desserts – saving the main meal for later in the evening when you’re thoroughly stimulated, steeped in good company, and the taxes are all behind you!