It’s the holiday season. The calendar is filling up and the to-do list is growing, but many of us will try to slow down, if only briefly, so we can spend some time and create memories with those we love.
Planning a holiday gathering for family is more challenging than ever due to busier schedules and living further apart. In 2005, Marguerite Gilbert recognized how hard it was for everyone in her growing family to stay in contact. So, she came up with an idea and began a tradition of hosting a Christmas Tea for the women in her family, offering them an opportunity to share some laughs and conversation, while sipping tea in the comfort of her Fridley home.
Her daughter, Barbara Meyer, of Sartell, explained that her mother’s idea came to her after she enjoyed an afternoon tea with her Red Hat Society friends at a tea house in Minneapolis. Meyer described her mother as “full of hospitality.” She had a gift for welcoming guests into her home and making them feel comfortable. Marguerite had always liked to entertain, and at age 82, she planned the first Christmas Tea for December 2005.
She sent out formal invitations for a four-course afternoon tea and included a suggestion, “If you are not able to attend in person, perhaps you would like to pause at this time for tea with someone special to you.”
Marguerite asked her eldest daughter, Linda Hoppe, to help her plan the first tea. They spent several Saturdays searching area antique and gift shops for tea cups, and going to tea shops to choose which teas to serve. A tea shop in northern Minneapolis stocks over 200 loose leaf teas from around the world and they offer tea tastings so customers can sample a tea before buying. Marguerite chose Lemon Solstice tea in 2005, and every year after, until it was discontinued.
On the day of the tea, everyone got to choose their own tea cup and saucer. Linda helped her mother bake scones that morning and prepare small crustless tea sandwiches, cut into shapes, filled with egg salad, smoked salmon and cucumber. There were also mini-croissants, filled with chicken salad. Marguerite prepared a fruit compote and made homemade Devonshire cream to serve with the scones. Two different teas were served, one with the sandwich course and another with the final course of Christmas cookies.
When everyone was seated, Marguerite announced that she and Linda would be serving and that the others were guests. Meyer explained that her mother’s home in Fridley was small and it made sense for just a couple of people to do the serving instead of several of them jumping up to help, which was the norm. Additionally, Marguerite wanted everyone to learn how to be a guest. It’s a life lesson she valued, and her family members realized later what a gift it was, knowing how to be a good guest. Her great granddaughter, Emily Callan, a preschooler at the time, now 18, has learned to become more comfortable talking to people of all ages, as well as how to listen and to ask appropriate questions.
Meyer has clear memories of the first tea — walking up the sidewalk to her parent’s Fridley home, entering, and seeing the living room and kitchen transformed into a cozy tea house decorated for Christmas. The house smelled of freshly baked scones and everyone was dressed in their Christmas finery. Her mom wore her holiday apron. The tables were set with beautiful tablecloths, fine china, cubes of sugar and each place setting included a printed menu and a name card. The seating arrangements were set up so that members of different families and different generations were seated together.
“I don’t know if any one of us appreciated what a wonderful event this would become,” said Meyer. “No one even took pictures.”
They could not have known the tradition would continue for the next 15 years, or that families would make their plans around the date of the Christmas Tea.
Part of what makes it so special, Meyer noted, is that it is a priority for people. Family members from Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Colorado and Arizona have shown up for the Christmas Tea, all dressed up and carrying their tea cup and Christmas cookies to share. It surprises Meyer how enthusiastic the five teens and younger girls, ages 2 to 12, are.
“The younger girls get to see their cousins and other family they may see only once a year, and they know this is cool. Emily likes telling her friends about the Tea, putting it on her calendar and telling friends, ‘I can’t go out that day because I’m going to my family’s Christmas Tea.’”
Along with jackets and scarves, the electronics are set aside for a few hours to avoid the distraction of cell phones ringing, another “How to be a Good Guest” lesson.
Marguerite continued to host the event for seven years. The first Tea held after her death was held at the Gilbert home, and her husband of 70 years, David, joined his family for tea and sandwiches and the company of daughters, granddaughters, and great granddaughters. Since then, other family members have taken turns being host and assistant. The Tea has been held in Oak Park, Brooklyn Park, Blaine, Maple Grove, Sartell, and one time, in Aberdeen, South Dakota, on a July weekend. In 2018, 20 women attended, from ages 72 to 18 months.
“Mom would often have an ornament or Christmas trinket for each of us,” said Meyer, adding that some guests brought the hostess a tea-related gift. “We often have a time of reading poetry or short stories about the history and tradition of serving tea.”
They learned that most tea comes from Ceylon or India, and the differences between an “afternoon tea” and “high tea.”
“Afternoon tea is a British food tradition of sitting down for an afternoon treat of sandwiches, scones and cake, meant to stave off hunger until the late hour of most English suppers. High tea was traditionally later in the day, and was served at suppertime, as the evening meal. Foods served were beef dishes, like meat pies and baked beans. It was served at a high dining table. Over the years, the more elegant afternoon tea began to be called High Tea, to market it as a tourist attraction at luxury hotels.”
Some “family favorites” to expect at the annual Tea include Linda Hoppe’s spritz cookies and fudge, Barb Meyer’s thumbprints, Phyllis Gilbert’s sweet and savory Chex mix and Anne Callan’s assortment of Cold Spring Bakery cookies, including rosettes. (But, don’t leave out the men. It’s been said that Mike Mullowney makes the best molasses cookies.)
It’s been 15 years since the first Tea was held at the Gilbert home in Fridley. The 2019 Marguerite Gilbert Memorial Christmas Tea was recently held, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, in Ozark, Missouri. Those who could not attend because of distance or schedules, were invited to pause during that day and have a cup of tea with someone special.