Food & Drink Diana Henry’s simple but spectacular Christmassy afternoon tea

Diana Henry’s simple but spectacular Christmassy afternoon tea

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I wanted to go to a southern Christmas tea because of Truman Capote’s short story A Christmas Memory. Aged seven, Buddy was growing up in rural Alabama and as soon as Thanksgiving was over, his cousin would announce, ‘It’s fruitcake weather.’ This was the most important Christmas preparation. They would raid the fruitcake fund, a year’s collection of nickels and dimes, and go off to buy the candied fruit, the spices, walnuts and – most importantly – the bootleg whisky from Mr Haha Jones. ‘Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar,’ writes Capote, ‘vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it.’

A Christmas tea, especially if you offer mulled wine, brings Christmas smells into the house way before the big day, though the popularity of Christmas teas here grew because they were alcohol-free. As Christmas was one of the few holidays when working-class men didn’t go to work, they would spend their hard-earned cash at the pub rather than with the family. The temperance movement, led by middle-class social reformers, gathered momentum in the 1830s. It tried to focus on Christmas as a time for family and a lot of tea drinking. Tea parties would be held on Christmas Eve with sermons on sobriety, communal singing and abundant food. Hundreds of people came to these, in some instances thousands, but I reckon it was the food that was the draw, not the absence of alcohol.

A Christmas tea at home can be as lavish or as restrained as you like, and you don’t have to make everything yourself. I’d add mince pies to the spread here, fingers of Christmas cake (nobody wants a huge piece), sausage rolls and more sandwiches (filled with good smoked salmon, smoked-salmon pâté or, a favourite of mine, mashed devilled eggs). Even though chocolate isn’t a traditional Christmas ingredient, brownies are always pounced on. Prettiness is important too. The iced Christmas shortbread trees below are simple to make and will fill you with childlike joy.

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