What 40 Christmases Taught Me About Tea

As my cousins and brother have gotten older and moved into the “parents” generation (none of us have to sit at the kids’ table any more), our traditions are shifting. As a kid, it was all about the presents and the almost-peeing-my-jammies excitement of discovering I got the rocket set or the Stretch Monster or whatever was the Best Thing Ever that year.

Christmas 2010, however, was a far cry from that, and it taught me something about brewing tea. This last Christmas (celebrated with my partner on the typical weekend, and with my extended family over New Year’s weekend), things were different. Under our small tree at home, I had two gifts. One I had helped pick out. The other was the expected size and shape of something I’d specifically said would make a good gift if anyone was looking for ideas. I’d given a list of such ideas to my mother, and I’d had various conversations with her discussing how they related to her gift budget, how interested I was in each item, their prices, and how flexible gift certificates at Amazon.com were.

When Christmas (both of them) rolled around, I had virtually no surprise whatsoever. That was fine, though, because everyone stayed within their budget, I received gifts that suited me, and therefore I didn’t need to return anything. No fuss, satisfying, useful. Which, compared to the hugely stressful times I know happen in other families, is a huge win. I spent time with my partner and with my family having good chats, eating good food, and generally being festive. So what does that have to do with tea?

Well, it turns out that I kind of missed worrying about whether I’d wet my jammies. Not exactly that, of course, but what was missing was the sense of anticipation leading up to the big event. It was noticing the lack of tension from impending excitement that got me thinking about tea. Some people complain that brewing tea, especially loose tea, takes too long…and Baby-Jesus forbid that one would brew gongfu style tea, with all its steps of heating the implements and waking up the tea and smelling the gaiwan lid and examining the leaves.

But the borderline commonplace Christmas-present experience (not a complaint, just in comparison to a kid’s experience of it) showed me that the time it takes to brew tea makes tea better. Quickly made tea, instant tea, teabag tea, all have no sense of anticipation. Brewing loose tea, especially gongfu style, actually heightens anticipation. While I don’t have any evidence to support this, I bet that if you did an experiment where you prepared tea with some kind of ritual element to it, like gongfu or chanoyu, and did the same tea that was simply served in its finished state, the one that took the time to make would be perceived as being better by the taster, even if the same procedure was used to make both types.

If you’re in the habit of making tea as expediently as you can, when you have a little extra time try teasing yourself. Use a longer preparation of tea to enhance your experience by building anticipation of the big event. It might not turn a pair-of-socks experience into a model-rocket experience, but I bet you enjoy the tea more.

What do you think?