• Invitation Oxford

Afternoon Tea Etiquette

Updated: Jun 2, 2019

Courtesy of Cedar Oaks Guild


  • All guests must be seated and served first, before any commence eating.

  • To pour: the hostess uses one hand to gently brace the pot, filling cup no more than three-fourths full.

  • Accepted practice of which goes into which: pour milk into tea; place unsqueezed lemon slice into tea.

  • To drink the tea: (a) Place the saucer holding the cup in palm of left hand, four fingers slightly spread apart. (b) Steady the saucer with thumb resting on the rim. (c) Hold the cup with index finger inserted through the handle, pinched between thumb and middle finger, ring finger and pinky DOWN, following the cup curve.

  • NEVER cradle a handled cup in one’s palm and NEVER swirl the tea like a glass of wine.

  • To stir the tea, move the spoon gently and noiselessly in a clockwise arch across the center of the cup, never touching rim or sides.

  • Place the spoon on the saucer on the far side of the cup, handle pointed at 4 o’clock.

  • Before pouring a second cup, the hostess removes lemon from cup to a separate plate.

  • Always use the serving spoons, tongs or knives to transfer preserves, cream, sugar or lemon to individual plates or cups; never dip individual utensils into the communal offerings.

  • To signal Afternoon Tea’s end, the hostess picks up her napkin by the center and places it to the left of her plate, followed by all guests. Napkins ONLY go on table when done.



Every Oxonian has likely heard the story of our town’s name, allegedly chosen in order to entice a world-class university like its English namesake. Oxford delights in that connection with the double decker buses and red telephone booth on our storied Square. Spring is the perfect time to take that heritage one step further and embrace another true British custom: hosting an afternoon tea.


Although the tradition dates back to 17th century France, it was Anna Maria Russell, England’s seventh duchess of Bedford, who popularized the event around the 1830s. In those days, the wealthy class had dinner as late as 9 p.m., so the duchess would order a late afternoon snack of tea with cakes or sandwiches around 4 p.m.


Unlike high tea, which was traditionally a late meal for middle class workers that includes heartier fare, afternoon tea has always been associated with the finer things in life. These days, however, even we “common folk” can get a taste of the good life by hosting one at home.


The Cedar Oaks Guild held its annual Afternoon Spring Tea on March 30 at the historic Cedar Oaks house, but as guild member Marianna Ochs said, “Someone having a home tea could do much the same as [we] do for our teas.”


The food and tea itself are, of course, the highlights. Tricia Copelin, who was in charge of the food for the Cedar Oaks event, explained that for an afternoon tea, offerings should include savories, scones and sweets. The courses of food are eaten in order, as they are arranged on the tiered serving piece.



Small, crustless sandwiches are a standard savory dish for a tea and include varieties such as cucumber, salmon or egg salad. Additional savory snacks might include finger foods such as deviled eggs or mini-quiches.


The scones are a must at any tea. They’re essentially biscuits that can be plain or flavored with ingredients like dried fruit, pumpkin, chocolate chips or spices. They should be served with jams and preserves, and clotted cream, which can be made at home by baking heavy cream at about 170-180°F for 12 hours. The skin that develops on the cream should then be mixed back in to give it a consistency like whipped butter.


Finally, the sweets can include anything from small cakes or slices, shortbread, pastries or cookies. The treats should be delicate and bite-sized — tea is very much about visiting with others, so nothing that requires much attention to eat should be on the menu.


“Portion sizes for a tea are usually one to two bites of each item,” Copelin said.


As for the tea, Earl Grey is the customary standard, but a variety is usually offered, along with lemon wedges and cream. Some hosts even offer hot chocolate as a non-caffeinated alternative. The most important detail is that the drinks are served piping hot.


If this sounds a bit overwhelming, there are plenty of sources for guidance and inspiration.

“Pinterest is a great place to get ideas, as well as tea books and magazines,” Ochs said. “There is even a magazine called Tea Time that has lots of good ideas and recipes for themed teas. [Also,] Laura Childs writes the ‘Tea Shop Mystery’ [book series] based in Charleston and has delightful recipes at the end of each novel.”


In addition to food and tea, there are numerous details to set the stage, including the tablecloths, menus, folded napkins, handwritten name-cards for the guests and fresh flowers, not to mention the tea set — a tea is the perfect opportunity to get out your special and seldom-used table linens, dishes and serving pieces.


At the Cedar Oaks tea, each table had a white tablecloth and lace topper and was set with fine china and silverware, a three-tiered serving piece for the food courses, a china teapot, crystal bowls for the sugar, lemon slices, Devonshire cream and jam, and a cream pitcher for those guests who enjoy cream in their tea.


Along with all these necessities, there are many other ways to add personal touches. Ochs, a talented calligrapher, hand-letters place cards and menus.

“I use folded card stock with a little embellishment for place cards,” Ochs said. “But stickers or real leaves, artificial flowers, or even small photos of guests could be used. You could even use a gold pen on magnolia leaves.”


Of course, not everyone has a china tea set or 12 hours to make clotted cream, so the most important thing is to make it your own. Planning your tea with friends will help you enjoy the best part of the event: being with your guests.


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