Tea and Snowstorms

Photo credit: Amelia Wells, CC BY 2.0.

When my best friend Hope turned fifteen, her mom took the two of us and another friend to the Ritz in Boston for high tea. I still remember the blue sweater and black corduroy skirt I wore, and my pure confusion at how to order. Afterwards, we walked along Newbury Street and window shopped at the fanciest stores I’d ever seen. We felt incredibly grown up.

Years later, when I was trying to come up with a luxurious Christmas gift for my mom, I thought back on that high tea birthday. I was a senior in college and wanted to get Mom something more interesting than my usual lotion-or-candles present. I’d also started dating someone who introduced me to the “experiences are better than things” idea, and was ready to capitalize on that for my family’s gifts. Tea! Tiny sandwiches! It practically wrapped itself.

After some Googling, I found a restaurant in Harvard Square that served afternoon tea and took reservations. The actual high tea pricing is lost to my college email inbox, but it was around $25 per person. I emailed my older sister to ask if she wanted to go in on it with me and then told my mom not to make plans for December 26. Grown up, luxurious Christmas present achieved!

My gift went as planned, but it wasn’t what I expected. A major snowstorm blew into the Boston area on December 26. We debated canceling the reservation entirely, but decided to go through with it—so my dad carefully drove the three of us into Harvard Square. Once we sat down, my sister decided not to order any food while my mom and I ordered the cheapest tea cake options on the menu. The bright pink animal-print decor felt less sophisticated than loud. We were all on edge because of the snow. Nothing was quite what I had imagined it would be.

My mom let me pay at the restaurant, but when we got home she handed me some cash. She thought the tea place was too expensive. I tried to insist that I’d budgeted for it with my student job income, but eventually accepted the money. I felt frustrated at my failure to give a sophisticated gift either through good planning or purchasing power.

Now with a few years of distance, I can see my mistakes more clearly. Giving my mother high tea was more about me and my definition of luxury. My mom enjoys a warm cup of tea and tiny cakes, but probably at somewhere more relaxed than a bright pink room with zebra-print chairs in the middle of a blizzard. In my rush to find somewhere within my price range that took reservations during my short winter break, I ignored what I knew about my mom’s preferences. The tea’s price tag was also obvious and distracted from the gesture of the gift.

Additionally, I was much more invested in the experience than I should have been. I had a specific way I wanted my mom and sister to feel while enjoying my present: somewhere between relaxing on a patio and being surrounded by corgis at Buckingham Palace. At the time I didn’t recognize that I couldn’t control other people’s reactions. It was the same impulse that led me to give extremely detailed liner notes with any mix CD I made.

I’ve gotten better about gift giving since that snowy tea-stained Christmas. As a kid, I was taught that when you’re choosing a gift for someone else, first ask yourself what you might want. (This explains why I brought Littlest Pet Shop sets to every birthday party until I was nine.) I’ve adapted this strategy to focus on what the recipient might want instead, and let go of whether my gifts get used or enjoyed in a specific way. If I’m giving my sister a book I love, I hope she’ll like it—but I’m no longer disappointed if I don’t get back a glowing review within a few weeks.

Recently, my siblings and I have managed to give experience-style gifts more effectively. For my mom’s birthday, we gave my parents a membership with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Strolling through flowering gardens that she didn’t have to weed—what could be more luxurious than that?

Laura Chanoux lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She prefers coffee to tea.

This piece is part of The Billfold’s Holidays and Money series.

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