November 2000 Issue
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Tea and Superstition

by Jane Pettigrew


The most ordinary objects and foods are often associated with all sorts of everyday superstitions, and tea is no exception. All sorts of events and behaviour to do with tea drinking are thought to bring bad or good luck.

In some parts of England, it is thought that tea leaves scattered in front of the house will ward off evil spirits and protect the family that lives there. Similarly, some people believe that if loose leaf tea is accidentally dropped in the house it will bring good luck.

When brewing a pot of tea, all sorts of things can happen. If the lid of the pot is inadvertently left off, then a stranger will call at the house. If you forget to put the tea into the pot before pouring on the boiling water, it is a very bad omen indeed. If you make the tea too weak, you will lose the friendship of someone close to you. If you brew it too strong, you will make a new friend. And it is very unlucky to stir the tea in the pot - if you do you will certainly quarrel with someone.

Pouring the tea is also fraught with dangers. If two women pour from the same pot, then one of them will have a baby within the year. Or a member of her family will. And worse still, it might be ginger-haired twins! Or both women will encounter bad fortune! So no-one should pour from the teapot in another person's house.

Once the tea is in the cup, stalks and bubbles make their own predictions. If a single stalk floats on top of a cup of tea, it means that a stranger is coming - a hard, woody stalk indicates a male visitor and a soft stalk, a female. The length of the stalk tells you whether he or she will be tall or short. To find out when they will come, lay the stalk on the back of the left hand and hit it with the right. However many hits it takes to knock it off tells the number of days before they will stand at your door. In some areas of England, the stalk means the imminent arrival of a lover, and the number of hits foretells the number of months or years before the marriage!

In some parts of Britain, they believe that if bubbles floating on the top of a cup of tea can be lifted with a spoon and transferred to the mouth without the bubbles touching the sides of the cup or the spoon, there will be a letter in the morning. In other regions, floating bubbles indicate that you will be rich and the more bubbles the better. If bubbles stick to the side of the cup, then romance is in the air and each bubble represents a kiss.

Two spoons accidentally placed on the same saucer mean that a wedding will happen soon. Or the person whose saucer it is will marry twice. Or she will have twins. And if you drop a teaspoon on the floor, it means that a child will visit the house.

If food is being served at tea-time, the person to take the last piece of cake from the plate will be the first to get married.

When it comes to emptying the pot, there are more dangers ahead. Fishermen on the east coast of England never empty the pot after they have started fishing in the north sea. If they do, they fear that they will in effect 'tip away' all the fish and that they will have to go home with empty nets. Their families never empty the teapot on the day the fishing boats set sail for fear of causing the boats to sink and the men to drown.

And then there are all the events that reading the tea leaves are said to predict. To tell fortunes from tea cups, the tea must be brewed with loose leaf tea and poured into the cup without using a tea strainer. The person whose future is to be divined must turn his or her cup three times in an anticlockwise direction. To do this the cup should be held in the left hand and turned by the handle. Then it is tipped upside down to drain off the last few drops of tea. It's a bad sign if there are a lot of leaves left in the bottom of the cup. But it's a good sign if the leaves are scattered evenly over the bottom and sides. The fortune teller then analyses the pictures and images that are visible in the leaves in order to foretell the tea drinker's fate.

If the leaves are deposited in the bottom foretell the distant future. The sides of the cup represent the not-too-distant future, and leaves that lie near the rim predict imminent events.

A fireplace means that you will find great happiness with friends and family at home. The figure of a dog carrying a parcel predicts the arrival of a package the next day. A straight line of leaves mean that you are going on a journey and an archway implies that you will travel to a foreign land. A butterfly means you will enjoy great success and a palm tree indicates luck and achievement of your aim. A horse-shoe foretells a successful journey and a successful marriage, while a ring means that you will marry soon. Snakes are bad luck, but swans bring good fortune. Triangles mean you will inherit money and a cross implies trouble ahead.

In the past there were those who took tea leaf reading very seriously and started each day by swilling the dregs from breakfast cups of tea to decide whether the day was going to be good or bad. But today it's just a bit of fun and fortune tellers interpret the patterns in the leaves with imagination and inventiveness for the sake of a little amusement. And what better way to create the means of telling your future than by drinking a cup of tea!