Between the Leaves May 2008

I've been drafted as a maid of honor and my bride's going crazy over every last detail. The latest meltdown was the favors. She's got it in her head that tea would make for a great favor, only she cannot decide between loose or bagged, flavored or straight... What do you think would be best, and when did tea become such a popular favor anyway?

There are three things a person can do in this life to ensure immediate dismemberment: petting a bear cub in the presence of his mother, taking a dip in freshly chummed waters, and making a decision for a bride. I happen to have a fondness for all my limbs, so I'm afraid I'll have to refrain from answering the first part of your question. However, before we delve into tea's recent career as a popular American wedding favor, we have to understand the origin of the practice and its significant changes over the centuries.

Til' Tea Do Us Part
Til' Tea Do Us Part

Way, way back many centuries ago-about 500 years before the Bible began, actually-well-to-do Roman bridegrooms began giving hazelnuts and walnuts to their bachelor friends. It was then thought that objects touched by the newest members of the connubially joined were imbued with lucky powers. By handing his friends these edible treats, then, the bridegroom ensured that the luck he had found would become a part of his loved ones and remain with them throughout their lives. Of course, one can only stomach so many nuts, so it also became a custom to pelt the bride and groom with the remainders, which may have led to the modern practice of tossing rice or birdseed at the new couple.

It is the more altruistic side of the gift of nuts, however, that remains the underlying purpose of today's favors. However, the modern favor has also been shaped by two decidedly opposing trends. The first was the overwhelming opulence brought to the practice by eighth-century Italian nobility, who began handing out gem-encrusted boxes of sugar (then an expensive commodity) to their guests. These rich gifts were contrived solely to display the power and affluence of the families behind the new couple. Of course, it was difficult to keep up with the medieval Italian Joneses, and over the course of many, many years these extravagant gifts became gilt boxes or silken bags of candy and almonds-the bomboniere-enabling many of the less-elite to adopt the custom. By the time a substantial middle class gained ground in the late nineteenth century, nearly every couple bestowed at least a small favor to their guests. However, by this time the favors were often items with a practical application, such as a handkerchief, or a cheaper treat such as-you guessed it-nuts.

So today we have three forces shaping the American wedding industry's favorite favors-permanence, luxury, and practicality-and tea is uniquely situated within American culture to fulfill all three. Like any food item, tea has a high likelihood of actually being used by the recipient, and when it is consumed, it acquires that symbolic permanence. More importantly, however, Americans largely perceive tea as a luxury item. After all, it's the star player of a meal comprised entirely of fussily prepared tidbits served on the very best of china, and loose tea in particular screams of decadence to the country that invented the teabag, as does tea flavored with exotic blends of fruits and spices. As both loose and flavored teas have skyrocketed in popularity over the past decade, it is no real surprise that they have become the stuff of special gifts.

But in addition to these three traits common to wedding favors, tea has one all of its own: it's mutability. I've been to a wedding where I was given a simple Lipton teabag (or twelve) adorned with an inkjet-printed sticker, and I've been to a wedding where I was amazed to see a personalized tin of white tea scented with rose petals resting next to my crystal goblet. Tea can be used as a favor no matter the budget of the wedding or the level of frippery desired, and it is a favor that will be appreciated by many of the guests no matter what type, package, or flavor is chosen. Just stay away from the nut-flavored teas. After 2500 years, it's safe to say that nuts have had their day.

Please check out Adagio's Wedding Favors.

From the archives: Steeped in Love: Wedding Tea, by Chris Cason