Diana Henry’s simple but spectacular Christmassy afternoon tea

Christmas afternoon tea
A Christmas tea at home can be as lavish or as restrained as you like - Haarala Hamilton

People tend to drop in more at Christmas – there’s that surge where you see friends and neighbours before you’re confined to family gatherings – and you need to have some food to offer callers. Mince pies, shortbread, traditional Christmas cake or Christmas chocolate cake (I do a couple of versions) is what you’re likely to get in my house. There’s smoked salmon or gravlax in the fridge in case something more substantial is required.

I’ve never done a Christmas afternoon tea, and I don’t know why not. It takes less effort than having people in for supper as it’s all prepared in advance. Grand hotels do them, of course. I took my dad to Christmas tea at The Ritz 25 years ago. It was a huge extravagance – I dread to think what it costs now – but he loved it, possibly because it was an ‘as much as you can eat’ kind of affair, though not signposted as such.

As soon as your cake stand looked slightly empty, they whisked it away and replenished it. It was chintzy – live carol singers and swags of greenery and huge golden baubles that defied gravity – but the finger sandwiches were perfection. I stole the menu so I could always remember that afternoon. I still have it in a box upstairs.

The Christmas tea I went to in New Orleans several years before was entirely different, an afternoon wrapped in a huge red bow and sprinkled with stars. There was a gospel choir, a choice of spiced Christmas teas, slabs of rich fruitcake, the sugar-dusted beignets for which the city is famous, neat sandwiches filled with chicken salad or pimiento spread. It’s family-oriented. You could go to a Papa Noël tea or a Teddy Bear tea every day around Christmas. I left on a soaring high.

Iced Christmas shortbread trees: will fill you with childlike joy
Iced Christmas shortbread trees: will fill you with childlike joy - Haarala Hamilton

I wanted to go to a southern Christmas tea because of Truman Capote’s short story A Christmas Memory. Aged seven, Buddy was growing up in rural Alabama and as soon as Thanksgiving was over, his cousin would announce, ‘It’s fruitcake weather.’ This was the most important Christmas preparation. They would raid the fruitcake fund, a year’s collection of nickels and dimes, and go off to buy the candied fruit, the spices, walnuts and – most importantly – the bootleg whisky from Mr Haha Jones. ‘Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar,’ writes Capote, ‘vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it.’

A Christmas tea, especially if you offer mulled wine, brings Christmas smells into the house way before the big day, though the popularity of Christmas teas here grew because they were alcohol-free. As Christmas was one of the few holidays when working-class men didn’t go to work, they would spend their hard-earned cash at the pub rather than with the family. The temperance movement, led by middle-class social reformers, gathered momentum in the 1830s. It tried to focus on Christmas as a time for family and a lot of tea drinking. Tea parties would be held on Christmas Eve with sermons on sobriety, communal singing and abundant food. Hundreds of people came to these, in some instances thousands, but I reckon it was the food that was the draw, not the absence of alcohol.

A Christmas tea at home can be as lavish or as restrained as you like, and you don’t have to make everything yourself. I’d add mince pies to the spread here, fingers of Christmas cake (nobody wants a huge piece), sausage rolls and more sandwiches (filled with good smoked salmon, smoked-salmon pâté or, a favourite of mine, mashed devilled eggs). Even though chocolate isn’t a traditional Christmas ingredient, brownies are always pounced on. Prettiness is important too. The iced Christmas shortbread trees below are simple to make and will fill you with childlike joy.