Every year since she was five, Mary Beth and her friend Bailey have had a tea party in the autumn to celebrate Mary Beth's birthday. Sometimes, they've been larger affairs, with several friends. Sometimes they've been "tea for two." And twice, they included infant sisters. A few of years ago, the tradition changed ever so slightly to include Bailey's little sister, Hope, and Mary Beth's sister, Katie, and to include celebrating Katie's birthday, too. Four little girls, dressed for tea, giggling in the dining room–an autumn ritual I wouldn't miss for the world.
Mary Beth worried this year, a bit. For the first time, Bailey has gone to school. The ease of scheduling a day for tea and play is forever gone. This was her friend who played Little House with her for hours (in costumes made for both girls by Bailey's mom), her friend who loved to "craft" out of whatever they could scrounge up, her kindred spirit. Both girls worried about how school would change their friendship.
Happily, Bailey had a scheduled day off from school during the week of Mary Beth's birthday. The tradition lives! Mary Beth had the distinct privilege and pleasure of reading an advance copy of Tea and Cake with the Saints by Alice Cantrell when her party was still in planning mode. The menu was taken from the Autumn Tea suggestions (only Mary Beth substituted sprinkled butter cookies for ginger snaps because she's not so fond of ginger).
There were smoked ham sandwiches on tiny croissants, a savory parmesan bread that made the whole house smell warm and inviting while it baked, and spiced apple cider. The girls decorated the table with gourds and flowers and tiny pumpkin candles. They had a wonderful giggly time and I think we were all relieved to know that a change in schooling would not mean a change in friendship.
What's that I hear you saying? You want to know more about Tea and Cake with the Saints? Well, by all means, go brew yourself a cup of autumn comfort and come right back. I'll tell you all about it!
Tea and Cake with the Saints: A Catholic Young Lady's Introduction to Hospitality and the Home Arts is so much more than just another tea party book. It's a gentle primer on Catholic Homemaking. In this beautifully illustrated book, Alice Cantrell, author of Sewing with St. Anne, gently inspires young ladies to be charitable and hospitable at home with their own families, in groups with friends of all ages, and even out of doors!
The book begins with a note to parents. After that, it is written directly to the young ladies. Any good tea party book should include a brief history of tea time and directions for brewing a fine cup of tea. This one does that and Mrs. Cantrell is such a gifted artist that even the tea bag is darling! Some time is spent going over the basics of kitchen safety and hygiene, complete with gentle reminders to clean up well. Clearly, Mrs. Cantrell has some experience with the tendency girls this age have to overlook cleaning details.
Girls are encouraged to begin to keep a homemaking notebook. Here they will gather wisdom and inspiration for homes of their own and will begin to thoughtfully organize all those components to homemaking. Clear, inspiring directions are given for making and adding to a personal household record book. Mary Beth is looking forward to watching her household record book grow right alongside mine. This pleases me to no end since she is the reason I began to keep my own notebook.
Tea and Cake with the Saints is organized according to the seasons of the year, beginning with winter.For every season, there is a full tea time menu and recipes. Throughout the book quotes from classic children's literature are sprinkled amidst helpful kitchen tips and instruction and many, many ideas for bring grace and beauty to life through homemaking. In the Winter section, in addition to a tea featuring hot chocolate and cheddar muffins, girls will be inspired to make some simple but meaningful gifts and to consider hosting a recipe swap or cookie exchange party.
Mrs. Cantrell reminds the girls that manners are simple: a sensitivity to the feelings of others. In a few short pages, she gently encourage Christian charity at home and over time and distance. Examples of simple thank you notes and written invitations give girls a springboard for many future correspondences.
The Spring section sings with the joy of new life! Girls learn to set a pretty spring table, to make and deliver May baskets and to plan and plant a Mary garden, the perfect setting for a tea in honor of the Mother of God. All the gardening notes, of course, are to go in the gardening section of the notebook. Enthusiastic young gardeners will want to share. Ideas for a seed exchange (complete with a simple gardening apron idea) provide plenty of fodder for yet another party.
In the Summer section there are lots of ideas for summer parties and many variations on iced tea. This book is infused with southern charm and nowhere is it more apparent than on the pages where Mrs. Cantrell writes and paints about picnics. Even the ants are too cute for words. I was glad to be reminded that picnics are lovely in the autumn, too, since I doubt I could wait until next summer to put some of these ideas in motion. The Summer section also offers ideas for letter writing, an nearly lost art in this electronic age. Lazy summer days, with a thermos of lemonade, are perfect for writing long letters in the shade of a tree.
The Autumn section was the inspiration for Mary Beth's birthday tea. I'm happy to report that this new eleven-year-old was able to plan and prepare and decorate for the party all on her own, using Mrs. Cantrell's clear instructions (though I admit I was closeby, if for no other reason than I didn't want to miss out on the fun).
The book closes with a section on "beautifying your bedroom. Isn't that much nicer than saying "Clean up your room!?" Mrs. Cantrell perches on a young girl's bed and, with all her southern graciousness, inspires our daughters to clean their rooms. She doesn't shout. She doesn't threaten. She doesn't storm into the room with a big, green trash bag and start stuffing everything in sight (not that I know anyone who does that;-). She just gently inspires them to clean and organize and then to keep it that way. Personally, I was tickled pink by the results in my house. The book is worth the purchase price if only for those few pages.
Don't tell the girls on my Christmas list, but I plan to tuck a copy of this book, with supplies for making homemaking notebooks, and an apron into a basket for Christmas gifts. It could also be included with a recipe box, full of family favorites or with provisions for any one of the craft ideas. It could be tucked into a picnic basket for a very special, happy gift . However you package it, do put the books into the hands of a girl you love. Let Mrs. Cantrell come into their lives and gently inspire them to be gracious and Godly keepers at home.
I think this book is an important one. That seems like a very serious thing to say about a "tea party" book. But this book is about much more than tea. It's about home. At its core, it's about Christian love. It is a book that brings to life the importance hospitality and genuine charity. In a society of increasing unconnectedness and unbridled competition, it is necessary and urgent that we slow down and deliberately teach our daughters to offer the comfort and love of home. We take the time and care to do this not because we are eager to outdo Martha Stewart or to put on an impressive show, but because we love our families and friends. And we even love the stranger. This is a book about beautiful service, the service of young women to their families and then to the people at their gates. This book starts the conversation of true charity with our daughters. How can we begin to think of them as women of love and genuine charity? How can they begin to think of themselves that way? They can begin by doing small things with great love. And this book is a treasure trove of those small things. If every one of our daughters read it and implemented the ideas found in it, we'd be well our way to ensuring comfort and joy in the homes of the next generation.
Elizabeth Foss is a wife and the mother of eight children. She is a freelance writer from northern Virginia. To visit her blog click here.