Not Your Mama's Tea Ceremony

To kick off our Chewish wedding, we're having a Chinese tea ceremony in the afternoon of our wedding day, before the (mostly Jewish) wedding ceremony.  We've invited a number of Mr. HC's family members to participate, and many of our guests have expressed an interest in coming to watch the ceremony.  To make everyone feel more comfortable and knowledgeable about our traditions, I put together a program.  I thought the text of it might be helpful to some of you (in which case, as always, please feel free to borrow), so I'm posting it below.

But first a disclaimer: Hot Mama Cocoa likes to do things her way, even if that's not the way things are customarily done in other Chinese households.  Since this program was put together in consultation with her, I make no guarantees as to the representativeness of our tea ceremony!

Here goes:

Mr. and Miss Hot Cocoa's Chinese Tea Ceremony

The tea ceremony is the most important part of a Chinese wedding. Unlike Western weddings, in which the ceremony is primarily about the bride and groom, the tea ceremony shifts the focus from the couple to their elders; it serves as an opportunity for the couple to honor and show their appreciation for their parents, grandparents, and close relatives, as well as an occasion for the elders to welcome formally their new relative-in-law into the family.

The tea ceremony takes place at an auspicious hour -- in Mr. and Miss HC's case, 2:30 pm. At the ceremony, the couple will serve tea first to their grandparents, then to their parents, and then to their other relatives in order of seniority.* At Mr. and Miss HC's ceremony, the bride’s family will be served first, followed by the groom’s family.** This reflects the order of events in ancient times, when there used to be two separate tea ceremonies: the first at the bride’s parents’ home, when the groom comes to “claim” his bride, and the second at the groom‘s parents home, when the groom returns home with his intended.

Not only is there a particular order for the tea service, there is also a particular choreography. Each elder being honored will sit in a chair, with his or her spouse, if married, or by him or herself, if single. The couple will then serve the tea, from a kneeling position to their grandparents and parents, and from a standing position to everyone else. Younger siblings or relatives are not served.

When serving the tea, the couple presents the teacup and saucer with both hands as a sign of respect; also, they address their elders by their formal name (i.e., “Aunt Marshmallow”) as they bow to serve the tea. After the elders take a sip of the tea (they need not actually finish the cup -- just a ceremonial sip will do), they will present the couple with gifts of “lai see,” red envelopes containing cash. Red symbolizes good luck and is the color associated with weddings. Each elder served will present two envelopes: one to the groom and one to the bride. For example, Hot Mama Cocoa will present an envelope to Mr. HC and an envelope to Miss HC -- two total. And Mr. HC's parents will present two envelopes to Mr. HC and two envelopes to Miss HC -- four total. The couple will then place the unopened lai see on the saucer, which a family member will collect for safekeeping. It is considered gauche to open the lai see at the ceremony.

There are other unique aspects of the ceremony. Lai see envelopes should contain cash in only even denominations, as odd numbers are associated with funerals. The number 8 is considered especially auspicious, while the number 4 is to be avoided, because the Chinese word for “four” is a homophone for “death.” Also, the tea served is a special tea that contains lotus seeds and red dates. This is because the Chinese word for “lotus” is a homophone for the word “year,” the word for “seed” is a homophone for “child,” and the word “date” is a homophone for “early.” In other words, the tea symbolizes a wish for the newlyweds to have children early and often! Finally, instead of lai see, relatives often will give gifts of gold jewelry to the bride, which she is expected to wear immediately. In ancient times, this display served as a way for the bride’s family to demonstrate their wealth, the grandeur of their daughter’s dowry, and the worthiness of the match.
* Most of the non-Hot Mama Cocoa sources I've consulted say that parents are served first, followed by the grandparents, and then by the rest of the elders by seniority.  But in our household, Grandpa HC is DA MAN.  So he gets served first.

** Again, most of the non-Hot Mama Cocoa sources I've looked at say the groom's family should be served first, but my mom doesn't trust "research," and Mr. HC's family doesn't at all care about being first, so Hot Mama Cocoa wins.

How will you introduce your in-laws to your family's cultures and traditions?

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