Tea can refer to any of several different meals or mealtimes, depending on a country's customs and its history of drinking tea. However, in those countries where the term's use is common, the influences are generally those of the former British Empire (now the Commonwealth of Nations). Tea as a meal can be small or large.
United Kingdom and Ireland 
Elevenses is a snack that is similar to afternoon tea, but eaten in the morning. It is generally less savoury than brunch, and might consist of some cake or biscuits with a cup of coffee or tea.
Afternoon tea / low tea 
Afternoon tea or low tea is a small meal snack typically eaten between 4 pm and 6 pm. Observance of the custom originated amongst the wealthy classes in England in the 1840s. Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, is widely credited as transforming afternoon tea (or low tea) in England into a late-afternoon meal whilst visiting Belvoir Castle, though Charles II of England's wife Catherine of Braganza is often credited with introducing tea to the court upon her arrival in 1662.[dubious ] By the end of the nineteenth century, afternoon tea or low tea had developed into its current form and was observed by both the upper and middle classes: "the table was laid...there were the best things with a fat pink rose on the side of each cup; hearts of lettuce, thin bread and butter, and the crisp little cakes that had been baked in readiness that morning."
Traditionally, loose tea is brewed in a teapot and served with milk and sugar. The sugar and caffeine of the concoction provided fortification against afternoon doldrums for the working poor of 19th and early 20th century England who had a significantly lower calorie count and more physically demanding occupation than most Westerners today. For laborers, the tea was sometimes accompanied by a small sandwich or baked snack (such as scones) that had been packed for them in the morning. For the more privileged, afternoon tea was accompanied by luxury ingredient sandwiches (customarily cucumber, egg and cress, fish paste, ham, and smoked salmon), scones (with clotted cream and jam, see cream tea) and usually cakes and pastries (such as Battenberg cake, fruit cake or Victoria sponge). In hotels and tea shops the food is often served on a tiered stand; there may be no sandwiches, but bread or scones with butter or margarine and optional jam or other spread, or toast, muffins or crumpets.
For much of the twentieth century, methods of preparing and serving afternoon tea were the subject of much snobbery. In a letter to Nancy Mitford, a social commentator and great satirist of upper class behavior, the author Evelyn Waugh mentions a mutual friend who uses the expression 'rather milk in first' to express condemnation of those lower down the social scale. This expression was used by the Georgian and Victorian elite to deride their middle-class governesses for the practice of pouring milk into the cup first, dubbing them "milk-in-first misses."  In the British film Gosford Park the tension is depicted as continuing to exist; Lady Sylvia McCordle sneers at the police Inspector Thomson for putting the "milk in first" and in the film he quickly realises how the act demonstrates his social "inferiority" and becomes embarrassed. Nowadays the 'milk in first or tea in first' debate is altogether more light-hearted, but nonetheless everyone has his or her preferred method of making tea.
Isabella Beeton, whose books on home economics were widely read in the 19th century, describes afternoon teas of various kinds: the old-fashioned tea, the at-home tea, the family tea and the high tea and provides menus. Nowadays, a formal afternoon tea is often taken as a treat in a hotel or tea shop. Most high quality hotels in Britain serve afternoon tea, sometimes in a palm court, and more recently have offered the option of champagne instead of tea.
In everyday life, many citizens of Commonwealth countries take a much simpler refreshment consisting of tea and occasionally biscuits as one of many short tea breaks throughout the day.
High tea 
High tea typically consists of a hot dish, followed by cakes and bread, butter and jam. Occasionally there would be cold cuts of meat, such as ham salad. Traditionally, high tea was eaten by middle- to upper-class children (whose parents would have a more formal dinner later) or by blue collar workers when they came home from work. The term was first used around 1825, and high is used in the sense of well-advanced (like high noon, for example) to signify that it was taken later in the day.
The term "high tea" was used as a way to distinguish it from afternoon tea. Though it is often stated that the words "low" and "high" refer to the height of the tables from which either meal was eaten. Afternoon tea was served in the garden where possible; otherwise it was usually taken in a day room, library or salon where low tables (like a coffee table) were placed near sofas or chairs generally (hence the fallacy about it being low tea).
Other uses 
In many parts of the British Isles, lower-middle and working-class people traditionally call their midday meal dinner and their evening meal (served around 6pm) tea, whereas the upper social classes would call the midday meal lunch (or luncheon), and the evening meal (served after 7pm) dinner or supper (often eaten later in the evening). These class signifiers have diminished over time particularly in the southeast of England.
France, Belgium and Switzerland 
French-speaking nations have "le goûter" or "le quatre heures", in other words, the 4:00 afternoon snack. Le goûter is often prepared for hungry children who have returned from school, to keep them satisfied until dinner.
Generally le goûter consists of a baguette or roll with butter and jam or chocolate shavings or other chocolate spread, or chocolate cookies, accompanied by hot chocolate, or orange juice, but never with tea or coffee (café au lait or milky tea are for breakfast; tea and coffee being considered as too exciting for children at the end of the daytime). Goûter for adults may consist of fruit syrups in water or sparkling water, and light biscuits (cookies) or pastries. Although it never really went away, the custom is now becoming very trendy in France as a nostalgic wave of baby boomers recall their childhood gastronomic pleasures.
The goûter, for children, is different from the tea party in France, or "thé" in French, which is a little formal party in the afternoon given at home for adult guests, usually between 5 o'clock and 7 o'clock. It consists of tea, juices, lemonade, or syrups, pastries, petits fours, and biscuits or cakes. The cocktail party is only held after 7 o'clock, and includes alcohol, whereas "thé" does not.
See also 
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- Harper, Timothy (1997). Passport United Kingdom: Your Pocket Guide to British Business, Customs and Etiquette. World Trade Press. ISBN 1-885073-28-3.
- p. 209, Pool, Daniel (1993) "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew," Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, New York
- "High Tea, Low Tea, Afternoon Tea". MacMillan English Campus Website. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- Food & Drink ~ Woburn Abbey
- Historic UK. "Afternoon Tea". Historic UK website. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- Fortnum & Mason Tea Specialist, Margot. "Origins of Afternoon Tea". Fortnum & Mason Website. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- UK Tea Council. "Influence of a Portuguese Princess". Tea Council Website. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- Pettigrew, Jane (2001). A Social History of Tea. London: The National Trust. pp. 102–105.
- Mason, Laura; Brown, Catherine (1999) From Bath Chaps to Bara Brith. Totnes: Prospect Books
- Pettigrew, Jane (2004) Afternoon Tea. Andover: Jarrold.
- Fitzgibbon, Theodora (1972) A Taste of England: the West Country. London: J. M. Dent.
- Austin, Jane (1813). Pride and Prejudice. Chapter XV of Volume III: T. Egerton, Whitehall. ISBN 9781426455377.
- UK Tea Council. "Milk in First or Tea in First". Tea Council website. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- Beeton, Isabella (1901) Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book, new ed. London: Ward, Lock; pp. 282-83.
- Daily Mail Reporter. "Daily Mail". Afternoon tea is more popular than ever as more hotels get a huge boost in business thanks to the brew. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- Ritz Carlton web site
- Scott, Chloe. "Save our scones: Why afternoon tea is on the decline and how to save it". The Metro Newspaper Online. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- April 23.—Mr. and Mrs. James (Miss Fullers that was) came to meat tea, and we left directly after for the Tank Theatre". The Diary of a Nobody. George and Weedon Grossmith, with illustrations by Weedon Grossmith. 1892.
- UK Tea Council. "Tea Customs". Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- About.com. "What is the Difference Between Afternoon Tea and High Tea?". Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition
- "When the Queen came to tea", R Moody
- "SNDS2 3. TEA, n". Dictionary of the Scots Language. Scottish Language Dictionaries. Retrieved 12 January 2012. "In Glasgow they ask you if you would like your tea [evening meal] — in Edinburgh they say, 'You'll have had your tea.'"
- Le Goûter
- Le Gouter, French Afternoon Snack for Schoolkids Reinvented by Grown Ups - Serge the Concierge
- quatre heures - Wiktionnaire
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