Tue December 11, 2012
"Burning Bright:" Flaming Tea for Chanukah
Latkes? Check. Chanukah gifts? Check.
Brandy-soaked sugar cubes to set afire…What’s that? You’ve never taken part in a Flaming Tea Ceremony for Chanukah?
Neither had I, nor anyone I knew, not in all our years of celebrating the Jewish holiday known as the "Festival of Lights."
It goes like this: Everyone at the table soaks a sugar cube in brandy, places it in a teaspoon, lights it with a candle, sings a holiday song, then drops the little fireball into a glass of tea, which puts out the flame. Then everyone drinks their tea.
My sister Julie decided to try the Flaming Tea Ceremony at her Chanukah table. When she told me about her plans, I immediately pictured giant plumes of smoke licking the ceiling as guests ran screaming from her house. I learned from Darra Goldstein, author of A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality, that the authentic method requires BALANCING the spoon across the glass as the sugar burns. This did nothing to calm my fears.
Drinking tea is a custom "steeped" in history. The ritual of setting the sugar aflame at Chanukah stretches back to Eastern Europe and Russia. In some versions of the story, sugar was abundant and guests indulged freely. In others, sugar was scarce and each person at the table was limited to a small cube.
Most often, sugar was a luxury. When it was available, daily tea-drinkers would sometimes place a sugar cube between their teeth and sip the tea through it in that fashion (although this method of imbibing was understandably NOT part of the flaming tea ritual). It had its devotees: the 19th-century Russian writer Aleksandr Pushkin is quoted as having said, "Ecstasy is a glassful of tea and a piece of sugar in the mouth."
It isn't likely that many households here in the U.S. today have the correct vessels for old-style tea-drinking: an ornate samovar and the glass inserts that fit into decorative metal holders. But sometimes you've got to improvise, and that’s what my sister did.
I'm happy to report there were no injuries at her house, and that the guests enjoyed the Flaming Tea Ceremony. (Julie claims that rum worked better than brandy, and I didn’t ask exactly how many other "accelerants" she tested.)
During the holidays, it can be challenging to find new things to do with family, friends and guests. There are only so many cookies you can bake and crafts you can make. Sometimes, it helps to look back toward the old ways, make them your own - and let your light shine.