The devil is in the details: aka “The Teacup System”

Submitted by Michele Amy

Marion Biram’s kitchen table looked like a craft explosion had erupted.  (This, frankly, is not unusual) But this time, her table was covered in an odd assortment of cardboard, pretty papers, her clothes iron, and a variety of glues. 

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As Marion is usually making something beautiful, I wasn’t’ too surprised, generally, though usually her skills lean a little more towards stunning paintings or cool ink stuff.

I had stopped over at her house for a visit between volunteer gigs last week. (Fiddle at the Lodge and Play rehearsal at the Theatre, to be exact!) 

Turns out, this creative mess was actually in the process of becoming beautiful “gift envelopes” to sell during the United Church High Tea, hosted yearly at the Dickens’ Festival.  Apparently, the United Church was having another volunteer BEE. 

The High Tea and the adjacent bake sale is the major fundraiser for the Church for the year, and both are quite famous for the various work Bee’s which help to make them happen. Volunteers really do make the world go around!

Especially when it comes to the Carlyle Dickens Village Festival.

Now, to put things into perspective, for the duration of the Dickens weekend, I tend to get “stuck” in the Fezzywig’s pub with short forays into the street for food from vendors, or to enjoy the parade.

I mean, I don’t mind being stuck in the place with free live music and BEER, but still, I don’t get much of a chance to see what else is going on around town.

I think I’m pretty typical of lots of people around Carlyle on this particular weekend.  Everybody seems to be busy volunteering in their “area of specialty”. 

In fact, this is one of my favorite things about the Dickens festival.

Usually, year-round, different “groups” of people around town are pretty busy in their own hobbies, activities and events, and of course there is limited time in our lives, and therefore limited “mixing”between some groups of people.

But during Dickens, the CFY is busy decorating all the “Festival of Trees”, and the Lions club is busily manning their food booth, and The Catholic Church is dishing out thousands of cups of chowder, not to mention what the other groups like the Karate club,  the Grad class, and the Rink board are doing, or the various businesses and service groups who are putting the final touches on their parade entries!

And me? Well, I’m generally kept pretty busy volunteering to man the sound system, or running the music events or working in the Bar, or getting ready to lead the band for the latest Cornerstone production. 

So, I have to confess that I’ve never been able to make it to the United Church High Tea.

Across her paper-strewn table, Marion told me a funny story about her own volunteering experience at the High Tea last year. 

Apparently, one of the biggest difficulties at the High Tea is  - get this - the MATCHING of the cups and saucers! Sort of sounds like it could be a family feud game. 

Marion told me that they serve so many people that although they use 225 cup and saucer sets during the High Tea,  they must be repeatedly washed because they have so many “customers”  and then they all have to be matched back up again. 

And because the patterns are extremely  intricate, finding the cup which matches the particular saucer is a tricky task! 

So in 2017, Marion spent her entire shift simply matching cup to saucer as they came out of the dishwasher so they could be used again.   The plan had been to place numbers on each pair, but unfortunately, in the wash, many came off, and created quite the kerfuffle.

This year, Marion and Lynn Brady came up with another plan, which involved first removing the ragged remnants of last year’s numbers, and then carefully drying each of 450 items before placing a new number.  This number was then allowed to “cure” before being covered with protective filming.  This was a process which took more than a full day to complete! Who would’ve guessed?

So then I asked her what people could expect when they went to the High Tea.

Upon arrival at the United Church, guests are greeted by many lovely picture taking opportunities as the Church is all full of beautifully decorated trees.  The aisles of the chapel are filled with Christmas baking for purchase, and a slide show of Dickens Festivals  Past is playing. This year, guests can also indulge in some beautifully handcrafted gift-envelopes as well.

Upon entering the hall, guests are met by the talented Irene Doty, who has brought her collection of amazing handcrafted hats.  In case a guest does not have a hat of their own, Irene will find the perfect one, which suits both personality (and head size) 

Provided by the Dickens’ committee, local Weyburn harpist, Sharon Elliott, plays beautiful seasonal music in the background as guests are led to your fancy table, set with the (hopefully matched) teacups and saucers. 

“Tea” is served  from traditional teapots by a veritable army of volunteers, and guests  help themselves to the selection of home-made biscuits and preserves, cured Christmas pudding and sauce,  fancy sandwiches and dainties galore. 

This High Tea experience is interactive and traditional, and oh-so-delicious! And all provided for a small flat fee at the door.

When I ask about the complexities surrounding preparing for the High Tea, Lynn Brady says “We have a biscuit making bee, where we bake all of our biscuits.  And then we have another full day where we decorate the hall and set up and decorate all of the trees.“ 

But she says that “ The biggest difficulty we have is finding the 50 or so volunteers who are needed for the actual High Tea itself!” 

Like many organizations, the United Church community is getting older, and volunteers are getting a bit pooped!

Rounding up 50 volunteers on such a busy weekend is tricky! But she assured me, “The volunteers don’t have to be from the United Church!

We accept anyone who wants to help out, and It’s a lot of fun.” She tells me that on the Friday when they get about 100 people at one time when the bus tours come in, that those moments can be a bit frantic!

But everyone is in such high spirits and is so happy to be here, that even those busy times are pretty enjoyable.

So here are some crazy High Tea factoids:

28 jars of Christmas pudding and 6 gallons of sauce are made in June to allow them 6 months to cure before the festival. 

1036 biscuits were made this year (which totals over 15,540 over the length of the festival.  (They used over 10lbs of lard, 54 eggs and 25 lbs of flour!) 

Last year, they ran shy of dainties, as they only had 160 tarts, and 12  11x17 trays!  This year they are increasing the numbers. 

And the TEA.  The tea is made by infusion to ensure it does not get bitter.  Judy Riddell reports that this is done by taking 14 cups of loose Earl Grey tea leaves, and pouring over 112 cups of boiling water, and letting it steep for 10 minutes before straining it out.  Then to make the tea, they combine 1 cup of infusion with 8 cups of water.  This makes 896 CUPS OF TEA!

In 2017 the High Tea served 558 people, and they can only serve 84 at a time.   But when I commented that this was a LOT, Judy just laughed and said “The weekend goes really quickly!”

I mentioned to Lynn that maybe people don’t know that they could come and volunteer for a few shifts, so I said I’d add that into the article. 

What a fun thing to do for teenagers, or any young person (or young at heart) for a few hours over the festival and to get into the Spirit of the Holiday.   If you might be interested in helping out for a few hours, just email Lynn Brady at   and she will be happy to schedule you in for a shift or two.

And hopefully your shift will not be spent in minute examination of hundreds of teacups, and you can report on whether the new “Teacup system” is working for 2018.

© Copyright Carlyle Observer


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