Traditional West Indian Tea Meetings Featured Song, Dance, Entertainment

Andromeada Childs and St. John AARP President Beverly Biziewski at the AARP’s Thursday evening, April 20, meeting and tea party. AARP members learned about the history and traditions of old-time West Indian tea meetings.

Old-time traditions came alive at the St. John AARP’s Thursday, April 20, meeting and tea party, as the group learned about traditional West Indian “tea meetings.”

Virgin Islands AARP’s first president, Lawrence Bastian, who currently serves as executive counsel member of AARP for community outreach, taught the group about the history and traditions of old-time tea meetings.

The tea meetings originated in the Virgin Islands during the time of slavery, when the islands were Danish-owned.

“The slaves’ masters used to have big celebrations to welcome their guests, and the slaves observed this and imitated what their masters did in the great houses,” said Bastian. “It’s all an imitation of what they saw.”

The tea meetings were run by a chairman and vice-chairman, and entertainment was provided by a choir. The slaves imitated distinguished guests such as the king and queen of Denmark, or the president of the U.S. These “distinguished guests” sat in fancy rocking chairs and were entertained by those who put on the tea meeting, said Bastian.

Choir Brought People Together
When the tea meeting was ready to begin, the choir would bring people together through song. Many of the songs that they sang were religious and influenced by the Moravians.

“The slaves were very religious, and the Moravians got them by singing,” said Bastian. “The choir would let people know that there’s a great thing happening tonight.”

The choir would continue singing until everyone was in place.

“That’s when they got a little rowdy,” said Bastian. “They would get rambunctious.”

Once everyone was in place, the vice chairman would take the podium and welcome everyone. The chairman then took his place at the podium to greet the royals, and the choir would sing songs like “God Save the Queen.”

The chairman then called on designated orators in the crowd to speak on subjects ranging from island history, to religion, to fishing.

“The people in the community wanted to show the royalty what they knew,” said Bastian, who called on AARP member Oswin Sewer for a demonstration.

“St. John is the smallest of the Virgin Islands, and it continues to be the most beautiful and have the most appreciative people,” said Sewer.

Banter to Entertain Guests
The chairman and the audience members would engage in friendly banter in an attempt to entertain their guests, said Bastian. “They wanted to entertain the royals, and show that they appreciate them coming,” he said.

Tea meetings were festive, happy occasions.

“They wanted to entertain and have a good time,” said Bastian. “People wanted to impart their knowledge on others. They were happy, and they sang with gusto and danced around.”

Foods such as ham, cheese, bread and cake were served with the tea. In the past, authentic bush tea was made from at least three different bushes, said Bastian.

The China tea cups that AARP members used at their Tuesday evening tea party were not around in the days of tea meetings.

“They used an aluminum cup or can, not China tea cups,” said Bastian.

After seeing the positive response from AARP members, Bastian said he hopes to organize an authentic tea meeting on St. John, with a tentative date of Fourth of July 2007.

“We don’t just jump up and do tea meetings,” he said. “The tea meetings take a long time. It’s a happy, happy time.”