Sleepytime Tea and the Little Known Religion Behind It

Sleepytime Tea, tea
Photo: © Jeremai Smith

On grocery shelves across the country, adorned with perhaps the least intimidating bear ever, sit seemingly innocent boxes of Sleepytime Tea. Made by Celestial Seasonings (which is part of the conglomerate Hain Celestial Group), Sleepytime Tea is the company's best seller and has contributed vastly to this year's approximately $750 million in sales. Today, Celestial Seasoning is the largest tea manufacturer in North America. But there's more to this story than simply a comforting cup of tea, one that involves conspiracies, eugenics and aliens. This past winter, writer Megan Giller detailed the bizarre origins of this beloved product in the online magazine Van Winkle's. "I thought I knew what Celestial Seasonings was about," Giller tells FWx, "but my research turned those assumptions on their head."

The company was founded in 1969 by several Colorado hikers who discovered that the Rocky Mountains were full of aromatic herbs that made delicious tea. Naming it "Celestial Seasonings" supposedly after one of the co-founder's flowername, the group was led by Mo Siegel who would go on to be the face of the company. Siegel was already a well-known herbalist in Boulder at the time, selling his famed "36 Herb Tea" to health food stores in the area in hand-sewn muslin bags. In 1972, Siegel and Celestial Seasonings gave birth to "SleepyTime Tea," a blend made from chamomile, spearmint and other herbs. As the company's website says, this new product "helped turn our cottage industry into a near-overnight success." This is the official history that Celestial Seasonings wants the public to know. Then, there is the history that Giller uncovered.

Besides enthusiasm for tea, Mo Siegel (and one of the other company's co-founders John Hay) was also an avid believer in a "new-age bible" called The Urantia Book. First published in 1955, the bible is inspired by Seventh-Day Adventist movement, except that it was supposedly communicated to an unknown man possessed and put into a trance by aliens. Yes, aliens. Giller explains that it was more likely written by William Sadler, a turn of the century psychiatrist who also published three books about eugenics and had a deeply rooted racist philosophy.

The central idea of this particular religious text revolves the idea that there are many different sons of God who live on many different planets in a galaxy that consists of billions of worlds. According to their belief system, our world is just one of billions and it's called "Urantia." While this seems tame enough, Giller calls attention to some of the thoughts that are buried deep in the book, ones that she calls "some of the most racist ideas I've read in a long time."

According to Urantia's text, a half a million years ago six colored races existed on our planet - red, orange, yellow, green, blue and indigo. Again, according to the text, there was a racial superiority order, with the indigo race at the bottom in which, as it notes, the "blue man subdues the indigo." It also oddly states that strains of "giantism" can appear in green and orange peoples. The upshot of all of this is that on every planet in every universe, fair-skinned, blue-eyed aliens named Adam and Eve come and "upstep" the natives, meaning that they eliminate the "inferior stocks" and "purify" the planet. Says Giller about her research, "There were so many instances of racism and very strange beliefs (in the book) that it was really hard to narrow down what I wanted to include (in the article)." It's worth noting that Siegel himself seems to have been on both sides of these topics. He didn't provide comment to Giller so she relied on a piece he co-wrote called The Twenty Most-Asked Questions. In it Siegel writes, "Belonging to any particular race...provides no spiritual advantage or disadvantage; all persons are equal in the sight of God." But he also writes, "At the present time mankind loses about as much progress as it makes by ignoring eugenics."

In 1969, the same year he co-founded Celestial Seasonings, Siegel discovered The Urantia Book. He was immediately taken by the ideas, writing in 2006 that "I was not concerned about who had written it or how it had been written because it was so powerful." Later, he admitted that the book's ideas "were the inspiration for the uplifting quotes we print on the side of our tea boxes and on our teabag tags." As a former employee told Giller, "(The Urantia Book) was a guide for making sure of the moral values that underlay the company at that time." Siegel left the company in 2002, but he remained into Urantia. Eventually, Siegel became president of the Urantia Foundation, a title he still holds today.

Giller told FWx her article about Celestial Seasonings was not originally supposed to be this scandalous. Visiting Boulder on a trip, she took a free public tour of Celestial Seasonings and became interested in their tea-making process. So, she inquired with the company about interviewing their blendmaster Charlie Baden for an article. Her requests, however, were denied. "I just started doing the research and, from there, it just unraveled into this massive, strong story," Giller explains to FWx, "I imagine they are sorry they didn't just let me do the puff piece."

It should be noted that Siegel did leave the company over a decade ago and Celestial Seasonings has been part of the multi-million dollar corporation Hain Celestial Group (who also own other health food brands like Health Valley, Rudis Organic Bakery and Nile Spice) since 2000. Without Siegel or John Hay the companies ties to the Urantia Book today may be tenuous or entirely non-existent. But the fact remains that SleepyTime Tea was originally developed by a man who believed in it. For her part, Giller was a fan of the teas, but no longer, "I threw (my boxes of teas) out. It made me a little sad, but I feel like I can't support them anymore."

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