The December edition of Real Simple magazine arrived in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago. Sprawled across the cover are some glitzy Christmas lights and the words “Holiday Spectacular: Your Happiest Season Ever Starts Here.” The November issue (“The Ultimate Holiday Planner”) was pretty similar in nature and content. These two magazines contain dozens of helpful articles covering a wide range of holiday-centered topics: affordable gifts, make-ahead recipes, quick cleaning solutions, winter skin care, avoiding awkward moments with family and friends, easy decorations, and, my personal favorite, “How to Teach Gratitude.”
All of this information promises a simple, cheerful, and stress-free holiday season. Which makes me wonder, why do we meticulously plan for and strategize about the holiday season? We turn to guides, lists, and diagrams to help us “get through” the holiday season, as if it is something that needs to be accomplished. This suggests to me that as a culture, we are doing hospitality wrong.
Real Simple magazine, and the many publications like it, is trying to help us make our homes look flawless, our food delicious (but still easy to prepare), our bodies beautiful, our manners refined, and our budgets intact. This is the product of a society that, when it comes to hospitality, is fearful. We are afraid of each other – of what guests will think about our homes, or what hosts will think of our behavior. And we are afraid of ourselves, and the vulnerability associated with welcoming and being welcomed.
People from all backgrounds take part in the hospitality that is associated with the holiday season, which is great. But Christians especially should be concerned with correcting the way that we’ve come to see our holiday practices and attitudes, since hospitality is so essential to the gospel that we proclaim.
So, what is good hospitality? And why do we need it?
In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, contemporary philosopher Josef Pieper argues that leisurely practices (everything from reading to feasting) are…the basis of culture. That is, these a-productive moments are necessary for the development of art, music, literature, philosophy, etc. – i.e., the things that make up culture and set us apart as humans. It’s a fascinating argument and a fun little read.
Anyway, Pieper calls festivals, like the dinners and cocktail parties we’re all gearing up to throw or attend, “the origin of leisure, and the inward and ever-present meaning of leisure.” Feasting is important to leisure, which means that all of those celebrations, and the hospitality associated with them, are one of those things that make us human. Furthermore, he also says that feasts “affirm the basic meaningfulness of the universe and a sense of oneness with it, of inclusion within it” (49). Basically, going to holiday parties is essential to human flourishing and reminds us of our place in this lovely universe. Think about that as you approach the cheese plate at your next party.
Hospitality is also important for Christians because in Christ, God has extended great hospitality and charity to us. In her delightful treatise on domesticity, Keeping House, Margaret Kim Peterson reminds us that “God has welcomed us into his household, despite – in fact, because of – our weaknesses and needs, and he invites us even in our not-yet-perfected condition to extend that same welcome to others, promising that as we do so, we will welcome God himself” (159). When we extend hospitality and charity to others – even in small ways, like by offering a gift or meal – we are responding to what God has done for us. Hospitality is an act of worship.
Just as being a host reflects what God offers us through Christ, being a guest echoes the Christian experience of accepting this offer. That is, being a guest requires faith and humility. It requires us to accept grace in a small but meaningful way. The much beloved Fr. Robert Farrar Capon, touches upon the host-guest dynamic in his holy cookbook The Supper of the Lamb:
[The host] has, you see, been willing to take me on as God takes me – as a risk. He pays me the supreme tribute of putting himself in my power…But when he sits me down at his table, he declares himself willing to put me into his own life. He puts me into my place: but, he also puts me in a position to make or break his party as I will. It is no small boldness; if you have such friends, treasure them (170).
The dinner guest acknowledges and reacts to the host’s “risk.” He humbles himself in entering into another’s home and life and, faithfully, strives to uphold certain responsibilities: good manners, cheerful conversation, gracious salutations, not clogging the toilet, etc.
Oh, by the way, an added bonus of all of this is that Christians don’t really need to freak out so much about “keeping Christ in Christmas.” When done well, holiday festivities, even “secular” ones, are honoring to Christ. He’s there – don’t worry.
This season, eat well, drink responsibly, and give generously. Welcome friends and neighbors and allow yourselves to be welcomed in return. Rest comfortably in the knowledge that good hospitality is nothing to get too stressed out over.