To Entertain, Part Three: Guests Are Royalty


"That boy is your company. And if he wants to eat up your tablecloth, you let him, you hear?"
-Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

Everyone has heard it said that a man's home is his castle. And while this is true (in that if ever a man has permission to draw the bridge away from the moat and turtle himself into a shell, it is while within his own home) the material point is not so much than a man is king as that while in his own home, a man becomes steward of other men.

The greatest kings have never been the ones who lord their right to be paid homage over other, lesser men. The greatest kings are the ones who notice all their subjects - the talented, the untalented, the beautiful, the less beautiful, the poets, the paupers - and treat them all with an equal measure of grace.
One likes to think that when people enter our homes, it is to escape awhile from the broad, callous rest of the world. Home and dinner have a way of doing that for a body: dividing Here from There. Discerning between This Place and The Rest Of It. And if there is ever a thing humans seeking comfort want more than an end to the discomfort, it is the ability to make that division of status. When a person goes through the trouble of asking someone to sit down to dinner, he does not just ask them to make a fourth at a four-top table, he asks them for their companionship as well.
This is the seemingly arbitrary reason that one's invitation for dinner might be rejected by a few people. Nobody really invites people over these days. Not formally. An offer to "hang out" in neutral territory is extended in a different spirit than inviting someone into the place where you are lord. A proper invitation holds more of a risk for guest. How so a risk?
You know very well that inviting someone into your home for even a casual event tastes of a willingness to serve them. And that frightens some people. It isn't so much that they are afraid to know you or to let themselves be known. It's just that there are few of us with a very large capacity for receiving unwarranted love on the regular. It is the same reason most everybody finds it awkward to take a compliment. We don't like sitting down and being given things (unless it's our birthday. Then we very much want to be given things - just no birthday song, please.). We like to prove ourselves. We like to work for what we receive. And even if we get past the fact that someone wants to specifically spend time with us in a relaxed at-home setting, we have to punctuate every sentence with several "thank yous" and a "Please let me know what I can bring." This is nice. This is polite. But after a while, this is a defense mechanism.

Your job as a host is to create an atmosphere where these defense tactics gradually melt away. You want it to be a place of comfort. Yes, it is your home and you get to set the tone. But the tone should be of graciousness, of ease, of simplicity (even when formal), of peace. The tone one sets as a host gets to be a tone of acceptance and interest, led by one's guests, not a tone of comparison and ostentation led by us. What a failure it would be if people came over, then went away several hours later feeling stripped down and less loved than when they had arrived, especially when you meant to bless them. Your table gets to be a place of medicine, where you can do your part to heal the wounds inflicted by The Rest of It. For what time your guests are in your home, you get to invest in them, to listen to them, to laugh with them, and to celebrate with them. You get to gauge how they are feeling and adjust the tone accordingly. If your guests are reluctant and quiet and overly polite, change the playlist to something unexpected, like Shakira. Allow your guests to help you with the meal preparations, if they want to. I used to think the hostess should never allow her guests to carry platters to the table, or wash up afterward. But sometimes being allowed to enter into the plot goes a long way toward making a person comfortable. Instead of the roles of king and subject, you have become host and guest and friends and you've created this warm bubble of contentment together. The quote which began the final part of this brief "entertaining" series is from an iconic scene in Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Young Scout, the main character, has brought a school friend to lunch at her house. He's poor. He doesn't have enough to eat. And his table manners are horrible. When Scout remarks aloud on how much food the kid has served himself, Atticus Finch (her father) marches her out of the room and gives her a serious talking-to. It is always clear who is king of the Finch castle (Atticus), but that position is painstakingly disguised as he does his best to make every guest, even a dirt-poor schoolboy, feel like royalty. Hang propriety and your sense of being in charge. Your guest is the honored one; convention may go out the window if necessary.

To the people hanging on the edges of an invitation, unsure of the commitment involved in accepting it? We ask for no commitment, just want your companionship. Stop being afraid. We don't want to keep you, we want to spend time with you. We want to step past the neutral, denatured ground of "hanging out" solely in public. We want to welcome you into the castle, let you forget your troubles for a while, and then release you back into the wild with a full heart and a full belly. Lay down your shields, noble subjects. The drawbridge is down and the table is ready. 

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