By Curt Collier
We are currently in the holiday season and no doubt many of you have or are making plans to visit family and friends or to celebrate the holidays with coworkers. These visits are often a time of celebration and joy as we draw closer to those who matter to us most. It’s a truism, however, that visiting family and friends can also be a time of stress and conflict.
Whether you realize it or not, many of the practices and seemingly trivial rituals we engage in when visiting friends and colleagues have their roots in thousands of years of customs and traditions. Bringing an offering to the host, changing up the seating arrangement at the table, the small gifts we leave in the guest room, and even the act of seeing guests to the door or edge of our property are rooted in ancient customs going back thousands of years.
Hospitality (and it related word “host”) is a key value in nearly every ancient culture on the planet. Certain groups, like the ancient Greeks, Middle Eastern Cultures, Chinese and Indians may have elevated it to a true code of conduct, but you can find that all cultures have a large number of folk tales which contain the theme of hospitality. Homer’s “Iliad” and “The Odyssey” are mostly filled with multiple examples of how to be a good (or bad) host or guest. Starting with the abduction of Helen by Paris which led to warfare, to the many trials and tribulations of Odysseus as he spent years returning home are examples of ancient Greek stories filled with instructions on how to greet and treat guests. People who study such things argue that perhaps the main purpose of these tales was not only to draw Greeks closer together, but to emphasize the importance of hospitality as the premiere Greek value. Greek hospitality was composed of no less than 20 steps, the first six of which, such as the feast, are held even before the guest’s name is revealed.
Their sin was failure to provide hospitality
We find similar traditions in ancient Rome, as Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” and the fable of Philemon and Baucis both highlight the tradition of hospitality as the central motif of these stories. Many modern fundamentalist Christians believe that the central sin of Sodom was homosexuality. This is patently false, as the chief crime of citizens of Sodom was their failure to honor the customs of hospitality, as most of the Hebrew scriptures attests (homosexuality was not even mentioned and didn’t even enter into English bibles until 1946). As Ezekiel 16:49 reports, the Sodomites chief crime was that they were complacent in their prosperity and didn’t share any help to the poor or needy.
Not to be outdone, the culture of Ancient India was also resplendent with tales of gods visiting the homes of mortals and using the hospitality of the latter to highlight proper virtue. The extensive ritual (puja) of greeting guests included ensuring that the room was fragrant with incense, lighting of lamps, providing foods, marking the guest’s forehead (tilak) with fragrant ointments that included rice grains for luck and prosperity, and offering flowers to guests as they leave to remind them of the sweetness of the visit. In ancient Chinese homes the visitor’s feet were immediately washed and tea (an expensive item only offered to royalty and guests) would be served.
The most universal of ethical traditions
We hear of similar tales from South America, Africa, and Oceana. Hospitality is perhaps the most universal of ethical traditions. The question is, why was this so? What is the point of offering such extravagant gifts, meals, and the plushest bedding to people we may not even know? The point of all of this seems to elude us. Perhaps because we in the West think of hospitality differently than it was in our ancient cultural roots.
Hospitality in the West is often confused with etiquette, but these are very different traditions. Louis XIV of France created a list of rules to be followed by the French nobility to ensure proper homage to pedigree. Showing deference to the royal bloodline was a way to ensure the courtiers knew their place. In true French fashion these traditions became more and more amplified, leading to a whole set of rarefied customs, many of which we still follow, if only in gesture (such as the use of titles, who sits at the head of the table, waiting for the hostess to be seated, and so on). These customs were written down on a small placard (or as the French call it “etiquette”) to remind people of their place and right to be before the king (hence our related word “ticket”).
Stuffy traditions at the heart of our love for ‘Downton Abbey’
The ever Francophobic (yet secretly Francophile) English adopted many of these customs for the same reasons; ensuring that royal lineage was respected. Americans love Jane Austin novels or shows such as “Downton Abbey” or “Bridgeton” in part because of these stuffy traditions where one’s entire reputation could be ruined for failure to follow the etiquette of the “social season.” In a very American take on this, Emily Post, herself a socialite, decided to publish her own book of etiquette which was followed by thousands of Americans. To be fair to Madame Post, her reasoning for writing down the customs of etiquette was because the US was being flooded with immigrants from around the world and her chief wish was to help these groups gain acceptance in to “civil” society by teaching them the customs of wealthier American families. I give her a point for the attempt to ease transition into society. But despite my judgment of the impact of this process, I, too, still set the table with the forks to the left of the plate, the knife to the right (with the sharp edge toward the plate), and profess to owning salad forks and soup spoons. Etiquette, despite a nod to its potential to reduce (or induce) stress in hosts and guests, is still not the same thing as hospitality.
Customs are similar to rules for trauma-informed communication
To save you the trouble of gleaning through thousands of years of history, I, gracious host that I am, have distilled the wisdom of hundreds of cultural groups and philosophical traditions from around the world. What follows then are the common themes of the ancient art of hospitality. Oddly enough, I discovered in my research that the same process for ensuring proper hospitality evident in ancient wisdom literature is nearly an exact copy of the rules we use today in trauma-informed community groups:
- Does your guest feel safe? (leading to the development of the words “hotel” and “hostel”)
- Have you introduced an activity to make your guest feel calm and relaxed? (the original meaning of the word “hospital” and “hospice”)
- Does your guest truly feel included in your home and family? Sharing food is common, and do you know that the word “host” used in Christian church ritual is related to that shared meal, and related to the French ‘table of the host,” table-d’hote?
- Does your guest have some control over their life, or do they feel like a “hostage” (a word created to describe what happens in homes with bad hosts)?
- Does the guest understand all that’s going on around them? Is your home chaotic, your customs confusing? Your conversations obtuse? How is that hampering understanding? Is the environment “hostile”?
- After being with you, is your guest more hopeful about the future?
- And have you made their path toward that hope more clear?
The holidays are a great time to celebrate the ancient art of hospitality. Greeting guests at the door, offers of food and wine, an extra pillow, a warm bed, entertainment, storytelling, and showing the guest to the edge of your property when they leave are traditions that go back millennia. They are worthy of keeping up to this day.
Curt Collier is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.