My first year or two as a new bride in a small, Southern town found me shuffling through etiquette books so I could learn the proper way to entertain. My husband was a businessman, so there were always clients or co-workers to invite for dinner, as well as ministry partners and missionaries.
My husband loved having people into our home, so I worked hard to clean the house, prepare a menu, set the table and cook a large meal. I set the table according to the diagrams in my etiquette book.
In the kitchen, I prepared a full meal from scratch with meat and vegetables, all the way down to the dessert. And then there was making the sweet tea and preparing all the fixings for coffee after dinner.
There were also the creative touches like flower arrangements. Off I went on the six-wheeler, hair flying, shoulders tense, in search of just the right wildflowers to make a beautiful table arrangement.
I spent the last hour getting myself bathed and dressed, setting the ambience with candles and lighting, and tending to the last minute food preparations.
When the guests finally walked in the door, I was exhausted. It was all I could do to make small talk when I really wanted to curl up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and watch a movie.
Guests were hurried into the dining room for the meal so the food would be hot and I could get the thing over with and relax. Finally, somewhere around dessert, I would finally focus on my guests and not the meal.
One night I realized something that changed my idea of hospitality.
I went to dinner at a friend’s house and offered the obligatory, “Can I do anything to help.”
“Sure!” my friend said. “Grab a knife and start cutting up the carrots for salad.” She offered me a drink and we laughed and talked while I helped prepare the salad. I noticed how calm and relaxed she was, as if it didn’t matter if we ate or not. She wanted to visit with me, to find out what was going on in my life, and how I was feeling about certain events. I had a wonderful time that night, and strangely enough, it seemed she did, too.
It became clear to me that my friend understood hospitality, while I was trying to learn to entertain. She knew it was about the guest. I thought it was about the food and the house.
After that, I hosted dinner parties very differently. Many of my meals are served at the kitchen table on my everyday dishes. I pull out the fancy stuff every now and then, but only when I think it will be enjoyable for the guest.
When guests arrive, I still like the lighting at a certain level and the candles lit. After all, with low lighting you don’t see the dirt or dust. I invite my guests in with a smile and offer them something to drink. We might sit and talk for thirty minutes before we sit down to dinner. And when we do, it may not be anything fancier than soup and salad or some of our home-grown vegetables from the garden.
I have learned to be comfortable and relaxed, because then my guests will be the same way. Hospitality need not be a chore. In fact, when done right, it is a true pleasure.
Angela Correll is the author of Grounded. She can be contacted through her website at www.angelacorrell.com.