By Karen Burton Mains
“Don’t your dishes get dusty?” asked a friend as she watched me place the just-washed plates back on the dining-room table.
“Probably,” I replied. “But if they do, we just swipe them. And actually, David and I eat around the table, so the settings get washed a couple times a week. However, I am always ready for company. I think a set table says, ‘Welcome.’ It says, ‘We are waiting for you.’ It says, ‘We are ready.’ ”
This idea came from a friend who set her table several days before anticipated company arrived; for her, it just made the day of a dinner party much less frantic, and a beautifully set table put her in the mood for entertaining.
So I took the idea home, and this tradition has now evolved into a seasonal practice. For each season I set the table with a new centerpiece—the ceramic African guinea hen for autumn, for instance, surrounded by candles and clay pumpkins, artificial pears and persimmons and with field grasses and stem-dried flowers accenting the arrangement. This stays up until after Thanksgiving when we set the Christmas table.
Dinner guests often stay to help us wash dishes. We chat more in the kitchen. David’s role is at the sink for whichever plates or utensils don’t go in the dishwasher; the guests dry dishes, I store leftover food, and someone else puts the settings back on the table. It seems to me an economy of function—we save several steps: the centerpieces are always prepared, I don’t have to stack things in the cupboards and drawers, nor do I have to set a table for the next crowd.
Having written a best-selling book on the theology of hospitality and having taught about Scriptural hospitality for decades across this country and having practiced hospitality joyfully for the five decades of our married life, I find that a set table says something to everyone who enters our home.
It says to my grandchildren, nine of them so far: It is important that we eat together, tell each other the stories of our lives, pray before we eat, and learn to cook these meals as a team in the kitchen. (I hold grandchildren “cooking classes” whenever I can.)
It says to my husband: We have had this rich married life in ministry (five decades) and we both know that the days of our lives together on this earth are limited by each passing moment. One of the ways of sharing it well is to sit down to carefully prepared meals at a table that is ready for us, no matter how busy the day has been.
It says to younger friends: Yes, you can practice hospitality simply—and Christ will be present as He promised—but you can also take a little effort to make things beautiful. An easy way to do this is to spend a couple hours once a season putting an attractive table together, and it can be attractive without much money invested. All you need is a little time, some dedicated creativity, and some intentionality. We sometimes overspend because our schedules are so full, and we can’t take a moment to think, “What do I already have on hand?”
It says to guests: We are really glad to have you in our home. Something special is going to happen around this table. Look! Some effort has been taken to make things pleasant. We are going to connect in significant ways (would we have put all the effort into making a table beautiful and then be satisfied with superficial conversation?). We are going to invite Christ to sit and dine with us (Look! There are prayer cards at each place). We are going to leave here warmed by feeling included and accepted and wanted. We will have laughed together. The dishes and glasses and silverware and fresh napkins will be placed back on the dining-room table to say again for other friends, “You are welcome here; we have been waiting for you and we are ready.”
Many experts have bemoaned the demise of the family dinner hour. This has resulted in anthropologists and child-development specialists, researchers and university research departments studying the effect on youngsters in homes that do not observe regular mealtimes together and comparing them with those who do. Many of these studies began in the 1980s and have had time to conduct extensive long-term analyses. The results of all this effort are stunning.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University has been able to compile almost a decade’s worth of data. Despite the concept that teens prefer to have less family time, the CASA study found that a majority of teens who ate three or fewer meals a week with their families wished they had more meals together. According to a 2006 TIME Magazine article (“The Magic of the Family Meal”), the largest payoff from the investment of meals together was with those in the teenage years: “Studies show that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and commit suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and know which fork to use.”
Most social scientists who study the family meal consider it as a kind of powerful act of human communion. Robin Fox, an anthropologist who teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey, comments: “If it were just about food, we would squirt it into their mouths with a tube. A meal is about civilizing children. It’s about teaching them to be a member of their culture.” He presses the point, “Making food is a sacred event . . . .”
Ancient cultures have always known this, that meals shared together were about more than just eating food; something uncommon was created using common things—grain and wine and vegetables and sometimes meat. Witness the Old Testament response of Abraham when visited by the three strangers he instinctively knew were holy. He gave orders to prepare a hospitable meal: “Go kill the fatted calf.” Christ broke bread with the thousands and with His band of twelve disciples. Despite the American way of stuffing food we barely taste into our mouths while running errands or making the kids’ dance class on time or not missing the current organized sporting ritual, a good meal carefully prepared, offered at a table lovingly arranged, ushers us into another kind of time, a communion time to be sure where the best of the day just spent and the worst of it can be told in a safe and supportive and comforting environment.
The table is always set at our house. It says to all who come: This time together is important. We do not take the eating of food together lightly. At this place we hear and listen and understand one another. This table reminds us that God is preparing a banquet feast, the Supper of the Lamb, and that the lights in His house are always lit, the welcome mat is never withdrawn from the door, and the invitation is always ready. Our table in this dining room, on this street, in this town, in this community, in this state, in this nation, on this planet is a small replica of what is happening on a grander scale in the world beyond.
You are welcome at our house. We’ll light the candles for you.
1. TIME Magazine article “The Magic of the Family Meal” by Nancy Gibbs can be found at
In Open Heart, Open Home (over 500,000 copies in print), award-winning author Karen Mains steps far beyond how-to-entertain you hints to explore the deeper concepts of Christian hospitality: the Biblical way to use your home like God wants us to. Countless pastors have recommended this classic resource as the meaningful example of how the Holy Spirit ministers to and through us to make other people feel truly welcome and deeply wanted. More information on Karen’s books can be found at karenmains-hungrysouls.wetpaint.com/page/Karen+Burton+Mains.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.