This month, when we spotlight the virtue of generosity, let’s also train eyes on generosity’s natural ally: hospitality. As families prepare to welcome relatives, friends, and strangers into their homes, we can help kids understand that the December holidays are not just a time to party, but a time to open our hearts and homes to the needs of others, to be a host and take joy in putting our guests first. AND let’s talk with kids about being good guests too.
Hospitality, the friendly reception of guests or strangers into one’s home, has ancient roots. Early Bedouin peoples, who were always on the move, enshrined the virtue of hospitality in the Middle East. Offering shelter, water, finest food and drink, even music and stories to the traveling guest, was a feature of both ancient Sumerian and ancient Egyptian lore. Biblical sources repeat the theme. Ancient Greeks considered hospitality (philoxenia – “love of the stranger”) not just an option but a duty. In medieval times, Benedictine monks enshrined “hospitality” as one of their vows; they hastened to provide food and shelter to pilgrims on the move.
So, as we deck out our homes, bake our cookies, put on the holiday music, and prepare to welcome guests, it’s a good time to remind ourselves and our children what it means to be a good host … and a good guest. When we extend hospitality, we are first and foremost thinking about the guest. We strive to create a welcoming space for the other. Our objective is to make guests feel appreciated and special.
What should we teach kids about how to do that? It starts with getting ready: we prepare by providing a clean and possibly festive space, an area in which our company will feel welcomed. Maybe that means tidying up a play space or setting the table in a special way. When guests arrive, in the northern hemisphere at this time of year, it involves offering to take their coats and perhaps a bench to sit on to remove their boots. Then it’s about welcoming them into our home, letting the guests go first, and making them comfortable in the space in which we plan to entertain.
By custom we offer guests a special drink or snack to welcome them. Then it's about sharing—learning about their lives, telling our stories, pursuing a common activity, whether a meal, conversation, card game, carols or karaoke. If you’re dining together, guests often have a special seat at the table. We can teach kids to clear the places of the guests at the end of the meal. When the guests leave, help them gather their belongings and always thank them for coming.
Are there rules for gracious guests? Yes, indeed. The host does not expect payback but can expect good manners. The good guest gratefully accepts the hospitality offered and doesn’t ask for something different unless a physical allergy is involved (and then with apologies). The good guest always finds a way to express appreciation to the host for the meal or party or entertainment they’ve provided. And the good guest participates in events with gusto, responding eagerly to overtures of conversation and activity, contributing from their interests and experience. “Sharing” is not just about the host inquiring into the life and activities and needs of the newly arrived, but also about the guest seeking to better understand his/her hosts and contribute to a convivial environment with their own stories. Good guests leave the home of the host in good order (unless the host doesn’t really want them to help with dishes, which is common), and with many expressions of gratitude.
In December, teachers can role play these situations with their class, having half the class be “guests” for lunch one day, and the other half act as “hosts.” Then switch it the next day. Who’s taking the coats? Who’ll show the guest to their seats? Who’ll serve the drinks and meal? How should the guests express appreciation? The class can also brainstorm how they can help their parents with the entertaining they are about to do: tidying the house, putting up the decorations, setting the table, putting guest towels in the guest bathroom, and much more.
In Genesis, Abraham rushes out to meet three strangers who approach his tent and offers them hospitality. The ancient Jewish patriarch turns out to be "entertaining angels unaware" and is blessed by them. In our lives, when we discover the joy of opening our hearts and home to others and when we express gratitude toward those who honor us with their hospitality, the holidays come to life in a new way.
Mary Beth Klee
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