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Welcome to the table

By Sally Quinn
Monday, November 23, 2009 11:39 AM

A number of years ago I wrote a book about entertaining called "The Party: A Guide to Adventurous Entertaining." I didn't really have any grandiose theme in mind, I just had a lot of delicious anecdotes and some advice I had picked up over time from covering parties for The Washington Post, going to a lot of them and giving them myself.

It wasn't until I sat down to write the dedication that I had an epiphany about the point of the book. It was to my parents "who taught me that entertaining is really about generosity of spirit."

A lot of people, when they hear the word "entertaining," perspire, palpitate or tumble into paralysis. There's either fear ("Oh my God, I could never entertain properly") or loathing ("All they do is entertain; they must be frivolous people").

A mischievous friend of mine, Barbara Howar, said it better than anyone: "If I thought my epitaph was going to read 'hostess,' I'd refuse to die.' "

As a high-ranking military couple, my parents realized that socializing was a significant part of my father's career. They taught me that we are all hosts and hostesses. We all entertain. You may not call it that. You may not like to think of it as that, but it's the truth. Anybody who has ever had a friend over for a cup of coffee or a beer has entertained. The question is, how do you do it, and how do you do it right?

Entertaining well is not about which fork to use. Anybody can go to the store and buy a book on etiquette, which will ease their minds on the details. What those books don't tell you about is the spirit of entertaining.

Three years ago I started a Web site, "On Faith" for Washingtonpost.com, which I moderate with Newsweek editor Jon Meacham. The Web site is for people of all faiths and no faith and is a lively and provocative discussion every day, essentially about the timeless questions we all face: what gives our lives meaning.

Recently I began to think more about my own life -- I just celebrated my 31st wedding anniversary and planning a wedding that will welcome a daughter-in-law into our family -- and how one of the most joyous things I do and what gives me the most pleasure is bringing my friends together around a table, having great conversations, learning about one another and creating a sense of community -- and above all, having fun! After all, if you don't care about having fun, just have a meeting.

I originally thought to do a column for "On Faith" called "The Sacred Table" about entertaining. When you think about it, there is a sacred quality to the sharing of a meal. Just think of Jesus's last supper as an example. The table can be a kind of altar, with a cloth, candles, wine and bread. Every religion has some kind of "breaking of bread" associated with its rituals and traditions. Many Christian denominations even call the bread itself "the host!"

There can, however, be more at stake. Social snubs have started wars and social graces have avoided them. Much about diplomacy and politics is about sitting down together at the table, even when the chicken is rubber.

Washington was once a kinder, gentler place when those in power spent more time here. (The end of civility, in our town, coincided with the convenience of air travel.) Politicians would leave their grudges at the office and dine together at night. They got to know one another. It's much harder to demonize somebody if you have sat next to him at dinner and exhanged stories about families and life.

The more I thought about it, though, I felt that calling it "The Sacred Table" was too confining. This is not, after all, a column about religious entertaining. As in "On Faith," this is a column for everybody. It is about celebrating those we care about and our lives together. I decided to call the column "The Party" after my book. "Party" is just a happy word. It's much less scary than "entertaining," and it has so many different meanings. My goal when I have people over is for everyone to have a memorable time and leave feeling uplifted, affirmed, embraced.

Once a week I will be answering questions from you about how to do just that. I'm still learning, too, so I would welcome any advice you have. I also will be doing online chats to answer your questions. I'm going to pose the first question and answer it myself today. Since the holidays are coming up, I thought I'd ask this universal question:

What do you do at a holiday meal if some want to say grace and others do not?

I used to be offended when people said grace. I felt that it imposed their religion on everyone at the table, regardless of whether they were believers. Then one Thanksgiving, the first family gathering at my house, my father asked to say grace. I acquiesced because I didn't want to make a scene. We all held hands. He said, "Lord, make us truly thankful for these blessings which we are about to receive." Well, the world didn't come to an end. It made him happy, and we all had a loving and memorable feast.

What I realized was that we all have our own ways of showing gratitude, and that's what saying grace is all about. If there are people of different faiths, then honor them by letting them say something, too. If you feel like it, let those of no faith or who are simply spiritual speak as well. The most valuablething is to respect the feelings of everyone at the table. I now say grace at every holiday meal. I say, because my dinners are decidedly inclusive, "Please let us all be truly thankful for these blessings we are about to receive." That's what I call sacred. That's what I call a party.

Sally Quinn is the co-moderator of On Faith.

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