Even as I’m typing, I can look out across a disorganized landscape of coffee cups, glasses, scattered winter wear, books, dusty furniture and chipped paint. How could I even consider the idea of inviting company over this Christmas season? But if I really think about it, I know I have confused hospitality with entertaining and the two concepts are not the same.
Entertaining involves setting the perfect table with dinnerware that is usually hidden. It chooses a menu that will impress and then frets its way through each stage of the preparation. It requires every throw pillow to be in place, every cobweb to be eradicated and every person to be neat, clean and orderly. It plans extra time choosing the perfect outfit just before the first guest rings the doorbell on the perfectly decorated doorstep. And if any element of the evenings plan falls short, entertaining perceives the entire evening to have been a disaster. Entertaining focuses attention on self.
But hospitality involves setting a table that makes everyone feel comfortable. It chooses a menu that allows face time with guests instead of being a prisoner in the kitchen. It picks up the house to make things pleasant but doesn’t feel the need to conceal the evidence of an everyday, stressful busy life. It sometimes sits down to dinner with messy hair and no make-up. It allows the gathering to be shaped by the quality of the conversation rather than the cuisine and the decor. Hospitality shows interest in the thoughts, feelings, pursuits and the lives of its guests. It is good at asking questions and listening intently to answers. Hospitality focuses attention on others.
Entertaining is always thinking about the next course. Hospitality burns the rolls because it was listening to a story. Entertaining obsesses over what went wrong. Hospitality savors what was shared. Entertaining, exhausted, says, “It was nothing, really!” Hospitality thinks it was nothing. Really.
Entertaining seeks to impress. Hospitality seeks to bless.
Different people can set the same beautiful table and serve the same gourmet meal—one with a motive to impress, the other a motive to bless.
How can we know the difference? Only the second of the two would invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to pull up a chair and sip from the good stemware. Our motives are revealed not just in how we set our tables but in who we invite. Entertaining invites a select few. Hospitality takes all.
Hospitality is about many things, but it is not about keeping a spotless house, it’s about building a warm home. Spotless or not, hospitality throws the doors wide open. It offers itself and expects nothing in return. It keeps no record of its service, counts no cost and desires no thanks.
So, as this holiday season begins: forgo the empty pleasure of entertaining. Serve instead the high-heaped feast of hospitality, as if it had been served to you.