This year my family decided to boycott Thanksgiving. Well, not boycott it so much boycott as just skip it. It has been a hectic fall, and we were tired. My parents, my husband, me, even the kids. We all just wanted to spend the day and our time off relaxing. No mad housecleaning. No three day meal preparation. No pressure. Just a pot of soup, a bowl of popcorn, and some old movies. It sounded perfect.
Then my brother called from 800 miles a way. Surprise! They decided to come for Thanksgiving. The boycott was off. Time to get cooking.
It didn't take me long to get into a holiday mood. Once I started baking pies, it was on. I couldn't wait for the feast and to spend time with my brother and his family. Still, I wanted to keep things as simple and relaxed as possible. This year it would be everyday, dishwasher-safe dishes and a casual table. Why knock myself out?
But on Wednesday, Facebook friends of mine began posting photos of their Thanksgiving tables set and ready for the next day. Some were elegant. Some were simple. Others were extravagant. One thing all of these tables had in common is that they were set with care. Festive. I felt a strange uneasiness settle over me. Was I copping out? Cheating my family? Cheating myself?
It might sound silly, but yes. I felt like I was letting my family and myself down by not making more of an effort with my Thanksgiving table. So, Thursday morning I broke out my grandmother's china, unpacked my silverware, and called on my mother to bring me anything and everything she had to create a Thanksgiving centerpiece.
In the end, despite my lack of preparation, our table was lovely. Simple but elegant. It felt good and right. I know now why I was uncomfortable with an everyday table for Thanksgiving. It isn't that Thanksgiving, or any holiday, has to fancy or impressive, but there are several reasons I will always use the good china.
A lovely table sets the day apart. We live in a very casual world. When I was growing up, people dressed up for church, weddings, parties, even air travel and football games. But today dressing up occasions are rare. Of course, there's nothing wrong with dressing down. I'm a huge fan of yoga pants and casual Fridays. But as a culture, we seem to have lost our sense of specialness. We tell ourselves that it doesn't matter how we are dressed or what our surroundings look like. It's our attitudes that matter. It's what's in our hearts that counts. But science disagrees. The theories of embodied cognition and enclothed cognition assert that our environment, what we do with our bodies, and even how we dress affect our thinking. So, when it comes to thankfulness or to setting a day aside for celebration, commemoration, worship, or honor, it's not just what's in our hearts that matters because what's in our hearts is affected by the space we are in and what we are wearing. Spiffy clothes, fine china, crystal goblets. These things are not merely expressions of joy, they actually help to create it. Setting a plain Thanksgiving table would not have nullified the day, but making the effort to set a beautiful table added to and created a sense of festivity, thankfulness, and togetherness.
Using the good China honors my grandmothers. I am fortunate to have a set of my dishes from each of my grandmothers. I love these dishes, not because they are valuable, but because they remind me of women who I dearly loved. My mother's mother was a classy lady. She loved fine things and formality and beauty. She followed the rules of etiquette and expected us to do the same. We were always on our best behavior when we dined with Memaw. But far from making occasions stuffy and uncomfortable, Memaw's high expectations gave our time together a sense of reverence and importance. My father's mother, by contrast, was festive and creative. She loved to deck out her table in keeping with the season. Even if it was just a red construction paper heart at each place for Valentine's Day or a centerpiece of colored eggs for Easter, my Nino made things fun. But she also liked fine things, so no matter how homemade the decorations, Nino always used her best dishes. When I use my grandmothers' dishes, I am reminded of how much they loved special occasions and how much I loved them.
A festive table sets an example for my children. Just as my grandmothers and my mother set an example for me, I want to teach my children to be good hosts. We tend to think that the closer we are to people, the less we have to do. In a sense that's true. I love my friends who can come over, and I don't have to feel embarrassed by the laundry on the table or the dishes in the sink. But because I love these friends, sometimes I want to make them feel like a big deal - like they are worth the effort. I want my closet friends and family to know that their presence warrants the good dishes, a homemade pie, or a festive centerpiece. They, above all people, are worth the effort. I want my children to know how to create an atmosphere of warmth and welcome. Sometimes that's done by eating cookies off a paper plate in a cluttered kitchen. Other times it means bringing out Grandmother's dishes and polishing the silver.
The good china is beautiful. Aside for all the philosophical arguments for using the good china, the bottom line is that I like to use it because it is beautiful. I wanted the day off. I wanted to take it easy and spend the day recharging. But when I looked at my beautiful Thanksgiving table, I felt at ease. I felt recharged. Beauty does that. Beauty makes me happy. The good china makes me happy.
Of course using the good china is a hassle. It has to be hand washed -- before and after dinner. Setting a table with good china means polishing the silver, ironing the napkins, and buying or creating a lovely centerpiece. That's a lot for me since, as a rule, I am into laid back, low effort entertaining. But the thing is setting an occasion apart and making people feel welcome doesn't require fine china at all. It only requires that we recognize that sometimes special people and special occasions are worth the extra effort.