Monday, March 11, 2013

Etiquette and Entertaining


A few words from

"Etiquette: An Answer to the Riddle When? Where? How?"

By Agnes H. Morton 1899



On Entertaining;


Hospitality shares what it has. It does not attempt to give what it has not. The finest hospitality is that which welcomes you to the fireside and permits you to look upon the picture of a home-life so little disturbed by your coming that you are at once made to feel yourself a part of the little symphony— the rare bit of color just needed to complete the harmonic combination. With this flattering fact impressed upon your glowing memory you will hardly be able to recall the material adjuncts of the occasion. It is a sign of a gross nature to measure hospitality by the loaves and fishes, forgetting the miracle that goes with them. And it is equally a mistake for a host to be afraid to offer humble entertainment when richer offers are beyond his means. To a refined perception "the life is more than the meat," and the personality of the host, not the condition of his larder, decides whether or not it is an honor to be his guest. 

Delightful though it be to be able to afford one's guest a rare and beautiful entertainment, one must dismiss the idea that a graceful and acceptable hosepitality depends on material things. Sir Launfal, sharing his crust with the beggar at the gate, was still Sir Launfal. The impoverished hostess may preside at her frugal board with the spirit and the manner of a queen, whereas the coarse-fibred vulgarian vainly heaps his platters with choicest game and rarest fruit, the while he serves the banquet like the churl that he is.

Whatever your entertainment, rich or poor, remember, first of all, to give yourself to your guest; then, if he is appreciative, he will not criticise your simple dinner, nor grumble at the flavor of your wine. One of the wits of the day has gravely reported that at a banquet in the Athens of America, "the menu consisted of two baked beans and readings from Emerson." Despite its grotesque exaggeration, the mot contains the kernel of a dignified truth: that material things are of secondary importance on all social occasions worthy of the name.

The most expensive entertainment given by any one should be merely an incidental illustration of his already recognized financial means. It should never be so beyond his usual ability as to arouse among his neighbors the wonder, how he could afford it? When people who are known to have only a moderate income give "spreads" disproportionate to their daily mode of living, the thoughtful observer instinctively questions their taste and good sense. Usually such ostentatious display brings more or less derision on the ones who are foolish enough to spend more money to make their neighbors stare for a day than they use to make themselves comfortable for a year. No matter how elaborate the entertainment the guests should not be allowed to suspect that their host has exhausted his resources, or that he might not be able to do this same thing at any time that he chose.

As already suggested, the character of the entertainment in a private house should never be such as to involve a total departure from the habitual customs of the household. It is granted that provision must be made on a grander scale for larger numbers; the quantity of things will necessarily be augmented, and mere bulk wears a certain air of the imposing, and when to this is added the vital element—the magnetism of a brilliant company—the participant will seem to breathe a rarified atmosphere, and to an extent to be exalted above the level of everyday life. Yet that level should not be lost to sight nor cease to be the basis of measurement. The quality of elegant serving and mannerly eating should be just what is every day observed at the family dinner of the same household. The guest should get a correct idea of
the home atmosphere of the house, even though it be slightly congealed by the formality and reserve which the presence of strangers naturally inspires.

When people assume to entertain socially they should not give a false showing of themselves or of their means. The proudest spirit acknowledges the limitations of poverty with dignified truthfulness; it is the moral coward who seeks to hide these limitations by a greater display than his circumstances warrant. And he reaps as he sows. His " entertainments" fill an idle hour for the class of visitors who gravitate mainly to the supper-room, while the giver of the feast, under the tension of this social effort, suffers a weariness of the spirit as well as of the flesh, and gives a sigh of relief when the door closes upon the last guest, and the pitiful farce is declared "over." We wonder " Why do they thus spend their strength for that which profiteth not?" Surely, few things in the course of a misspent life are less profitable than such over-strained efforts at showy entertainment. The "banquet hall deserted " presents on the following day a grim reminder of the petty economies that for weeks hence must secretly be contrived in order to restore the balance of an overdrawn bank account. The folly of living beyond one's means may have this extenuating feature, that it is often an error due to generous, though indiscreet impulse, or to inexperi. ence; but the folly of spending money lavishly on a few ostentatious " spreads" that are "beyond one's means" has no redeeming points. The deception seldom long deceives. It is a social blunder, the effect of which is to depreciate rather than to enhance the social importance of the family thus entertaining.

It will be understood that this refers to cases when the motive of extravagance is to gratify vanity. It does not mean to imply that the Christmas dinner, or the birthday party, or the wedding anniversary may not be a time when all the energies of a poor and usually frugal household may be concentrated to prepare for one occasion of feasting and rejoicing. The Cratchetts may have their roast goose; even the Micawbers may be indulged in their occasional banquet. And the carefully planned birthday party may be all the more gratefully appreciated by the honored one when it is known that every choice provision for the occasion represents some thoughtful contriving and some self-sacrifice prompted by affection. Such occasions are "red-letter days" in the homes of people of limited means; and pathos is never more delicately suggested than when the poor man forgets his poverty in the wealth of a home gathering and a feast of remembrance. "Let not a stranger intermeddle with their joy."

In the two cases the financial conditions may seem to be parallel, but in essential spirit there is no resemblance. What is done from sentiment and affection is above commercial measurement. What is done for the sake of ostentation is, by its own act, made a legitimate object of popular criticism.

Another point of good taste in entertaining is that one who is wealthier than others of his social circle should not conspicuously outshine his neighbors by giving them a kind and degree of entertainment which will make their return of civilities seem poor and mean by comparison. Unless the rich man is so greatly beyond others in the scale of wealth that comparisons cease to be odious, it is more considerate for him to keep within the degree of expense and display possible to the average of his associates.
There is still another reason why the very rich should be chary of giving magnificent entertainments.

The dazzled community, gazing spell-bound upon the spectacle of a flower-decked mansion, brilliant with colored lights and echoing to bewildering strains of music, is apt to forget, in this aggregation of the energies of florist, caterer, and band-master, the one man who is supposed to be, but is not, the author of this occasion.

George (descanting on the glories of the " crush of the season") — "The music — the champagne— the"
Montague—"Ah ! yes; and how did 'mine host: bear himself?"
George—" The host! (ruefully). B'Jove! I forgot to hunt him up!"
Unfortunately, mine host had allowed his surroundings to belittle himself. 

Many a brilliant "social event" might properly be chronicled under the head-line: "Total Eclipse of the Host!" so insignificant does the man become when he carries his standards of social entertaining in his pocket-book instead of in his brains.

However, one need not be very rich in order to make this same mistake. It is made every time that social life ceases to be social, and becomes merely a contest of rival displays. This folly is observed in small villages quite as often as in the metropolis. In contrast, how refreshing it is to cross the threshold of a refined and cultivated home, and find awaiting us a cordial welcome and a genuine hospitality, so true to its author's personality and environment that whether water or wine be offered we know not, grateful that our host gives us his best, whatever it is and, best of all, gives himself.

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