Mealtime traditions are often a major part of the holiday season. That doesn’t mean they always make sense.
Take the idea of placing a key family member at the head of the table. In many households, that position is held for men, by age. He who sits in the place of honor then gets to hold court over the holiday meal, whether they’ve had anything to do with providing for the meal or not. Sure, our elders deserve deference and respect, but what about grandma – or the people who prepared the meal, for that matter? And how does it make your teenager feel to know she’s clearly physically lowest in the pecking order of your family? Isn’t it time for modern families to embrace a round holiday table, either literally or figuratively, where everyone’s seat — and voice — is considered equal?
Before we do away with the head-of-the-table tradition, it’s best to understand where the idea came from. As it turns out, mealtime social hierarchies are part of longstanding and deep-seated dining customs. “Manners that look the most similar to those 100 years ago are the ones around the table,” says Daniel Post Senning. “They are ingrained traditions and rituals in our culture.” Senning should know – not only is he the great-great grandson of seminal etiquette expert Emily Post, but he’s continuing his own family tradition by helping to run the Emily Post Institute, an etiquette consulting business.
“Placing guests at the table is a deeply political act.”
But the social intricacies of table seating are far older than Emily Post’s time. As Margaret Visser pointed out in her 1991 book, The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners, “eating together is a sign of friendship and equality, and yet people have always used the positioning of ‘companions’ as an expression of the power of each in relationship to the others. Hierarchical seating arrangements make up one of the most intricate aspects of protocol, for placing guests at the table is a deeply political act.” According to Visser, medieval banquets usually featured the hosts and auspicious guests sitting at a raised high table, lording over less important diners. (Think, the Great Hall in Harry Potter, where Dumbledore and the other Hogwarts professors sit at a high table above all the students.)
As time went on, Visser notes, mealtime seating arrangements continued to be of utmost importance. The 16th century Italian etiquette book The Court of Civill Courtesie included a catalogue of maneuvers and responses for gentlemen (yes, just men) who arrived at a meal and were faced with the indignity of not being seated correctly according to their social station, something the book called “an abasement not to be suffered.” In the eighteenth century, dinner guests would race each other across town to ensure they arrived at dinner partiers early enough to score the choicest seats. Thomas Jefferson and other early presidents purposely did away with stodgy seating arrangements at diplomatic events, knowing such an act would be seen as downright revolutionary by their foreign guests.
As crazy as such escapades may seem, there is some reason to having a person of honor at a meal, says Post Senning. “There is a certain practicality to leading the meal from the head of the table,” he says. From this central position, the host can manage the flow of the meal, facilitate key announcements and toasts, and, since they usually know most people in attendance, can help guide introductions and conversation. Other times, it makes sense to give the pride of place to an honored guest, like a visiting great aunt.
Even if you don’t choose to eat your holiday meal in the round, there are lots of ways of shaking up seating hierarchies to encourage fairness and parity
And while investing in a round banquet table, where every seat is identical, might seem wonderfully egalitarian in an Arthurian sort of way, Post Senning points out such an arrangement would come with its own impracticalities. A large, round seating arrangement can limit conversation between those sitting across from each other, plus there would end up being a lot of unused space in the middle of the table.
But despite his pedigree, Post Senning isn’t opposed to doing away with time-honored customs around the head of the table. “I think all traditions are most useful and most fun when they are approached with a spirit of creativity,” he says. Even if you don’t choose to eat your holiday meal in the round, there are lots of ways of shaking up seating hierarchies to encourage fairness and parity. Maybe you award the place of honor to someone who just earned a major achievement, like getting into the college of their dreams. Or maybe the head of the table goes to a different family member at each big meal, according to a set schedule. Heck, maybe you switch table seatings throughout the meal, so everyone gets a chance to call the shots.
Just remember, seating arrangements aren’t just symbolic; they also come with responsibilities. “Sharing the dinner tasks as well as the seat of honor is another way to give everybody a chance to participate,” says Post Senning. So whoever is assigned to sit at the head of the table this holiday season should know the honor comes with obligations. Maybe they have to help cut the meat or come up with a stirring toast. Whatever their task may be, make sure the person holding court understands their seating assignment isn’t simply fun and games. As our high-minded ancestors knew well, the job of keeping a meal running smoothly isn’t a job to be trifled with.