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Host And Guest

THE bond between host and guest has in all times been held to be of a peculiar and even sacred character. In ancient Greece hospitality was, a matter of religion, and violation of its duties was thought to provoke the wrath of the gods. A stranger was regarded as enjoying the protection of Zeus Xenios, and was received and guarded from harm during his stay. Indeed, the roads were all sacred, and whoever passed over them was the guest of the land. A free lunch even was provided for him, since he was at liberty to take the offerings of food, etc., which were to be found in front of the statues of the tutelary deity of the road, who was generally that prince of thieves, Hermes.

When the guest parted from his host, a sort of true-love token in the shape of a die was sometimes broken between them. Each took a part, and a family connection was thus established, the broken die serving as a symbol of recognition. The guest was often presented with valuable gifts, which must have been rather troublesome to carry away in those times when express companies had not been invented. The common statement that a stranger was considered as an enemy is said to be a groundless one, although it may have been true of an earlier and more primitive time.

The Romans had customs similar to those of the Greeks. Jupiter Hospitalis watched over the jus hospitii, or law of hospitality, and the connection between host and guest often became hereditary. In ancient Rome the law recognized between them a tie almost as strong as that which connected patron and client, and a guest could appear in a court of justice only through his host.

The hospitality of the Hebrews is familiar to us all from the pages of the Bible. Indeed, Oriental hospitality is so sacred in its character, and so picturesque and striking in its details, that it has come to be the source of imagery, and the type of which we all in-voluntarily think whenever the relations of host and guest are under discussion. As customs in the East have varied so little during many ages, we may still behold and wonder at ceremonies hospitable and other-wise, which have been practised there for countless centuries. To our more emancipated minds, however, the long and ceremonious salutations, the oft-repeated hand-shakings or prostrations, the giving and receiving of endless presents, together with the profound gravity pervading all these and other ceremonies, seem more like child's play than the behavior suitable to full-grown and rational beings. The hospitality of a nation will always exhibit some of its special characteristics. Munificence and elaborate ceremony are the important elements of Oriental hospitality; but of the real every-day life of his host, a guest travelling in the East necessarily learns very little.

The Englishman's views of the proper reception and treatment of a guest are of a very different sort. Love of liberty and a fondness for. domestic life are the strongest or certainly the best traits of the Briton, and he therefore shares with the stranger within his gates what he himself values most namely, perfect freedom, and the pleasures of home life, also roast beef and beer in abundance.

We Americans are so peripatetic in our habits, and so active in our tastes and pursuits, that we sometimes overweary our guests by the number of amusements provided for their delectation. We fairly kill them with kindness.

The French value very highly the conversational powers with which they themselves are abundantly gifted. Accordingly they amuse their guests with clever and witty talk, and consider the mere providing of food and drink as a very inferior branch of hospitality. It certainly is; and the civilization of a nation which holds it necessary above all things to stuff a guest thoroughly and well, as if he were a pig, is on a much lower plane than that of a people whose cardinal social belief is in the necessity and delight of an interchange of thoughts and ideas.

That was a grave charge which Mr. Alcott brought against the Chelsea philosopher. " I accuse T. Carlyle of inhospitality to my thought," said the Concord sage or so the story rims. But no one less optimistic than Mr. Alcott could have hoped that a man holding ideas and theories so widely different from his own as did Mr. Carlyle, could even momentarily sympathize with his peculiar views.

The host is necessarily a sort of temporary ruler; if his guests misbehave in any way he is considered responsible for them. Like all rulers, he is liable to 'be in some degree a tyrant, though perhaps with the best intentions in the world. The old-fashioned host would not think of allowing his guests to leave the house before the proper hour for their departure, and detained them almost by force, all in the exercise of his duty. Nay, he did more than this; for he often compelled them to drink much more wine than was good for them.

The modern host is but a shadow of his ancient prototype. Indeed, one of the most striking changes in our manners is to be found in the surrender of the sceptre of hospitality into the hands of women. The host has become of little importance, the hostess is the powerful factor; and even the invitations for almost all social occasions stand in her name alone. In America our men are too busy to give their time to the consideration of social matters. Besides, the women wish to rule, and the men of our country, with the latter-day common sense sort of chivalry that distinguishes them above all others, think it only fair to grant us this privilege. They bear in mind the French proverb, " Les hommes font les lois, les femmes font les moeurs," and for the most part submit to the petticoat government of society without a murmur. Here and there a gentleman of leisure, endowed with social talent, aspires to leadership in the world of fashion; but he finds it a thankless task. A few people recognize his services, but the many are inclined to make fun of and sneer at him. " A government of the women, by the women, for the women," is our social motto in America; and with the conservatism peculiar to a republic, we do not readily abandon our creed.

While hospitality is undoubtedly a duty, it loses half its charm the moment people cease to look upon it as a pleasure. A conscientious but unwilling host is like those virtuous and austere persons who make goodness hateful because they practise it in such a disagreeable way. Nor should a truly hospitable person keep too strict a debit and credit account with society, inviting his guests in order to clear off his social debts, instead of for the pleasure of seeing and entertaining them. " I can always tell," said a witty Boston woman, whether a party has been made to pay off social obligations, or merely for the fun of the thing. Where the people are all uncongenial spirits, and bore their hostess and each other half to death, it is very evident why they were asked together."

Such a company will be much like a meal that is planned for the sole purpose of eating up what is in the house, or like a costume arranged to wear out various heterogeneous garments that have no real relation to each other. Economy is an excellent minor virtue; but it is not noble enough to stand in the first place, and should always be gracefully concealed beneath some loftier motive. The spirit which cannot brook being under obligations even to a friend is certainly a churlish one. It is better at least it is more independent - than the spirit which permits a person to receive favors constantly without a thought of doing anything in return, but either is undesirable. It is just as noble to receive a kindness gracefully, though without servility, as to give generously, yet not in a patronizing spirit. Indeed, only a generous nature understands either how to give or to receive. The man who knows the blessedness of giving is willing that his friends shall know it also.

How much pleasure do we lose in this life by the persistent habit of regarding certain, duties as disagreeable which often prove to be just the reverse! " I have sixty calls to make during this month; how I hate the thought! " says some lady with a large circle of acquaintance. She starts out to make her round of visits, in the stern spirit of a martyr, rejoices greatly because eleven of her friends are " not at home," but has a delightful time with the single friend who is not out!

One old friend called upon another, not a thousand miles from Boston, and was exceedingly amused by a memorandum which was placed in the lady's bedroom in a conspicuous position. It was written in a large hand, and read, " Must go to see So-and-so." The visitor was Mrs. So-and-so herself !

Some hosts entertain their guests with so much energy, and are so extremely conscientious about providing amusements of various kinds, that they are completely worn out by the time their friends leave. They dread having company because it implies to their minds a vast amount of fatigue and exertion. Such people have but one idea in regard to hospitality; namely, that it consists in killing the fatted calf, which they proceed to do in every sense, and with great thoroughness. Indeed, they offer as a sort of holocaust to the visitor the time, comfort, and convenience of the entire household, - so far, that is to say, as the individual members of it will permit themselves to be sacrificed.

All this is a very mistaken notion of hospitality, and often proves as burdensome to the guest as to the host. Unless a person is extremely unobservant or extremely selfish it will make him very uncomfortable to find that every one else is put about simply for his convenience; and the feeling of unrest which pervades the household will communicate itself to him also. The good old saying, " Make yourself at home," how much it implies! But a guest cannot feel at home where no one else feels so, where every one is uncomfortable, and all ordinary arrangements are turned topsy-turvy. If an atmosphere of self-sacrifice fills the air, the stranger within the gates will inhale it, and he too will be in the prevailing mood. What an artificial and strained state of affairs this will bring about, most of us know from sad experience.

In order to make the guest feel at home, the host must feel so himself. No one would think of leaving his house, when he expected company, in order that the guests might have it all to themselves; it would not be hospitable to do so. Neither is it true hospitality to abandon all one's ordinary habits and ways of life. Your friend wants to see you in your own home and in your own home-life, modified for his behoof and convenience, but not turned inside out and upside down. The family skeleton, if there is one, may as well be put in the closet, and family jars may be shelved for a time, with advantage.

How blessed is that household whose everyday life is so harmonious and well-regulated that no unsightly bones have to be hidden away on the sudden approach of guests! I know of one such home, where the sun always shines in hearts and faces, where the children behave well every day, and the parents never quarrel. The motto of this house is, to use the best every day. The best manners, the best temper, the best silver, china, glass and linen you will see there, not on holidays only, but on working-days as well; and all the visitors who are lucky enough to stay at that house regard it as the ideal home, and the most delightful place in the world to visit.

It is in the country, of course. We must go to the country to find our ideal of hospitality; in town, people are so hurried and busy, and have so many other pleasures, that they cannot enjoy the full measure of hospitality which is given and received in quiet country places. You must have a desert before you can have an oasis; and it has been cynically asserted that the far-famed hospitality of our own South was due largely to the isolated and lonely position of those who exercised it, people who lived on great plantations forty or fifty miles from any possible society. This is not quite just to our Southern brethren, because people who live lonely lives in quiet places are not always hospitably inclined; if they are naturally fond of dwelling alone the tendency will grow with what it feeds on, until an almost churlish spirit of seclusion and great social indolence will be developed.

What a picture does Susan Coolidge give, in her " What Katy Did," of the miseries suffered by two little girls who go to visit a kind but fat and lazy old woman in the country! The poor little souls are given a hot attic-chamber, with a feather-bed to sleep on, and a window provided with a rattling paper shade, but without mosquito-bars, all this in the middle of summer! They find the butter melting into oil, nothing on the table that they can eat, and flies, flies everywhere! The old woman beams kindly on them when she is not asleep; but age and adipose prevent her ever ascending her own stairs to attend to her guests' comfort.

A very important rule of hospitality is not to invite people to visit you unless you can make them comfortable. It is generally unwise to invite any one to stay under your roof, who is accustomed to a much more elaborate and expensive style of living than your own. Of course there are exceptions to this rule; where, for instance, you can offer other attractions to your visitor which should more than compensate for the plainer mode of life. If your summer cottage is on the sea-shore, or in any very attractive locality, you will find most of your friends very willing to endure a little inconvenience for the sake of enjoying a whiff of the salt air. Young people are usually not very particular about their accommodations, so long as they are offered " a real good time," in school-girl parlance. There are some young girls who are so pampered and luxurious, however, that they cannot be happy in any surroundings save those to which they are accustomed. Hence a wise hostess will carefully consider the character as well as the age and social condition of the guests whom she proposes to invite. She will also endeavor to give them, so far as is in her power, the comforts and conveniences to which they have been accustomed at home. The guests on their part should endeavor to give as little trouble as possible, and should conform their habits to those of the household of which they are temporarily members. They should be especially careful to be punctual at all meals, and not to treat their friends' servants as if the latter were their own, sending these on errands or calling upon them for special services. To do so would be to commit an unwarrantable breach of the laws of etiquette.

Mrs. Kemble relates in her journal that Mademoiselle D'Este (an unfortunate lady whose principal aim in life appears to have been the assertion of claims to royal dignity which were never allowed) used regularly to come down late to dinner when visiting at the country-houses of the English nobility. She knew that if she entered the dining-room with the rest of the company, the precedence which she considered her due might not be awarded her, and she was deter-mined that no mere duchess nor countess should go in to dinner before herself. Therefore she entered alone, after every one else was seated, making a graceful inclination to her host, and an apology for her perpetual tardiness!

In this country it is not considered polite to take a valet or maid when going to make a visit at a friend's house, unless one has received special permission to do so, or unless one knows that the custom of the house allows this. At the residences of some multi-millionaires, it is expected that gentlemen will bring their valets with them, and the latter assist in waiting upon the guests at dinner.

A visitor should be extremely careful not to over-stay the time for which he was originally invited, unless under extraordinary circumstances. When the day fixed for the departure arrives, a hostess often makes some little civil speech, to the effect that she is sorry her guest must go so soon, etc. This is said merely by way of compliment; but some young people who are careless and thoughtless allow themselves to be very easily persuaded to prolong their stay, if urged by the daughters or sons of the house to do so, forgetting that their invitation should come from the hostess herself, and that it must be more than ordinarily pressing before they are justified in changing the limit originally set for their stay. In England, guests at a country-house are usually invited for a definite length of time, and on the appointed day the carriage drives up and the guest departs without peradventure. In this country, we are not always so exact. Where one is invited to stay with friends at a distance, a visit is usually supposed to be of a week's duration, if no time has been fixed; but an invitation for a few days may mean anything from two days to a week. According to the old English rule, a first visit should never exceed a week. The increased facilities for transportation and the general use of motor vehicles tend to make us do everything rapidly in the twentieth century. Hence people make shorter stays than formerly at the houses of their friends. The week-end visit, lasting from Friday or Saturday till Monday, has become very popular.

If a hostess wishes her friends to call upon her guest, she should let them know beforehand on what day her visitor is expected, so that they may have plenty of time to offer any social attention which they may be inclined to show. The best way to secure other invitations for a guest, is to invite friends to meet her in the early part of her visit, issuing the invitations before her arrival; for, if she is to remain only a week, and people are not invited to meet her until the middle of the visit, they will have scant time to show her any hospitable attentions. " You are going day after to-morrow? I am so sorry! If you were only to stay longer, I should be so glad to see you at our house," etc. A hostess often hears remarks of this sort made, and laments her own tardiness, which has destroyed all these charming possibilities for her guest's entertainment.

Where one knows the hostess well, it is always proper to write and ask leave to bring a friend who is staying in the house, if one is invited to a ball, reception, or any large general occasion where an in-definite number of people are to be present. No of-fence should be taken, should the hostess be unable to grant the request, owing to lack of space. It is not proper, under ordinary circumstances, to ask leave to bring a guest to a dinner or formal luncheon-party, for obvious reasons. A hostess should not go out to dine, or spend the evening, unless her guest is invited also, or has some other amusement provided.

Where the guest is an intimate friend, or constantly receives and accepts separate invitations, this rule is often waived.

It is not polite to invite a guest to any general entertainment without also inviting the lady under whose roof the former is staying if one is acquainted with the latter. Even for a luncheon or dinner it is more polite to invite the hosts also whenever it is possible to do so.

When calling upon a guest, a card must invariably be left for the lady of the house also, as has been said elsewhere. Where one card only is left, it is always held to be for the hostess.

While one should endeavor to procure invitations and provide pleasant amusements for a guest, it is a great mistake to attempt to lay out all his time, or to try to entertain him all day long. It is said that the English understand to perfection the art or want of art that is necessary to entertain guests at a country-house. Everything about the house and grounds is put at their disposal; they may walk, drive, read, play billiards, smoke or shoot, to suit themselves. In short, they may employ their time as they please until the late dinner-hour brings all together. In the evening every one is expected to remain in the drawing-rooms, and to contribute, so far as in him lies, to the general amusement of the company.

There is one great drawback to the pleasure of visiting at English country-seats, and that is the great expense it entails on account of the vicious system of fees. At a first-class house, belonging to one of the nobility or gentry, a pound sterling is the smallest fee that it is allowable to give; and this sum must be given freely to every servant who has performed any service, even the slightest, for a guest, such as the porter who has barely laid hands on one's travelling bag. A game-keeper must be feed on a much higher scale; twenty-five dollars is the least amount of money some of these dignitaries will accept! It is said that the English nobility themselves regret the existence of this system of extortion, but have not the power to stop it. Jeemes, with all his airs of humility, is in reality more of a despot than his master, the hereditary ruler.

As I take my leave of host and guest, there rises before me the well-known figure of one who is an ideal hostess, and on whose face there is a look of reproach which seems to say, " Am not I too worthy of mention? She is a woman of tall and commanding figure, of ancient family, and of ample worldly means. All these advantages she uses, not to awe or humble other people, but to minister to their pleasure, to give them the best of all she has. To entertain her friends is her greatest delight, and the absence of any invited guest causes her a real and unfeigned regret. As the hour for the feast approaches, her face fairly beams with the anticipation of the pleasure which she is to afford others. " Good-will to men " is written there in letters of light, and each guest says to himself, as he looks at the bright, happy countenance, " I am truly welcomed; how can I help enjoying myself? "

It takes two or three real persons, however, to make an ideal, and since the task has been begun, I must mention one more very charming hostess who has the art of entertaining her guests so that all are pleased, whether she is holding a stately reception, or an in-formal picnic in the woods. This lady enjoys society, not perhaps with the fervor of youth, but with a more quiet and enduring satisfaction. Her spirits rise as her guests assemble; indeed no woman ever becomes a social leader unless she takes real pleasure in meeting with her kind.

This lady has the art of compounding into a harmonious whole, heterogeneous elements which could not be fused save by a master hand. With an apparent madness which yet has its method she mingles artists, poets, and mere society people in her magic caldron. Over all plays the benevolent lightning of her scintillating wit, and literary men and fashionable women find an unsuspected charm in each other's society while galvanized by the electric current of her social sympathy and power. Do more figures loom before me on the social horizon? Alas! it was a rash act to summon one spirit from the great army of charming women. But I will hold parley with no more ghosts today; " ab uno disce omnes."

( Originally Published 1911 )

Social Customs:
Conversation In Society

On Voice, Language And Accent

Gestures And Carriage

Introductions

Letters Of Introduction

On Dress

Dress And Customs Appropriate To Mourning

Host And Guest

Country Manners And Hospitality

In The Street And In Public Places

Read More Articles About: Social Customs



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