In the Pacific Northwest, November holds the place between the radiant golden hues of fall and the wet gray scale of winter. With it comes the official entry to the year-end holiday season and its annual themes of gratitude and generosity. Nostalgia arrives as well. As it’s nearly impossible to go about the present preparations without recalling memories of the past.
When I was a child, holiday meals at our house always meant piecing together tables to create one long enough to accommodate assembled family members amidst the confines of our co-joined dining area and kitchen. A card table was always at the end. Though lower and smaller than the rest, this connected “kids’ table” still signaled belonging to me and my cousins. This official place within our family’s celebration also provided our first experiences of communion and community.
Years later, that same recognition of belonging would be reinforced by my own young niece when she arrived at our house for a holiday gathering. Taking in a similarly cobbled-together table, she said, “Do I get to sit there?” Her awe at the prospect was palpable.
Sharing tables is one of the most uniquely human things we do. Tables bring us together and remind us that there’s more to food than fuel. They are universal places of human connection.
The gathering need not involve abundant or lavish spreads. They can, in fact, be quite simple, as it’s fellowship and not the food that leaves the lasting imprint. In today’s fast-paced, tech-saturated, attention-deficit, divisive culture, this need has never felt more important. At a time when our society is unquestionably its most connected, it is also profoundly lonely.
This phenomenon is at the heart of a surgeon general advisory, titled On Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, released earlier this year. The advisory identifies loneliness, isolation and the lack of connection in our country as a public health crisis. Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. This disconnection fundamentally affects our mental, physical and societal health.
While everybody’s vulnerability to loneliness and social isolation differs, we all need social connection. It’s a residual biological imperative from a time when social exclusion for ancient humans was a death sentence. We survived by evolving within close-knit communities. We still feel it today in the afterglow of lingering positive benefits when we’ve spent time around a table with people we enjoy and care about. Proof that these small acts of hospitality matter.
Tables bring us together. They move us out of our small, individual selves to a sense of being part of something more. Even when that something more is just two people enjoying a simple meal.
Perhaps this holiday season we can think about our tables as more than a tablescape and a place to set the food. But also, as places where we can kindle joy and create belonging for others. Where our invitations become small gestures of caring that buffer, even if only for a moment, the wear and tear of a world gone atilt. Especially for those whose social connections may have recently been lessened by circumstance or over time. In the sentiment of Dr. Seuss, we never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory for someone else.