“Who’s that?” my husband asked, pointing at a Thanksgiving photo. We were in my childhood home, perusing photo albums from days gone by—the old-school ones with mylar film photo covers and the nostalgic sticky sound when you shimmy your photo in the album.
My husband had pointed to the obvious “foreigner” in our otherwise stereotypically American-looking family photo. I nonchalantly replied, “That’s Rosana and her husband. They’re from Romania and were studying here in the U.S. that year.”
Why was that so shocking? Everyone has seemingly random people in their family photos, right? I thought to myself. My husband looked through several other albums and noticed other people that were definitely not part of our family. After the third or fourth response of, “Oh! That’s so-in-so,” he laughed and said, “Our family traditions around the holidays were very different.”
It was moments like these, after I got married, that I realized not every family invites international students or friends that need a family for the holidays. I never realized this was “not normal.”
Maybe you’ve felt that sense of safety when you’ve walked into a friend’s family home and instantly felt welcomed. You didn’t notice how clean the baseboards were or whether they were using china or paper plates; you remember how you felt. I bet you’ve also experienced entering a beautiful home, interacting with albeit kind people, but leaving with a sense of relief when you walk out the door, like you had been holding your breath the entire time. These are the homes where you’re afraid to bump a coaster out of place, and the people who make you want to peek in their hall closet when you ask to use the bathroom.
The difference is this: One is hospitality, and one is entertaining people.
My childhood home was and is an ongoing renovation project. Nothing is ever perfect aesthetically, but the sense you feel as you walk into my parents’ home is that these people will accept me, be curious about my life, and offer me whatever they have.
While entertainment offers an enjoyable environment and physical experience, a not-so-desirable byproduct is a one-way transaction. Hospitality changes both the host and the guest by creating a safe space for mutual connection and community—a mutual honoring of one another through the practice of giving and receiving. Entertainment says, “Look what I have to offer you.” Hospitality says, “Come as you are. I believe we can both learn from one another.” While hospitality can include entertainment, entertainment very rarely offers an invitation to experience true hospitality.
While entertainment offers an enjoyable environment and physical experience, a not-so-desirable byproduct is a one-way transaction.
My family and I lived in Spain for three years, and our deepest friendships were centered around this idea of giving and receiving hospitality. We worked in a job that could have easily made us feel like we needed to entertain people in our home and put on a show for them. In reality, authentic connection came with a sharing of culture, a sense of mutual respect, and a curious desire to understand one another. My favorite tradition we began in that season was hosting a Christmas Eve dinner for all our friends who, like us, had no other relatives in the country. Everyone brought a dish from their country of origin or supplied more wine. There was mutual love and appreciation for where each person was coming from and deep gratitude for the gift of connection. These people became our family.
Within Spanish culture, to offer an invitation into your home is an act of trust, something that does not come easily. Many Spaniards have had the same friend group since childhood, so to invite people outside that group into your home or to an event with their long-standing friends is to open yourself up to trust and vulnerability, which are not overly welcomed sentiments in their culture. We were fortunate enough to have not one, but three families that allowed us into their homes and friend groups, and ultimately opened their hearts to us and ours to them.
When we left Spain, we all wept saying goodbye to each of those families because we had mutually been changed by our connection. Hospitality offers both the giver and the receiver the opportunity to step into something that is greater than themselves. To know true connection is to seize this opportunity no matter how long we will be in a certain physical place.
The ancient Greeks had an incredible understanding of this sacred, mutual connection. According to an article by Julie Daniel (2021), the word they used for hospitality was “xenia,” which can be translated as “guest-friendship.” Daniel also notes that within the Greek language, both the host and the guest were referred to as “xenos,” implying that this bond between the host and the invited was intrinsically connected. This is true hospitality, when we offer friendship. Entertainment cannot offer us community connection like this because it will always want to show itself off all while hiding behind a beautifully curated mask.
My dear friend, Julia Hurlow, in her book Transcendence at the Table (2020), wrote:
As Kierkegaard so eloquently shares, “He who cannot reveal himself cannot love, and he who cannot love is the most unhappy man of all.” To engage in love for another around the shared space at the table where conversations are not limited and silence is welcomed when needed, means that there can be a healing balm for people to process their emotion, thoughts and experiences. (p. 24)
Simply put, hospitality is an invitation into community—the reality of which, as Hurlow alludes, is not easy. It requires more vulnerability, more risk to show up mask-less. Sometimes we don’t extend or receive hospitality because we wonder if it’s worth the effort, or the potential tension or rejection.
Honestly, we thought we would be in Spain longer than three years, so we extended and received hospitality as if we were going to be there to enjoy it for a lifetime. Now stateside, I can say it wouldn’t have changed how we engaged with the community we found, and knowing several of our friends, I don’t think it would have changed how they offered the same to us. We would have missed the gift of their friendship and the ways it grew us, and the privilege of knowing and being known. Entertainment may offer good meals, but unless the mask comes off, we may never feel we know our hosts, and we certainly can’t discover the transformation and welcome of true connection.
Daniel, J. (2021, February 28). Stories of hospitality. IMMA. https://imma.ie/magazine/stories-of-hospitality/
Hurlow, J. (2020). Transcendence at the table: A transfigurational experience while breaking bread together (p. 24). Wipf and Stock.