The Stranger at the Table

Before she flew to her native Poland for the holidays, my doctor told me that, on Christmas Eve, Polish families set an empty place for “the stranger,” a person who, symbolically or actually, has nowhere else to go. In the United States, she lamented, Christmas has become so commercialized and gift-focused that Americans have lost focus on the celebration of family and friends that make the holiday meaningful.

Supposedly I can trace some of my ancestry to Poland, but my family is Jewish, not Christian, and so for most of my life, the holidays have had a neither-nor quality. Hanukkah, indifferently promoted in gift catalogs and spread out over eight days that only sometimes intersect with Christmas, doesn’t have a prayer – forgive the pun – of competing with Christmas.

To be honest, I like it better that way. I am one of those people who describe themselves as more spiritual than religious, but I can see how Judaism has shaped my outlook. Some years I light Hanukkah candles, some years not. In most Jewish celebrations, as in Poland, particular objects have symbolic meaning. The menorah, which symbolizes one day’s worth of oil lasting for eight after the rededication of a temple in Jerusalem, celebrates (at least for me) the miracle of enduring spiritual light. The symbolism of a gift-buying blowout does not have meaning I care to celebrate. In that sense, my Polish doctor and I can find common ground despite having very different beliefs.

I am also fortunate to have been welcomed as the stranger at the table many, many times. When I lived in Seattle, I spent most Christmases with close friends. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that their spectacular cooking was as good a way as any to celebrate our varied beliefs. My friends made crown roasts; I always brought homemade challah. One year, when their family piled into a car for midnight mass at St. Mark’s Cathedral, whose choir is locally renowned, I even joined them. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment when, seeing me hover alone near the entryway while my friends took Communion, a priest approached to ask if there was anything he could do for me. I shook my head, smiled, and thanked him, not feeling the need to explain. Even after years of continuing to wander between holidays, his small kindness – his offer of the stranger’s seat at the table – still warms me with gratitude.

Compassion, no matter what its spiritual foundation, is the true miracle.


4 thoughts on “The Stranger at the Table

  1. I like your doctor’s tradition, and I love the story of Hanukkah and its religious significance. I think most believing/practicing Christians here in the USA (like me) are a bit disgusted at what the holiday has become. I love giving gifts at Christmas, but we always do something for others (often strangers) who can’t afford the celebration for one reason or another, and we have frequently invited guests to join us on Christmas Day. That is the spirit of the day. And don’t even get me started about the way the news seems to make it sound like it is our patriotic duty to overspend at this time of year to bolster the economy, Compassion is at the heart of the Christmas story, from the innkeeper who found a warm place for some tired travelers to the God who had so much compassion on his people that he came to dwell among them as Emmanuel.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting! I agree with you that many of the Christians and Catholics I know focus on the spiritual rather than spree aspects of Christmas. It seems as though there are traditions of welcoming strangers in most religions…well, maybe except for capitalism. :-/

  3. This made me think, quite inaccurately it turns out, of the empty chair at Pesach seders. I had been told the empty chair was for Elijah, but that doesn’t actually have roots in ancient tradition at all. It’s a post-Holocaust practice in some homes and its significance varies, from respectful remembrance to defiant outrage, depending on which socio-religious dogma the host family identifies with.

    I read a batch of articles about the empty chair. Some had a tone that was a bit unfriendly but I thought I’d share these two which, for me, captured the essence of what these kinds of symbols should indicate. One is by a Chabbad rabbi; the other is by a faculty member at a Mennonite seminary. Though I share neither of their religious commitments, my secular humanist heart was touched by both their messages.

    I wish you a peaceful and contented holiday season, Jill.

    • Interesting articles, Barbara! Thanks for your thoughtful post. I actually thought of the Elijah tradition as well – in my family, we left a cup for Elijah but not an empty chair, and as you saw, the Elijah cup represents something very different than the empty place setting for Wigilia. (I had actually not been aware of the Holocaust connection to the Elijah chair till you posted these articles.) Thank you for reading, and I wish you and your family a holiday filled with peace and spirited conversation!


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