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.

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