By: Donna R. Wood, Existential Coach
For many years, as long as I can remember, my grandmother and great grandmother held to a tradition that I have no idea of the true origins. Perhaps it was something they came up with on their own, or maybe it was something that has been handed down for centuries. In my Celtic research, I have found several references to different variations of this tradition, but I cannot say that my grandmothers’ tradition came from these. It is the tradition of the ‘Empty Plate’.
I don’t know if I am the only one to have noticed, or took the time to ask why, but my grandmothers would always set an empty plate at the holiday table. When I was old enough to count is when I first discovered this. Grandma would ask how many people do we have today, and I would count them one by one. Then she would hand me that many plates plus one. Once I had told her she had given me one too many, and she replied, “No, it is just the right number. Maybe you miscounted.”
We set the table and placed all the chairs around. I was certain every time there was an extra place at the table, but when it came time to eat there was never an unoccupied chair. As a child, I was baffled by this. I counted and re-counted many times. I asked Grandma how she always knew to add one plate to the table. Her only response was, “There’s always enough for one more.” By the appearance of my grandparents’ kitchen, I never doubted that as a fact.
It was several years later when I noticed that each holiday there was always one unexpected guest. Sometimes the guest was a happy surprise. Sometimes the guest was someone who had nowhere else to go, or someone who just showed up at the door. Not a single year passed that the empty place at the table was not filled by someone.
When I became a parent and we had holiday meals by ourselves, I continued this tradition, and continue to do so. There has not been a single holiday in which that plate has not been used. Most often the place has been filled by those who have nowhere else to go. It has been filled by those who have been used, abused, thrown away, cast aside or just alone in the world. We have entertained people from every walk of life, from all over the world.
I am grateful for those who have and will use the empty plate. I realize how much I need them, more than they need me. I confess, for many years it was the act of carrying on what my grandma had always done, but today, it is different. Maybe, just maybe, Grandma knew something all those years that I never recognized, or perhaps refused to recognize. Maybe she knew that when we sit down to pray, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest…” it is a prayer that will always be answered, in the immediate.
Have a Merry Christmas, and may the empty plate always find a use!