Sharing our dinner tables this Christmas

By Penny Elsley
12 December, 2018

My strongest childhood memories of Christmas time are of steaming hot weather, pavlovas and pelican itch (lice bites from diving off paddle boats into the local lake with my cousins). Despite the discomfort of the heat and itch there was always fun to be had. In the late 70’s and early 80’s when I was growing up there weren’t too many computer screens to distract us. The Christmas holidays were all about heading to the beach, riding bikes and making cubby houses in the bush reserve behind our house.

Mostly what I enjoyed about Christmas time was the constant stream of visitors and neighbours popping in, usually with armfuls of scrumptious Christmas delicacies inspired by the famous Women’s Weekly cookbooks (which I sense have been replaced by the equally as inspiring and competitive Masterchef!) When I look back at these experiences as a child it doesn’t surprise me that when faced with the challenge of connecting people across cultures amidst our very clogged up city lifestyles, images of people turning up at one another's doors with delicious food in hand quickly came to mind. Taking this image to heart, I dived in and hosted the very first Welcome Dinner in my home in Sydney. Five years on, 10,000 of our participants, hosts and volunteers throughout the nation have witnessed just how much it means to people to be able to share their dinner tables and stories with others from across the globe.

If there’s one thing I would recommend to make your Christmas memorable this year, it would be to set an extra place at the table, in fact why stop at one! Whether it’s a neighbour whose children are all heading to their in-law’s this year, or the international student who couldn’t afford to go home for the holidays, or the entire family who for cultural or religious reasons don’t typically celebrate Christmas, there are plenty of people in our community who are going to be isolated this Christmas. If your heart is saying “yes” to this adventure but your mind is saying “where do I begin?”, here are a few ideas:

Where do I go to find people who are isolated?

They are usually right in front of you! Find a reason to knock on a few neighbour’s doors, especially those you haven’t seen for a while or those whom you’ve noticed might be living alone (best to go with a family member or friend). A few months back I was given a box of avocados and knowing they were all going to ripen at once, I instantly had the perfect excuse to go and meet some of my new neighbours - who doesn’t like being given avocados! More recently I have been visiting neighbours with eggs still warm from under our chickens. There’s nothing like food to connect us and give us a head start with a conversation.

If that kind of direct approach is not for you or doesn’t feel right (listen to your gut), you could opt for linking in with a program or organisation that will do the initial connecting for you. There are plenty of organisations and community groups who support isolated people such as the elderly, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, international students. By contacting these types of organisations you can find out about programs in which you can participate or volunteer and make an initial connection with people that way.

If you’re happy to go public with your intention, there are lots of local social media groups focused on community interests where you could post that you have a few spare seats at your table for Christmas lunch, you never know you might inspire a movement!

How should I prepare?

Creating a space that feels warm and welcoming makes all the difference. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to get out the crystal glasses, it could just be small touches, such as bon bons set out on the table with people’s names or waiting out on the street for their arrival so they don’t have to find their way alone to your front door. Pot luck meals are a great Aussie tradition and by inviting people to bring a plate, you are not only going to have an enticing array of food but you are setting up a wonderfully sharing atmosphere where everyone can feel they are contributing. Enquiring about people’s dietary preferences beforehand can be beneficial too. If you have animals, it is also important to make sure your guests are comfortable with them. Every effort you make goes a long way towards people feeling welcomed and “seen”.

What do I say?

Something we learned through the Welcome Dinners is that focusing on our commonalities rather than our differences is the best place to start. Even if you feel you don’t know much about a person’s cultural background or practices, there are bound to be points of connection just waiting to be discovered! Asking a person about their hobbies, interests, what they are most passionate about is usually a safe and very fruitful place to start. It’s amazing how this gets straight to the heart of things and how much people find they have similar passions despite coming from vastly different places or upbringings. If language differences are a barrier, use photos or images in books or on your phone to share the things you’re passionate about. Talking about the places you love to go in your local area is also a topic you will likely find some commonalities. And of course the most obvious one is chatting about the food. So many stories can unfold from asking about a particular recipe, ingredient or special dishes people prepare at celebratory times.

There’s a wonderful meme going around social media that says: “What the world needs now is not higher fences but longer dinner tables.” Extending your dinner table this Christmas might just be the best gift your family ever received.

To find our more about The Welcome Dinner Project or make a donation this Christmas, go to: https://welcomedinnerproject.org/

Click here to listen to Penny’s TedX talk: The Transformative Power of a Single Word: Welcome

To explore Penny’s coaching, facilitation, program design and community engagement offerings or book Penny as a guest speaker go to www.pennyelsley.com

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