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Bread And Salt: Symbols of Protection and Hospitality

Posted by Peter Post  June 11, 2013 07:00 AM

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Last Saturday my wife and I had a dinner party. Six people. Very nice. We sat outside. Steak, a couple of salads, some nice wine, good company. It was summer dining to perfection. And that evening got me to thinking about the Game of Thrones, the red wedding, hospitality and what a good host should do for his guests.

The scene was set in the ninth episode of season three of The Game of Thrones, The Rains of Castamere. At the wedding feast Rob Stark, King of the North, and his band of followers were enjoying a sumptuous feast at Lord Walder Frey’s castle. They were reasonably comfortable even though Rob had had to beg for Lord Frey’s forgiveness for having broken a vow to wed one of his daughters. After all the apologies, Rob and his mother and his compatriots had been offered bread and salt which, according to tradition, put them under the protection of their host. Nothing would happen to them; they were free to enjoy the wedding feast.

SPOILER ALERT! READ NO FURTHER IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENED AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW.

Well, they were slaughtered. Interestingly in an interview with EW.com, George R. R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire on which the television series is based, explained that not only is the tradition of hospitality and protection offered by salt and bread steeped in history, there are cases when it was violated. Martin cited the Black Dinner and the Glencoe Massacre in Scottish history as two examples of guests being bludgeoned while under the protection of their host.

All this carnage got me thinking. What is a host’s obligation to his guests? Surely, not shooting them full of arrows and ramming swords through their hearts. Seriously, in today’s world, what should the good host do?

  • Greets his guests at the door. We don’t have to offer bread and salt to symbolize protection, but a warm handshake, a friendly hug—these are symbols of welcoming that set the stage for the evening to come.
  • Facilitates conversation. He introduce guests who don’t know each other and is prepared to offer conversation starters. “Mary didn’t you just go to Tuscany? I think John and Joan are planning a trip next spring.”
  • Watches over his guests. He makes sure they are enjoying themselves, but if they enjoy themselves too much, he is prepared to step in and take them home. Safety trumps everything else.
  • Remains calm. Even in the face of a disaster—the grill ran out of gas before the steak was even turned—the good host is poised and adapts to the circumstances. His calmness—and sense of humor—radiates and affects everyone else.
  • Is flexible and gracious. The worst guest faux pas is to arrive with uninvited guests, but the gracious host rolls with the punch and sets an extra place. For his own peace of mind, he calls the miscreant the next day, explains the problem and politely discourages a repeat performance.
  • Is appreciative. He makes sure he says good night to each guest and thanks them for coming. Doing so sets the stage for the next get-together.

And finally, as a guest, if you notice your host start locking the door, run.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business" and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book "Essential Manners For Men" was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of "Essential Manners for Couples," "Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf," and co-author of "A Wedding Like No Other." Post is Emily Post's great-grandson. His media appearances include "CBS Sunday Morning," CBS's "The Early Show," NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America," and "Fox News."

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