City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Dec 6, 2010 8:53 PM
Special dishes for special holidays--a tradition
December 23, 1996
by Pamela Cressey
An unwritten rule, but one followed none the less in America is: use different dishes on your table for different occasions. Every bride and groom who register in a department store know that they should pick out an "every day" pattern and a "china" pattern for special company and holidays. Just as we have come to associate dinner in the dining room as a formal ceremony distinct from eating in the kitchen, the dishes we select define our expectations of a meal.
In general, meals are becoming less formal in America. Families are less likely to gather around a table every night and use matching plates, serving pieces, utensils and glasses. Although, we should remember that this behavior was specific to the elite 200 hundreds years ago and did not become a part of middle America until the last century. These matching sets of dishes encountered breakage and replacement when new patterns became popular; thus they are found in Alexandria’s archaeological sites. The broken fragments provide a wonderful glimpse into the homes of families living here so long ago and their concepts of the proper table setting.
Do you have special matching tableware which you use to set the scene just for holiday and special occasions? Perhaps due to the size of the group or your own energy level, have you chosen disposable paper plates? If you do have a distinctive set of good dishes, they are probably separate from the other daily dishes and stored in another room, cabinet or shelf.
Little form-fitted plastic zipper cases are sold to protect these expensive and ceramic sets. There is a ritual in many homes of pulling out these fragile bundles from their dark protective surroundings in preparation for the holiday meal. Semiannually, I helped my grandmother and my mother go through the solemn ritual with our special set, which was referred to as "The Haviland." The ritual was really a process conducted with great seriousness and significance: take down each bundle, carry to table, unzip bundle, set out on table, pick up (never carrying more than two pieces at once), wash, dry, stack in bundle with separators, zip and put up. The older and more responsible I became, the more difficult jobs were entrusted to me - what a thrill!
I remember asking as a child why we could not use the beautiful dishes with the little pink flowers whenever we wanted. I reasoned, we would enjoy them more if they were on the lower shelves and used frequently. My mother was emphatic about her answer and provided oral history as her rationale. The dishes had been purchased in Los Angeles by her grandmother long ago, moved to Iowa with her father’s family, and then had been one of the few possessions to be brought in the two Model-T Fords when her own family came to California in search of hope during the depression. Although my mother lived for years with only one dress, "The Haviland" had endured the trip with hardly a chip and graced the table on holidays. The set had not been passed on to my mom until she was about 50, and she cherished it.
It was clear to me that this process of moving "The Haviland" from its safe place, the washing and wiping by hand, and returning it to the same snug spot represented far more than a utilitarian act. I was participating in a legacy which I one day would carry on (but, I was told I would have to wait just as my mother had for the set to passed on to me). And so when my parents joined my family here four years ago, "The Haviland" took up residency in my safe place still in the zippered pouches used for so many years. And as we begin the process again this Christmas, I too shall tell the story of "The Haviland" that has traveled from California to Iowa to California and to Virginia. The story of economic tragedies, courageous acts of sacrifice and hope in the future far surpasses any material form like a pink flowered plate. The time spent caring for all those pink flower plates gives the opportunity for sharing values and connecting with our legacy. Whether you are using plastic, paper, or porcelain, your holiday meal is more than materials. It is a memory - share yours with the next generation!
Caption from photograph:
Examples from a dinnerware set excavated from the Alexandria Courthouse Site, 500 King Street block. They were made in the 1830s in England with brown and green transfer-printed "Select Sketches" called Rhodes, Antwerp and Menai Bridge. The set is a dramatic departure form the mix-and-match tableware of earlier decades.