Gather at the kid's table for a great holiday tradition

Setting children apart clarifies hierarchy, gives them status to look forward to

Family Matters

November 23, 2003|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

In a season of thanks, let us give praise to a rarely acknowledged custom that has made millions of holiday meals more palatable, civil, and probably less messy - the children's table.

Just as countless generations of American families have marked the Thanksgiving season's arrival with the purchase of a frozen turkey, or perhaps the polishing of silver or pressing of a vintage tablecloth, somewhere someone is pulling a dusty old folding card table out of storage.

The children's table is a holiday tradition, up there with pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce and that peculiar sweet potato casserole your great aunt brings over every year.

"It's not about putting children down, but it makes clear that there are different roles for different generations," says Barbara Fiese, chair of Syracuse University's psychology department. "Making clear the boundaries between generations is often the sign of a healthy family."

William Taft Stuart, a professor of anthropology at University of Maryland College Park, says the tradition of a separate children's table at important events goes back many generations. It follows the tradition of status setting - much like royalty eating apart from lesser court members.

No matter that it's most often born of simple necessity - too many people for too little room. "Not everyone can get around a single table no matter how large it is," he says.

"But there is a message. If the children want to sit at the good table, they must be on good behavior," Stuart says.

Good or bad, the children's table remains a common American experience, even as families grow smaller and the distances that separate them get bigger. It is also tinged with nostalgia - as so many rituals are - and a recollection of better times.

"I have such good memories of it," Manny Kokotakis, a physician at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, says of the children's table at his aunt's house in New Rochelle, N.Y. "It was all your cousins and friends and you ate the things you liked. You could leave as soon as you were finished and get out and play."

Anticipation

For Kathie Rockwell, the children's table was the best place to be when her family gathered at her grandparent's home in Lancaster, Pa. Her grandfather, Joseph Caldwell, would hide silver dollars under each of the children's plates.

One knife set aside for the children's table rattled (the result of a loose bit of metal in its handle) and whoever found it at his or her place-setting earned a treat - perhaps the delight of helping Grandma Ava Caldwell in her tiny kitchen.

"The coins were beautiful, and you felt like you were getting something valuable and antique," recalls Rockwell, a Monkton mother of four who still has the dollars 30 years later. "The great thing about the knife was the anticipation of it. It was never set until dinner time so you couldn't sneak over and start rattling knives to see where you should sit."

Over the years, the Rockwells have been host for their share of holiday meals and even had children's tables, but not lately. Their youngest child is 13 and their eldest 26 and 27.

"My daughter Katelyn stabbed her cousin in the forehead with a fork the last time there was a children's table," she says. "She was three years old at the time. She's 17 now."

Children's tables seem to work best when extended families gather. It's also helpful for finicky eaters - they aren't always offered some of the more challenging adult foods like, say, tomato aspic or baked rutabaga with cream sauce.

Daryl Davis' family has gotten so small that a single table can easily accommodate the guests. Perhaps a dozen or so will gather this year at a restaurant in northern New Jersey. Even then, there will be a "children's side of the table."

"In my day there were four of us at a children's table and we got our own relish dish with black olives," says Davis, 49, a mother of two in Laurel. "We'd get a favor, a chocolate turkey. That was the great thing about it. We didn't really want to sit with those annoying relatives anyway."

Graduation

At Lisa Ditter's home in Elkridge, there will be two very long tables to accommodate the family's largest holiday meal - dinner on the Sunday before Christmas. None is set aside as a children's table, but one always ends up serving that purpose.

"Cousins always want to sit with other cousins," says Ditter, owner of Java Joe's coffee shop and deli in downtown Baltimore. "The children have more fun together."

But the presence of a children's table also creates an opportunity - that golden moment when a person graduates from children's table status to adulthood, a mini-bar-mitzvah. A teen goes from paper napkins and macaroni and cheese to linens and oyster dressing.

"The grown-up table has better food," says Matt Dordai, 13, of Timonium who would like a shot at the big table's fondue pots of beef and shrimp on Christmas Eve over the chicken nuggets and french fries he usually endures. "Besides, at the kid's table, all the kids are littler than I am."

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