Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Southern Hospitality: Thou Art God/dess

I grew up in the American South, a region that has its own set of social rules distinct from the rest of the country. Much of this tradition comes from the Irish and Scottish settlers who filled the Appalachian region and brought their Celtic lifeways to the New World. Let me tell you about some of the customs I’m familiar with, then I’ll explain why we follow them and why they have spiritual significance, especially for Pagans.

One of the first bits of Southern hospitality I learned as a child is this: if I go over to someone’s house, especially during the holidays, they’re going to offer me food and drink. They’re not trying to show me up or ruin my diet; they’re being hospitable. I learned early on that I mustn’t insult them by refusing what they offer, though it’s perfectly acceptable to have only a small serving.

My great-grandparents, Jonathan and Martha Dukes,
displaying Southern hospitality at the celebration
of their 50th wedding anniversary

If someone brings food over to my house when my family is in distress (say, during an illness or after a death in the family) I will always return the carefully-cleaned dish as soon as possible. What’s more, I’m honor-bound to make sure I don’t return it empty. It may contain an item as simple as a card with a favorite recipe or a small container of herbs or spices, but the rules of Southern hospitality dictate that it must contain something.

If a friend or neighbor does me a favor – helps me dig up a garden bed or looks after my pets while I’m away, for instance – I will be sure to provide some kind of offering in thanks to them. For a small favor I might give them a loaf of my homemade pumpkin bread. A larger act of kindness might inspire me to have them over for dinner or make them up a gift basket filled with items I know they would like.

One of the more unusual bits of old-fashioned Southern hospitality, and one that is dying out in the modern age, comes directly from the Old World: if I’m out in the park having a picnic and someone comes along and greets me, even if the person is a stranger, I might feel obliged to invite them to join me in my meal. Why on earth would I do such a thing?

The Celts believed that the gods walk the earth among mortal humans on a regular basis, taking the guise not just of ordinary people but of the lowest among us – beggars, tramps, wanderers. If I were to turn someone away and refuse to feed them, not only would I be guilty of a lack of compassion, I might also be directly slighting the gods themselves.

A bit of Southern hospitality
at my husband's ninth birthday party

So you see, it’s not about ‘evening the score’ or making sure you don’t owe anything to anyone; it’s about generosity and sharing, and about recognizing the deity in each and every person. What if the friend who came over to your house really was a goddess? How would you treat her? What if the neighbor who helped you trim that tree really was a god? And especially, what if the homeless person in the park was a deity in disguise? How would your response to them be different than if they were a mere mortal?

The phrase ‘thou art God’ may have been popularized by the novel Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein but it incorporates a much older concept: each and every one of us carries the spark of the divine within us. My favorite book that incorporates these concepts is set in Ireland: The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O'Shea. In Ms. O'Shea's story, the gods really do walk alongside ordinary humans (kids, in fact) in the guise of ragged tramps, and they have plenty to teach about the difference between what someone appears to be and what they really are inside.

The rules of Southern hospitality simply remind us to behave as if we remember that fact. And it’s a good thing to remember, don’t you think?