My parents entertained quite a few out-of-town guests who came once or twice a year and stayed several days. It meant good times and good food. We kids loved it. We learned a lot about geography and the way other people lived. We collected new jokes and heard more of our own family stories as the grownups talked. We had opportunities ourselves to share and entertain as we put on plays and demonstrated some odd skills like rolling down a hill inside a rubber tire.
Usually, when the guests first arrived they presented Mamma with some delicacy or interesting souvenir, their “bread and butter” gift. Sometimes it was what Mamma, after they left, called a “white elephant,” something useless which would gather dust in a corner. Sometimes it was something of lasting value, like the photo album one dear lady brought. She spent her visit making pictures of all of us to fill the album. Sometimes it was a box of chocolates which, of course, was eagerly received by our family.
Seldom was the gift either bread or butter. So why did Mamma call those offerings “bread and butter” gifts? All these years my siblings and I, as well as many of our friends, have given and received these interesting gifts and thought “everybody” knew them by the same name.
I became curious the other day as to the how, when, and why these niceties were called “bread and butter” gifts. A quick viewing of Google answers brought up only “bread and butter letters.” I have yet to find any direct reference to bread and butter gifts. Handwritten notes thanking hosts for their hospitality seem to have been greatly inspired by Jane Austen’s stodgy character Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Collins wrote effusive letters to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet after his visits though their daughter, Elizabeth, rejected his proposal of marriage. A thank you note later became known as a “collins,” as well as a bread and butter note. It is still a very thoughtful gesture to let one’s host know they enjoyed a visit even if by texting, e-mailing, or calling. And we don’t have to use the flowery hypocritical language of Mr. Collins. Sincere gratitude in a few words does wonders.
The phrase “bread and butter” is much used. Bread is the staff of life and butter is the enhancement of it. When one earns his “bread and butter” he’s making a living, maybe not a fortune, but a living. When one reminds a person to beware of the side his bread is buttered on, it usually means the same as “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” If two of us were walking hand in hand and came to an obstruction, such as a rock or a tree, we’d say “Bread and butter on my side” as we separated for a moment. It meant we didn’t want to be separated for long.
A bread and butter gift, as Mamma taught us, is a thank you expression that is quite fun. Let it be something your host(s) will remember you by and, more importantly, be blessed by. Maybe it would be a product from your area, such as peanuts from Georgia or maple syrup from Vermont. Or if you enjoy crafts you might use one of your creations as a gift. I like to make jelly so that is one of my standby thank you gifts. I even tucked small jars of Mayhaw jelly in my suitcase to share when we visited friends in England.
Thinking back to those visitors to my birth family, I think the gift that made a huge impact on all of us was given by Nina Jordan, a book titled “Home Toy Shop.” My younger sister inherited the dogeared copy and still refers to it when needing a children’s craft idea. On rainy days we had wonderful times making everything from an oatmeal box doll’s cradle or merry-go-round with exotic animals to elaborate paper dolls, whistles, airplanes and more.
Mamma, when she visited in our home, always had something to pull out of her suitcase to surprise us, a delicate teacup, a fingertip hand towel. But one time she didn’t have anything. After peeling potatoes one day she asked me to take her to the store. There she proceeded to choose a sharp paring knife for me. “Every woman needs a really sharp knife in the kitchen,” she said, obviously not satisfied with the one she’d used on the potatoes. I still have that bright little knife and it is still sharp!
By the way if you do bake bread or churn butter, those would be lovely thank you gifts. It might be hard, though, to keep them fresh and unmelted on a long journey. I can just see the yellow stream dribbling from your suitcase as you head through an airport security check!
I Peter 4:9: Use hospitality one to another…