Defining Community # 3: Gracious Living

February 3, 2017 at 6:27 PM


There have been many changes to dining at Mount Holyoke over the generations, from students preparing meals alongside teachers in 1837, to dorm-wide meals with student servers (and designated napkin cubbies) in the 1950s, to personal pizzas at Blanchard and the beloved Sunday brunch. While dining has changed over years, one tradition continues to connect current students back to past generations, while also looking to the future.

Now known simply as “Gracious Dinner,” this tradition offers monthly themed dinners that combine education and celebration.  These dinners, located in different dorms each month, center around a specific cuisine, and are used as a way to give the community a glimpse into a different culture or to bring awareness to a special topic like sustainable and locally grown food. To elevate the event, tables are set with tablecloths and cloth napkins, which harken back to the gracious living that dates back to the 1950s.

Students participating in a “gracious living” dinner circa 1960s-1970s

Referred to simply as “Gracious,” the dinner traditionally offered students a chance to break from routine and dress up for a candlelit dinner with faculty, family, and other special guests.  This tradition dates back to the 1950s, when gracious dinner was a nightly occurrence.  According to the Freshman Handbook from 1950/51, “Of course, skirts are worn to dinner every night, but Wednesday and Sunday dinners require stockings and heels. Coffee is served in the living room after dinner and there is a chance for leisurely talk with classmates and the professors who often come to dinner at these times.”

As the climate changed on campus during the 1960s, and students gravitated more towards jeans and sweatshirts, "Gracious Dining" still provided an opportunity for students to dress up. The Freshman Handbook of 1966/67 explains " “Gracious” provides a break in the everyday routine--gives you a chance to discard those levis and sweatshirts in favor of a paisley hostess skirt or a knit suit. Dinner is by candlelight, and coffee is served in the living room afterwards. Often “Gracious” presents a perfect opportunity for girls to invite faculty or administration and their families in the dorm--a wonderful way to discover that a professor is less formidable than he seems.”

Thanksgiving Gracious Dinner (photo by Zoë Orenstein ’17 with permission)

The Mount Holyoke Life handbook from 1998/99 (its last year published) refers to the tradition with its current name, “Gracious Dinner” and describes them simply as “special dinners--usually candlelight affairs--held in each hall. Halls often plan special teas to precede the dinner.” While dining halls no longer hold special teas beforehand or serve coffee in the living room following dinner, Gracious Dinners are still very much a candlelight affair. Menus are varied and pay homage to the diverse student population and to special holidays. Common Gracious Dinner themes include Halloween, Chinese, Japanese, Valentine’s, and Thanksgiving (pictured).

The Gracious Dinner that comes closest to its traditional Gracious Living counterpart is arguably the Family and Friends Weekend Dinner, where students often abandon their levis and sweatshirts not in favor of girdles and pearls like the class of 1960, but rather reasonably clean clothes and the company of their families, friends and other special guests. While much has changed since its founding days, one thing seems to have stayed the same: the pleasure of dining with and learning from our community.

Elana Tsogt-Erdene '17

Written by Elana Tsogt-Erdene '17

Elana is a Sociology major who takes a lot of Anthropology classes, and a proud member of the class of 2017. On campus, she can be found wandering around the library’s south stacks (she’s especially partial to the 7th floor, where the poetry is kept) or loitering in Porter Hall where the Anthropology/Sociology departments (and all her favorite professors) are located. She’s the 2015-2016 Mount Holyoke Fund Fellow and a former intern for The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy’s Bedsider program. She was born in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.