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Our Table, Our Family Altar
By Susan Hines-Brigger


A Brief History
Making It Personal
For Teens: A Family Tablecloth
For Kids: Get Up Close

Recently, my husband, Mark, and I were discussing renovations we wanted to do in our dining room when he suddenly said, ďI want to get a new table.Ē It seemed like a reasonable request, especially since we were making a laundry list of things to change about the room. But for some reason getting rid of our table bothered me.

Maybe it was because it was the first table we bought together. We had scraped together funds for the small rectangular table with a leaf in the middle and four matching chairs. In those days, there was no need for the leaf and only two chairs regularly got used.

But as our family has grown, so has our table. We now keep the leaf in permanently, and one mismatched chair has joined the other four to accommodate our family of five.

The tabletop is covered with paint, marker and gouges from various kidsí projects, stains and burn marks and a seemingly endless spattering of crumbs. That table is where we gather almost every night to have dinner and catch up with each other. Itís where we hung out and talked nearly every weekend with my brother-in-law after his wife died. It is also where we came to know his second wife through shared food and conversation.

So the thought of getting rid of our table was difficult because to me it was more than just a table. It had in many ways become our familyís altar, our gathering place for nourishment, prayer, comfort and conversation.


A Brief History

Each Sunday at Mass we gather at the altar in church to celebrate the Eucharist. We come to the altar in the spirit of the Last Supper. It is a reminder of bread broken and shared and sacrifices made.

In so many ways, this mirrors what happens each day in our own family homes, down to the altar cloths changing according to the liturgical seasons. Altars vary in size, shape and style, much like our own family tables, but they are absolutely essential in the celebration of the Mass.

The earliest altars were made of wood, very much in the style of tables in the homes of the time. Later, altars were made out of stone to resemble the stones that rested atop the tombs of martyrs in the Roman catacombs. Eventually, this practice was moved out of the catacombs and into basilicas and chapels, where some altars were built over the tombs.

For those altars that did not rest atop a tomb, relics of saints were placed under the altar. And five crosses were incorporated into the altarís design to represent the five wounds of Christ.

Today, altars are still preferably constructed of stone, but in the United States, wood may be used as long as the altar is structurally immobile. And it is no longer necessary to include relics or the five crosses on an altar, although it is still seen as fitting.

Altars have a long and storied history in the life of the Church. But our family versions also play an important role in family life. Here are ways to make your table a family focal point:

Gather at the table. My kids are always trying to get Mark and me to let them eat dinner in the family room so they can watch TV. Every once in a while we will relent, but most evenings we require that everyone gather at the table for dinner. Itís one of the few times when we can regroup and catch up with each other. Studies have shown that kids who eat dinner with their family are more likely to feel connected to their family and less likely to get into trouble. What parent doesnít want that?

Broaden your tableís horizons. Recently my son, Alex, and I started putting together a puzzle on the kitchen table. Before long, the whole family had joined in. It was a good reminder that the table can be a great place to gather for things other than eating.

Keep it clear. Iím guilty of cluttering our table up with mail and papers the kids bring home from school. And when itís cluttered, itís certainly a less desirable place to use. Make an effort to keep the table clear and welcoming.

Make it enticing. Decorate your table throughout the year. Add tablecloths, vases of flowers or homemade place mats. There are a lot of cute place mats on the Internet to print out and color, but one of my kidsí favorites is a place mat of things to be thankful for at

I think I have convinced Mark to hang on to our tableóat least for now. It does, after all, bear the many marks of our family. It is our very own altar.


For each holiday, our family adorns our table with a festive tablecloth appropriate for whatever we are celebrating. But there are often long stretches of time when it sits unadorned. That was until I came up with the idea to make a personalized family tablecloth. Itís a wonderful project for the whole family.

To start, get an inexpensive, plain cloth tablecloth. Then decorate it with items that represent your family and its interests. For instance, add pictures by using iron-ons of family photos or have everyone dip their hands in fabric paint and cover the cloth with handprints. You might even include patches or scraps of various fabrics representing each family member, such as soccer balls or Mickey Mouse. Or take permanent fabric pens or fabric paint and add some creative drawings and doodles.

After I wrote this column, I was intrigued as to what our parishís altar looked like up close and personal. Do you know what your parishís altar looks like? Is it stone or wood? Does it have any carvings on it? Does it contain any relics? What do the altar cloths look like? Is there a special history behind the altar?

You might even want to ask your parish priest if he could take you up to the altar and talk to you about what it represents. Ask him if it would be possible for you and your friends or family to create a special cloth for the altar. (This could also be a project for a CCD or parish grade school class.)


Do you have ideas or suggestions for topics you'd like to see addressed in this column? If so, send them to me at “Faith-filled Family,” 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6498, or e-mail them to

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