Fine china cracks under seismic social shifts

When families gather for Christmas dinner next week, some will cling to formal traditions dating back to Grandma's generation. Their tables will be set with the good dishes and silver, and the dress code will be Sunday-best.

But in many other homes, this china-and-sterling elegance has given way to a stoneware-and-stainless informality, with attire assuming an equally casual-Friday look. For hosts and guests, the change means greater simplicity and comfort. For makers of fine china in Britain, it spells economic hard times.

Last week Royal Doulton, the largest employer in Stoke-on-Trent, announced that it is eliminating 1,000 jobs - one-fifth of its total work force. That brings to more than 4,000 the number of positions lost in 18 months in the pottery region. Wedgwood and other potteries made cuts earlier.

Although a strong pound and weak markets in Asia play a role in the downsizing, the layoffs in Stoke have their roots in seismic social shifts. A spokesman for Royal Doulton admitted that the company "has been somewhat slow in catching up with the trend" toward casual dining. Families eat together less often, he explained, and more people eat alone, either because they're single or they eat in front of television.

Even dinner parties, if they happen at all, have gone casual. In a time of long work hours and demanding family schedules, busy hosts insist, rightly, that it's better to share a takeout pizza on paper plates in the family room than to wait for the perfect moment or a "real" dinner party. Too often, the perfect moment never comes. Iron a damask tablecloth? Forget it. Polish the sterling? Who has time?

Informality also encourages spontaneity. Simple, spur-of-the-moment gatherings can sometimes be as satisfying as elaborate, long-planned events. No wonder brides and grooms are registering for such gifts as designer garden tools and home entertainment systems rather than 12 place settings of Wedgwood or Royal Doulton.

Yet the loss of formality has its down side. The fine points of etiquette that children might once have learned at the table by observation or instruction from parents and grandparents ("Chew with your mouth closed," "Keep your elbows off the table," "Don't slurp your soup") must be picked up elsewhere. Some companies now offer etiquette seminars for employees who may be competent professionally but clueless socially.

Then there is the loss of the charming rituals, small and large, that accompany a more formal meal. Although these routines vary from family to family, they convey a sense of ceremony and order, signaling a different kind of behavior and sending a silent message that says, "This dinner is special."

Still, there's no need to romanticize a way of life that, however appealing, is no longer practical for many. In time, the potteries in Stoke-on-Trent will undoubtedly find ways to stage a comeback with less formal tableware more suited to a new century. In time, a generation raised on blue jeans and plastic might even take Grandma's best dishes out of the cupboard and discover the pleasure of a table set with snowy-white linens, cut-glass goblets, gleaming china, and silver flatware.

For now, fish forks and finger bowls can remain museum curiosities. The old saying about gifts - "It's the thought that counts" - ought to comfort relaxed holiday hosts as they put their heart into casual entertaining rather than into formally correct plates and utensils.

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