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The Milk House: 'Dinner for One’

Ryan Dennis Published on 24 November 2014

New Year’s Eve traditions vary all around the world, as customs are meant to encourage luck and prosperity or chase away evil spirits. In Holland, they toast with hot spiced wine. In Belgium, they exchange gifts.In Spain, they eat 12 grapes between the first and 12th stroke of midnight.

In Iceland, they set off enough fireworks to change the pollution rating of the air. In Switzerland, some hopefuls throw dollops of whipped cream on the floor to bring abundance in the year to come.

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Still, perhaps no convention on the last day of the year is as enigmatic as that in Germany. In addition to exploding fireworks and drinking sparkling wine, the entire nation repeatedly watches an 11-minute British skit written in the 1920s called “Dinner for One.”

The sketch that has become an institution for German culture was filmed in black and white in 1963 and is easily searchable on YouTube for those curious. In “Dinner for One,” the elderly British aristocrat Miss Sophie throws a birthday party in which seats are set for her friends Sir Toby, Mr. Pommeroy, Mr. Winterbottom and Admiral von Schneider – all of whom have apparently been dead for a long time.

The butler, James, not only serves each course and corresponding drink to Miss Sophie and her “guests,” but acts out each absent personality in turn as they continuously toast Miss Sophie. Every time he retrieves a new part of the meal, he trips on a tiger-pelt rug – which I suspect corresponds fittingly to the Germans’ penchant for slapstick.

We know this event is repeated every birthday because after Miss Sophie requests the next course or drink, James will ask, “Same procedure as last year, Madam?” to which she replies, “Same procedure as every year, James.”

As the sketch progresses, James predictably gets more drunk, and his impersonations become progressively animated, from the lively heel-click and “Skål!” of the admiral to the ostentations of Mr. Winterbottom, toasting Miss Sophie with every new course.

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Every time, James asks: “Same procedure as last year, Madam?” to which she answers, “The same procedure as every year, James.” Only once does he make it around the table without tripping on the tiger pelt, while each successive pour of drinks is less accurate. His arms flail widely as his balance becomes more difficult.

Finally, after the entire meal has been served, Miss Sophie announces that she’s going to retire. The butler begins to accompany her to the stairs. He asks again: “Same procedure as last year, Madam?” She replies, “Same procedure as every year, James.” James winks at the audience as the curtains fall.

To the Americans and British who have seen “Dinner for One,” its popularity stands as one of the greatest mysteries of Western culture. Although the skit has never been shown in North America or Great Britain (despite originating there and using British actors), the Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the most televised program in world history, being shown over 230 times.

According to Slate Magazine, “Dinner for One” has become part of Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve traditions in Scandinavian nations as well as Switzerland, Austria, South Africa, Australia and Latvia – despite obscurity in most English-speaking countries.

Those who watch it may note that it is probably only mildly funny, at best, and the fact that post-World War II Germany – whose grasp on English wasn’t as universal as it is now – would find it so endearing makes it even more puzzling.

Some Internet articles suggest that the repetition and minimal dialogue was partly responsible for its attractiveness, while others point to the playful “naughtiness” of insinuated elder sex. One writer noted that it probably resonated with the Germans’ stereotypic ideas of the wealthy British nobleman.

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For me, however, “Dinner for One” has come to strike me differently. After watching it enough, and seeing James trip over the tiger pelt so many times, the sketch starts to feel a little sad. An old lady has outlived all of her friends, and she tries to honor them once a year by giving them new life – of sorts. Once the slapstick wears out, one is left with a heavy sense of nostalgia.

Most New Year customs are based on looking ahead to the year to come. We make resolutions meant to improve ourselves for the future or conduct superstitions that once were supposed to grant us luck. “Dinner for One” is one of the few traditions that involve looking backwards.

Perhaps one shouldn’t read too much into what is meant to be light-hearted fun, but I couldn’t help but feel that Miss Sophie is honoring the past in her own boozy and lascivious way. She’s recognizing who and what made her what she is.

Perhaps looking in both directions – to the possibility of the future and the experiences behind us – is the best way to approach the New Year. Let us throw our whipped cream, promise to lose 10 pounds and then realize that, in some ways, it’s the same procedure as every year, James. PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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