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If the formality has lessened, surviving customs such as this are all, once examined, reflections of the oldest tradition of them all: that of the host's sacred duty to the guests.

This is even true of that seemingly most arcane of customs, "passing the port". Happily the delights of a fine vintage port to crown the meal are no longer reserved for the men (women were once expected to retire to tea and gossip in the "withdrawing room"). But port, traditionally (and practically) served in a decanter, is still passed around a table clockwise. The host is expected to fill the glasses of the guests sitting to his right and left, pour a little wine into his own glass and then to pass the port to his left. Each diner fills his or her glass and passes the port decanter onwards, always to the left.

Why to the left? There are many concocted explanations, but there is no mystique: it is easier to take the weight of the decanter with your right hand, from the person on your right. But the central point of the custom of "passing the port" is merely the host's concern that no-one should monopolize what was often the most costly wine. It is interesting to reflect that this ritual passage of the decanter, often derided as old-fashioned, is the last survival of a pattern of hospitality going back to pre-Classical times.

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