Whether you’re celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or welcoming in the New Year, the holiday gatherings center on joining with others at the table and enjoying a meal of festive foods. Some love bringing bountiful platters and bowls of food to the table and passing them from guest to guest, while others prefer the more relaxed buffet style of serving.
Here, there are no rules, no correct or incorrect way to set the table. It’s all a matter of family preferences and putting creativity and enjoyment at the forefront.
With either serving style, everyone ends up at the table for the feast. Let’s set the table to look special for your guests. You might rarely or never use a tablecloth for most meals during the year, but for the holiday table, making it look special is a must.
Begin by covering the table with a tablecloth to match the holiday–whether you choose paper or a cloth table cover is a matter of choice. The tablecloth and napkins don’t have to be cloth, but cloth does add a pleasing charm and elegance to the holiday ambiance.
You may prefer placemats and have collected enough of them for each place setting at the table. You may even choose to mix and match two or three different placemat sets if the colors coordinate with your dishes.
If you choose paper napkins, invest in a package of elegant, thicker napkins available at most grocery stores or party shops. During the holiday season, you’ll find paper napkins with appealing autumn colors and holiday designs that add inviting warmth to the table.
Haul out the candlesticks and choose the candle color that fits the occasion. Even more dramatic is to use two or more sets of candlesticks. They can be matching or completely different in style, color, materials, and heights. Because some candles drip wax as they burn down, you may want to use a bobeche with each candle to protect the tablecloth. A bobeche (pronounced bo BESH, with accent on the second syllable) is a glass or metal collar that rests on the top of the candlestick to catch the melting wax.
You may prefer the plump candles that sit on their own special flat dish in place of candlesticks. Have fun choosing just the right ones for your table from a very easy-to-find selection available throughout the season.
Decorate with Pumpkins and Santas
A table festooned with splashes of color quickly invigorates the holiday spirit. Choose a centerpiece that has the flavor of the season or special significance to the holiday. The centerpiece does not have to be a formal, expensive floral bouquet, though it does lend an appealing elegant touch. Potted chrysanthemums in autumn shades of rust, gold, and burgundy make a gorgeous floral display for the Thanksgiving table, but so do pumpkins, squashes, and autumn leaves.
Even the colorful fruits and vegetables of the season look great on the table. Perhaps a basket of colorful squashes, or a combination of pomegranates and persimmons would create the right effect. Accompany the basket with a few fresh leaves from your garden, or purchase some artificial leaves in autumn colors.
Because I often put two tables together side-by-side for a large crowd at Thanksgiving, the center of the table becomes quite spacious, providing the ideal spot for a bed of fresh or artificial leaves. Then, heaped over the leaves I arrange squashes, pumpkins, gourds, and pomegranates, with colors ranging from orange, golden yellow, and green to bright red. None of the edibles go to waste, because I cook them one by one throughout the winter season.
At Christmas, there are many options for dressing the table in holiday splendor. If a luxurious arrangement from the florist is affordable, it truly sets the holiday table apart. Perhaps flowerpots of perky red and white carnations appeal.
I know of families who collect Santa dolls and loves to use a cluster of the smaller ones as table centerpieces. Another friend fills a shallow basket of Christmas handmade tree ornaments with sprigs of pine and pine cones as the focal point on the table.
My neighbor’s creative use of her novel collection of candlesticks and various sizes of candles may be just the perfect thing for your centerpiece. She places the candles artfully in a colorful grouping of varied sizes, heights, and thicknesses that bring grace and elegance to the table.
People cherish family heirlooms and often save them for special occasions like the holiday table that serves as the ideal place for those conversation pieces. Families revere these annual traditions that serve to bond memories
Whatever you choose, keep the centerpiece a comfortable height that won’t block the view of guests sitting across the table.
The Table Setting
Arranging the dishes and silverware on the table needn’t feel uncomfortable or overwhelming. Here are a few basics. You can choose how relaxed or formal the settings ought to be for your celebration:
Center the dinner plate in front of each chair about one inch inward from the edge of the table. If you’re serving salad, place the salad plate on top of the dinner plate.
If using a bowl instead of a salad plate, put it on top of the dinner plate.
A more formal approach is to put a salad plate underneath the salad bowl and put them on top of the dinner plate.
If there is an appetizer course served at the table, a smaller plate may be placed on top of the salad plate or served individually after everyone is seated.
Place the dinner fork to the left of the plate and the salad fork to the left of the dinner fork. If there is an additional fork for an appetizer, place that to the left of the salad fork.
The knife is placed to the right of the dinner plate with the cutting edge facing the dinner plate. The soup spoon, if needed, is placed to the right of the knife.
The dessert fork or spoon, or both, is often placed horizontally above the dinner plate.
The water glass is positioned just beyond the tip of the knife, while the wine glass goes to the right of the water glass. The bread and butter plate, if used, goes just beyond the top of the forks with the butter knife laid horizontally across the bread and butter plate, if using.
When the salad is served European style after the entrée, the salad fork can be placed directly above the dinner plate lying horizontally or placed directly left of the dinner plate. If there is room at the table, the salad plate is placed to the left of the forks. A less formal plan is to bring the salad plate and forks to the table at the end of the meal.
Napkin folding and placement can be wildly imaginative or strictly formal. The traditional approach is to fold the napkins in half, then fold them in half in the other direction, forming a square. Fold the napkin squares in half and place them horizontally on top of the dinner plate. Less formal settings place the folded napkin to the left of the forks with the folded edge facing outward to your left.
However, it’s far more fun to explore different napkin folding techniques and place them on the plate in some unique way or tuck them into the water glasses for a more dramatic color effect.
Be sure to bring a pitcher or two of water to the table and include salt and pepper shakers for those who never seem to get enough of the stuff.
Serving Buffet Style
If you plan to serve buffet style, place the dinner plates on the buffet table. The forks, knives, spoons, and napkins can remain in place settings on the dinner table or placed on the buffet table.
Don’t overlook an attractive centerpiece for the buffet table. The placement of your buffet table may play a role in determining the height and style of the table décor. When the buffet table is against a wall, the wall itself can become part of the design and provide the perfect background for a tall centerpiece.
If the guests will be filling their plates by walking all around the table, consider something as simple as a tall vase with autumn leaves, or a tall Santa surrounded by a few Christmas ornaments.
One year for Thanksgiving, I packed a large, clear glass vase with tangerines and cranberries and filled it with water. Then I surrounded it with small pumpkins and autumn leaves.
For the Hanukkah table, consider a pair of candlesticks with blue candles, a sprinkling of mini dreidles, and Hanukkah gelt (chocolates wrapped in gold coins) surrounding the candles.
Holiday knickknacks and decorations also add color and festive flair and can be fun to coordinate with the holiday. The holidays are often those rare times when you can often call on other members of the family to pitch in and offer ideas. Kids love to express their creative side and might even come up with something surprising and delightful in table decor.
Here’s the very informal buffet that concluded one of the holiday cooking classes my husband and I taught this year (2014) at the Glendale Community College Community Services. The class was held in the home economics classroom in a local middle school. To make that plain white service table come alive, I brought along a few holiday props to make it feel more festive.
Most of all, have fun with the holiday preparations. Take joy in making the festive table an inviting place for family and friends to eat a delicious meal and make lasting memories together.