How to Set the Perfect Holiday Table

‘Tis the season…to stress about your holiday tablescape? No way. Liz Curtis, founder of Table + Teaspoon, provides the five steps to creating the perfect holiday table. Hosting Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner doesn’t have to be stressful during this already overwhelming time of the year.

I.  Theme: Employing a theme for your holiday table can be as straightforward as a color palette. You may want to up the ante with a more autumnal or wintry aesthetic, but make sure that you don’t go so overboard that guests feel crowded or your table looks forced. Challenge yourself to think outside the box and simplify your vision. For example, just because it’s Thanksgiving doesn’t mean that you’re required to put pumpkins and corn cobs all over an orange tablecloth—an elegant mix of tans and browns with fresh greenery can be just as effective. Similarly, for Christmas try adding green and red to your otherwise neutral tablescape with pomegranates or apples that still have their leafy stems attached. Placing mandarins or oranges on each plate at a traditional blue Hanukkah table achieves style sans kitsch.

II.  Luxury Linens: The foundation of your holiday table is the textile you choose for your runner or tablecloth and napkins. Everything you set on your table will go over the cloth, and the napkin will be in your guests’ hands the entire evening. Resist the temptation to go with basic white linens or paper (eek!) napkins. If you don’t want to purchase something new, event rental companies are an excellent option here.

III.  Light and Height: Guests eat with their eyes as much as their mouths, so give them something to consume visually by staggering the heights of objects on the table. During the holidays, candles are already ubiquitous given the chilly weather. They are also the easiest way to vary height on your table because you can use both votives and taper candlesticks to create flickering light from a couple-inches to a couple-feet off the table. Candles are also easier than flowers to employ in executing this idea because guests can easily see around them. For Christmas, add ornaments to the center of your table so that they catch the light of the candles, adding to the magic of your evening. For Hanukkah, swap your traditional Menorah for a more playful aesthetic via Jonathan Adler’s menagerie Menorah collection or a modern feel with a brass and marble version from CB2 or West Elm.

IV.  Proper Setting: Given that at least one of your guests is going to know the Emily Post guide to a proper table setting, avoid a potential family tiff by taking a moment to understand the antiquated rules. Even if you’re positive no one knows the difference between a salad and dinner fork, let alone where they are supposed to go, it’s actually useful for your guests given that the flatware goes in the order you use it, so might as well do it right, right? The salad fork goes on the far left of the plate, next to the larger dinner fork. The knife goes on the right of the plate, with the blade facing in toward the plate (this is because during the Anglo-Saxon period, people brought their own knives to dinner, which were very sharp. It was considered a showing of aggression if you placed your knife blade facing your neighbor). The spoon goes to the right of the knife. If you have a dessert spoon and fork, they go on top of the plate with the handle facing the direction they would go if brought down to the left and right of the plate (so fork handle on the left, spoon handle on the right). The water glass goes in the top-right corner, with the wine glass behind or beside it. If you use a standard napkin, it goes underneath the forks on the left, but if you take my advice and go oversize, I like to place the napkin folded in thirds underneath the plate for a bigger impact.

V.  Relax: What makes a holiday celebration go from average to amazing? I promise you, it’s not the juiciest turkey and best French bubbles, or fine Hermes china and your great grandmother’s freshly polished silver. When you entertain during the holidays, you are opening your home to the people you love. You want to make sure that your family sees this the instant they walk through your front door. Give them the feeling that you care about them being in your home and that you’ve put a great deal of thought into their evening—because this feeling is what they will remember. Entertaining is about the thought, not the execution. And no matter what happens, don’t forget to laugh. There’s always Chinese takeout and more wine…

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