By Jay Remer, the Etiquette Guy
One of the great traditions, which we have at this time of year, is a festive holiday meal. For most of us, it is part of our Christmas celebration. There is the meal itself- , which from one family to the next can differ - but usually within a family, certain traditions exist. Some always have turkey, some have ham, and some have roast beef.
But no matter what we have, there is always a table to set as beautifully as possible. It is the one time ofyear when the finest linens we may have are brought out, and in many cases handed down through the generations. To make the holiday meal especially festive, setting the tables with the best glasses and china and silverware makes it that much more memorable.
First, you need to select the table or tables to use. This is based on the number of guests. A second table is often referred to as the children’s table, even though there may be no children present. It’s really for the ‘young at heart’ - aka the naughty ones. If there are children at the dinner, they can be seated there or mixed in with adults. Isolating them will not help them learn what the holiday meal is all about, and what is important to this holiday tradition. Make sure you have the requisite number of chairs. This is one meal where unplanned ‘musical chairs’ is not as funny as it is at other times.
Secondly, select tablecloths to cover the tables. If you use a lace tablecloth, I suggest using a plain cloth or pad underneath to soak up spilled wine or gravy and protect the table. This will also keep the tablecloth from slipping. Then, decide which serviettes to use. I find that 100% cotton or linen serviettes are the best for absorption and gentleness. Paper serviettes work well too, followed by those dreaded polyester serviettes so popular in many restaurants today, which are non-absorbent and rough on the skin.
Your menu determines the silverware you will be setting. Since people use forks, knives and spoons starting from the outside of the place setting and moving in course after course, be sure to set accordingly. Put out only the silverware pieces that someone will need for each course of the meal. Knife blades always point in and are placed on the right hand side of the setting along with whatever spoons are needed. The forks are placed on the left hand side. All glasses are placed above the knives and descend to the right in reverse order of use. I discourage the use of a butter plate, but if you must it goes to the left of or slightly above and left of the forks.
A service plate at the place setting adds elegance to a holiday table to have. This is known as a charger or lay plate. This is a great time to use those pretty special plates with gold borders that you’ve always been told don’t go in the dishwasher (even though most can) or you don’t want to risk breaking. The first course is served on a separate plate and placed on top of the lay plate. After the first course, the lay plate and first course plate are both removed. I don’t like putting out coffee cups until dessert is served. They take up extra room and it resembles banquet service, which is not so elegant.
Finally, centrepieces and candles add the final touch. Centrepieces should be low enough so people can easily see over them. Candles should be tall and new. Be sure to burn each candle for a minute and blow it out before your guests arrive. It makes it far easier to light it when the time comes and have a less unused look about them. Now your holiday table is complete. This can be set a day ahead of time and can be a fun project for children to really learn this important skill.
To help keep the work less daunting during the meal, I know of a couple of families who enlist the help of each guest by assigning them a task. These tasks are written on bits of paper and put in a hat. Each guest picks from the hat and knows what their job will be. It can be as simple as clearing the soup plates or serving the red wine and keeping an eye on the gravy boats. That way everyone helps in some small way and greatly relieves the host and hostess from handling every duty. After all, they have already gone to a lot of trouble to prepare a bountiful meal. This also goes a long way in adding to family spirit where respect for one another is perhaps the most important of all traditions to pass from one generation to the next.
Jay Remer is the Etiquette Guy, and is certified by the Protocol School of Washington as a consultant for corporate etiquette and international protocol.