What’s the most important element of the holiday table? If one were to make a list, the people would likely come first, followed by the food. The table setting – the plates, glasses, flatware, napkins – may rank in a distant third place. After all, what good are nicely arranged forks and knives if there’s no turkey to carve up, or no family members to use them?
Regardless, a place setting brings order to the chaos of a large table, serving both decorative and practical purposes. Whether traditional or whimsical, it helps set the mood for a meal. And for a meal of any formality, it shouldn’t be ignored. With that in mind, we asked a few of our favorite retailers to help us design themed place settings appropriate for the yuletide table. Our hope is that they inspire you this Christmas as you enjoy a delicious – and well-arranged – holiday feast.
For a Christmas table designed with traditional red and green, start with a colorful base fabric to serve as a tablecloth. “Dress up your table with fine linens,” says Freeda Simms, owner of Little Brown House, a popular gift shop in Wolflin Square. She suggests adding texture to the tablescape by selecting a few evergreen branches or plant cuttings from the yard – especially those that have pinecones or red berries. If your home lacks natural plant life, visit a local craft store to select from countless imitation garlands and realistic greenery.
Simms also suggests a creative repurposing of Christmas ornaments. Most people add new ornaments and “retire” others from year to year. These unused ornaments or decorations can help add flair to the table, so arrange them as elements of the table setting or turn them into a centerpiece. The traditional colors and accessories make this look a versatile one. “You can dress up any place setting for dinner and dress it down for lunch,” says Simms.
Gold has been associated with Christmas since the Wise Men made a gift of it at the first Christmas, and a gold-based color combination makes for a striking and sophisticated table setting. “The more layers the better,” says Ashley Johnson, the designer at Pete’s Greenhouse. “You want it to look like you’re prepared for them to sit and eat and enjoy the meal.” She suggests using a neutral or metallic layer to break up too much of one color. But just like assembling an outfit for a night out, don’t go overboard with the accessories. “If it looks like too much, take one thing away,” she says.
Johnson prefers finished, pretty linens for place settings, because they’re both reusable and inviting. She suggests setting out three glasses: one for water, one for tea, and one for wine or champagne. Chargers are often used only in a decorative sense, but Johnson says they can have a practical use, too. “Chargers are great even as serving platters,” she says. Just make sure they’re no larger than 12 ½ inches. Anything bigger is too large for the placemat. “You don’t want to take up too much space on the table.”
There’s no guarantee of a white Christmas, but a white-themed place setting adds a timeless elegance to the holiday table. Debra Townsend, the wedding registry consultant at Dillard’s, recommends starting with linens. “When preparing for your holiday table, you can change the look of an everyday place setting with linens,” she says. “A fine linen napkin will dress it up, whereas a more casual napkin will give a casual look.” She says to avoid paper napkins unless the meal is served buffet-style.
If you’re worried that a sophisticated white table setting might come across as too formal, add a splash of color. “Use an informal glass like colored crystal,” says Townsend. Or mix it up with a little metal. “Today, it’s trendy to mix metals, even if it’s just a serving piece.” She suggests adding a small ornament as a place marker for a unique take-home gift, and says the traditional table-setting rules are made to be broken. “There aren't as tried-and-true rules as in the past,” she explains. “Some people like to mix-and-match to the point that every person has their own unique place setting.”
From children’s visions of sugar plums to the candlelit magic of Christmas Eve, the holidays are as perfect a time for whimsy as any season of the year. At Et Cetera, the gift shop and home decor boutique in Wolflin Square, owner Amy-Beth Morrison loves a table set with MacKenzie-Childs products. These hand-painted ceramics and dishware offer the perfect blend of fun and beauty, making it adaptable to any kind of gathering. “This look can work for a formal or casual table,” she says of the exuberant patterns and designs.
Even better, the bright colors and black-and-white checks common to MacKenzie-Childs products can be easy to match with other household brands. “Even if you only own a few special pieces, you can layer them with dinnerware you already own,” says Morrison. Like many designers, she loves using a charger to add to the layered visual impact of a place setting. “A charger topped by dinner and dessert plates creates the effect of a luxurious wreath.”
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.