20 Dec 2022

The Christmas Table

If you are hosting a Christmas meal, you will want your table to look celebratory and festive. Decorating your table is an excellent way of proclaiming that it is a special occasion, and it will be an encouraging sight to your guests on Christmas morning.

Laying the Table

The basic rules do not vary when laying the table. Give each person as much elbow room as the table permits. Leave an even amount of space between places, ideally no less than 20 inches. Knives and spoons go on the right, forks on the left. The idea is always to work from the outside in. For formal dinners, pudding spoons and forks should be laid innermost and not above the place setting. If short of space, bring them to the table when pudding is served.

Formally, it is correct always to lay side plates – even if they are not going to be used – as they automatically provide sufficient elbow room. Napkins should be simply folded or rolled and placed on the side plates. It is helpful to have a table mat, correctly positioned about an inch from the table’s edge, at the centre of each place setting. Fashionable chargers, an oversized plate that is positioned underneath the dinner plate, may be used in preference to table mats but piling up too many plates at each place setting can look cluttered in a domestic setting.

The basics are large and small knives, large and small forks, teaspoons, dessert (pudding) spoons and forks, and tablespoons. There may be small blunt knives for butter, fish knives (depending on what you’re serving), soup spoons and extra small spoons for coffee, or for salt and mustard. Some people have different shaped spoons for soup and pudding, but cutlery design is not standard. If the dessert spoons are very small, then traditionally tablespoons are used for the soup.

Soup should be served in shallow bowls. Pudding, unless there is a lot of sauce, is served on small plates. A special dessert service with a decorative pattern may be used, or the same plates
as the first course.

The traditional diameters of plates are ten inches or a little more for dinner plates (main course), eight inches for pudding plates and six inches for side plates. With so many contemporary designs and shapes available this is just a guide, not a rule.

Glasses

Glasses should be grouped or lined up on the right above the knives. A tumbler for water and two wine glasses, with the larger one for red wine, is usually enough.

If a pudding wine or champagne is served, a third, smaller wine glass is needed, though it does not necessarily have to be a champagne glass or flute.

If port is served, then separate glasses are also needed. Port is circulated in a decanter, starting with the host, in a clockwise direction around the table. It is correct to pass it on promptly, without putting it down, even if not drinking any.

Brandy and other after-dinner drinks may be served at the dining table with coffee (bring the glasses to the table if brandy is requested), or in the sitting room. It is considerate to have more soft drinks available after dinner.

Table Decorations

Decorating tables is a very personal matter and there are really no rules, other than taste. A simple, immaculate, white double damask cloth is always an attractive starting point, or you may want to opt for a wooden tabletop. Seasonal flowers are traditional and can look beautiful, but arrangements should be low enough for guests to see over. At Christmas you may well choose an arrangement of twigs and branches, pussy willow and pinecones, mixed in with green ivy and holly. Alternatively, you could place a Christmas wreath in the centre of the table and stand candles within its circumference. A colour theme is fun – red and green is traditional, but you might opt for the metallic glow of silver or gold. Whatever decorations you choose, remember that you will need plenty of room for groaning serving platters, so either accommodate these in your table plan, or create decorations that can be easily removed to a sideboard during the meal.

Candles alone provide a flattering ambience, but plenty should be used to ensure that everyone can see their food – the old rule was six candles, in pairs, for eight people and so on. A statement candelabra will signal that this is a special occasion. Soft, additional indirect lighting such as picture lights, or down or uplighters, can help to get the right balance, and prevent your guests from having to peer at their food in the flickering half-light.

If silver is being used, clean it ahead of time to avoid the room smelling of polish. Both silver and glasses will usually benefit from a final polish once the table is laid.

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