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How to Set a Table for the Holidays or Any Special Occasion

Cynthia loves the beauty and fun of entertaining. As the former Director of a nonprofit, she has also hosted various events and fundraisers.

Proper table setting. Added embellishments make it a holiday setting.

Proper table setting. Added embellishments make it a holiday setting.

Planning a dinner party? Don't forget to think about how you'll set the table! Table-setting etiquette is important; it might be just the smooth move that helps you cinch that promotion or give you access to the top project you've been angling for. Yes, the proper table setting can be that important. It can also mean a lot of enjoyment for you, if nothing else!

In this article, you will find tips on how to set a proper table and plan a successful dinner party, as well as a brief overview of cutlery and table-setting through the ages.

Table-Setting 101: How to Set a Proper Table

8 Table-Setting Tips for a Great Dinner Party

  1. Plan your menu early. You don't want to make your menu in haste. The occasion should dictate your theme and can, often by default, point to what you should served. For example, the traditional 4th of July celebration brings to mind barbecued chicken and potato salad. This would also mean your place setting is much more relaxed, almost nonexistent. On the other hand, Thanksgiving dinner is going to be a turkey—usually paired with a spectacular dressing and other traditional sides—necessitating a more grandiose table setting.
  2. Put together your invitation list with care. Avoid inviting individuals who don't get along unless you want to add referee to your resume. The size of the guest list will also have an impact on how you set your table.
  3. Send snail-mail invitations. Make your guests feel special by sending an invitation in keeping with your theme. Include the menu in that invitation. When they arrive, have place cards for each of them.
  4. Be creative as you plan your table decorations. Have fun with this. Again, themes make it easy. Include a nice tablecloth or table runner as part of your decorations. Repurpose items to make the decorations stand out. For example, scatter and drape your faux fashion jewelry or jewels used in jewelry-making across your table to add unexpected sparkle.
  5. Choose the right dishes and silverware. Your table setting is going to depend on the size and type of guest list, as well as the food you are serving. Use your best dishes, polished silverware, tablecloth, etc. to set that impressive table for your mother-in-law. For an outdoor patio party, use a fabulous, fun pattern of disposable plates, placemats, etc., and then why not use your silverware to add interest and contrast. There is also plasticware that even looks like silverware. And voila! A trés chic picnic setting.
  6. The week of your gathering, purchase all but the most perishable items. Prepare as much of the menu as possible in advance. Consider catering all or part of your menu. This is the time to keep to recipes you've tried and had success with. If you feel the urge to experiment, choose an item that you would have two of. For example, prepare two deserts and make one of them your experimental dish.
  7. Plan your libations carefully. If you are inviting someone who may have issues with alcohol, stick to nonalcoholic beverages. Again, follow your theme. Cider or cranberry-based drinks are great for the winter Holidays.
  8. Most of all, have fun with every step. Planning your get together should be fun, not torture and stress. Whether you choose a formal place setting for dinner with the boss or dinner with close friends, with planning, it can be enjoyable.

Luxury lives in the finer details. It's a cloth napkin at a dinner table. It's a mint on your pillow before bed.

— Iggy Azalea

Table Setting Through the Ages

So, how did all this table etiquette get started? Back in the day, all Mrs. Cave Lady really had to worry about were the few shells or slivers of wood used to scrape the roasted saber-toothed rabbit off the stone slab, albeit neatly arranged in a circle. In a few thousand years, however, the shells and wooden slivers became much more elaborate knives and spoons and rules started to come into play.

Ancient Times

In fact, the ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks all found that it was just as important to have the table well presented as it was to wage a proper war. Initially, that presentation was more about the placement of the food. Because the distance from the kitchen to the dining table was usually quite far, the order in which the food was delivered was much more important than which eating utensils were best for each meal component. In fact, the eating utensils were simple knives and crude spoons; there were no forks as we know them.

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Middle Ages

The first table setting that looked anything like the table setting of today was probably introduced sometime during the Middle Ages. Records indicate that it was about this time that the fork was introduced, gradually replacing the blunted knife as the preferred eating utensil.

19th Century

The proper place setting that was even closer to what we see today was developed during the 19th century. That same place setting was refined over time until we were left with the place setting that is standard for today's formal dinner gathering and the place setting that is generally used for the informal dinner party.

Will the proper setting of today change in the future? Probably. However, for the early 21st century, just remember, take the time to put out the proper table setting and have fun while you impress your guests, in-laws, family and everyone else.

Christmas table setting.

Christmas table setting.

Place setting for bridal shower or small wedding rehearsal dinner is essentially the same as the holiday place setting.

Place setting for bridal shower or small wedding rehearsal dinner is essentially the same as the holiday place setting.

Setting the Table Today

Thanks to the evolution of the table setting from Medieval times to today, standard table-setting etiquette has been established. And it can be fun as well as beautiful. The only thing that separates your holiday table from your everyday setting is the elaborateness of your meal, the utensils needed for it and your desire to make the setting special.

Because what is considered proper might vary slightly between European place settings and American place settings and even during religious celebrations or observances, adhere to the custom of the culture you live in.

Fall or Thanksgiving table setting idea. Make your table setting interesting. Have fun with decorations appropriate for the season and the occasion.

Fall or Thanksgiving table setting idea. Make your table setting interesting. Have fun with decorations appropriate for the season and the occasion.

Use place cards as part of your place setting to add fun and if you want your guests seated in a special place.

Use place cards as part of your place setting to add fun and if you want your guests seated in a special place.

© 2011 Cynthia B Turner

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