How to Set a Table When You’re Having Guests for the Holidays
There are many things to sweat during the holiday season—so much awkward small talk! Don’t let setting the table for your formal holiday dinner be one of them. If you’re not sure how to set a table (specifically, how to arrange the silverware or plates), or if you’re a guest who isn’t sure what to do with that place setting in front of you, it’s OK. Odds are that you’re like me and treat your couch as a dining room table most nights of the week. (Make TV trays cool again, am I right?)
To help soothe your holiday table worries, I spoke with etiquette expert Thomas Farley, also known as Mister Manners. You may have seen him on the Today show or read his work in Town & Country. Here, he shares his tips for hosts and guests alike.
Before you bust out your great grandmother’s china and silver (that you have to polish by hand), please note that it’s OK if you want to go a more casual route. “I would say we’re living in an exciting age in the sense that, really, you entertain the way you feel it best serves the occasion and best suits your guests and what your own entertaining style is,” says Farley, who notes that many people aren’t even registering for china anymore. But, he adds, “There is a specialness, particularly on a holiday occasion, that comes from a really beautifully set table that I think is lost if even on your most special of all special occasions you’re doing a buffet.”
If you are doing a formal table setting, there are things to be aware of when you’re setting the table.
Be strategic about seating arrangements.
Do your cousins always get into an argument over dinner? Do you think your two friends would feel more comfortable sitting next to each other? Strategize beforehand to remove that anxiety (for everyone), and assign seats using place cards.
“You’re really losing an opportunity to make your gathering sparkle if you don’t do place cards, seating people where you think that they will best enjoy themselves and contribute to the overall mood of the night,” Farley says.
What’s the deal with the forks and knives?
A carryover from Europe is what Farley calls the continental-style of dining. Forks go on the left side of the plate, and knives and spoons go on the right. When you’re arranging them, think about how many courses you’re serving and set them from the outside to in with relation to the course sequence.
Don’t overlook this tiny detail, either. “The knife blades face in, not out, so that it’s a non-threatening gesture, whereas blades facing out towards the person sitting to your right is a little bit more aggressive,” Farley says.
What about glassware?
Wine and water glasses go to the right of the plate. Also, while it is the holidays and people may get merrier than usual, it’s polite to have a nonalcoholic alternative for your guests who are opting out of alcohol. While a restaurant will take away a wine glass from someone not drinking, that may be alienating at an intimate holiday dinner.
“As a good host, I would want to make sure that just because somebody is not drinking, that they don’t feel like they could be a part of that,” Farley says. Instead, offer something festive, like a sparkling apple cider.
I’m a guest at dinner. How do I approach the place setting?
A helpful tip that Farley teaches his students is BMW. “Think of a BMW logo: bread, meal, water, wine. BMW, and always in that order,” he says.
So bread is on the left, your meal is in the center, and your beverages are to the right. Now you can avoid accidentally sharing your water glass.
We shouldn’t have to say this, but keep your phones away.
“If you ever look at a map of a formal place setting, you will see oyster forks, you will see demitasse spoons, you will see things and items of cutlery that you don’t even have the foggiest notion of what they might be for,” Farley says. “What you never see is a spot for a baseball cap, a spot for keys, a spot for a wallet, or a spot for a phone. And that goes face-up or face-down.”
If you’re expecting an urgent business call or you’re nervous that the babysitter might need you, keep your phone on vibrate on your person (lap or pocket, for example).
If that call comes, excuse yourself and take it away from the table. And this extends to other phone usages, too, including Googling of random trivia (“Oh, what movie was she in?”), which snowballs into people checking their social media and no one actually talking to each other. If not checking your phone for a few hours is too much to bear, do what I do and sneak a peek on a bathroom trip. But don’t fall down a rabbit hole and disappear for too long.
These tips should make your next holiday gathering less daunting. But if you get tripped up, just remember that your family and friends are there to spend time together. And it’s not the end of the world if there’s a fork or glass out of line at your dinner party, but at least now you know how to set a table the proper way.