Once you've confirmed the number of guests and finalized the menu, take the time to plan the table setting. Several days before the meal, arrange the plates, bowls and platters on the buffet or dining table to make sure everything will fit. (Remember to allow space for wine bottles, carafes or an ice bucket.) This will give you a good idea of the space you'll have for decorating without crowding the table. Keeping in mind all the other last-minute preparations, be sure to have the tablecloth and napkins laundered and pressed well in advance. If you plan to use place mats with trivets and a runner, give the tabletop a good polishing.
Dressing the Table
Peri Wolfman, coauthor of Great Settings, favors a table embellished with natural elements. "Think of dressing your table, instead of just using a centerpiece. Start with a base of lemon leaf branches spread down the entire center of a long table or filling the center of a round table. The branches can be placed on top of a simple tablecloth or on a bare wood table. A good way to start is to browse around the seasonal fruit and greens in your neighborhood market or, better yet, a local farmers' market. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, you’ll find fruits, branches of greens and berries that are unique to the season. Pomegranates and shiny red apples make a great start for your centerpiece; they’re long lasting and can be arranged ahead of time. Softer fruits, such as red, green and purple grapes, can be added the day of the party."
Feel free to assign seats, giving thought to which arrangements will spark the most enjoyable conversation. Seating can be designated with a place card on each plate or in a special holder. As an alternative to a centerpiece, decorate each setting with an individual arrangement or a beautiful favor—a small keepsake and sprigs of evergreen tied together with ribbon, for example.
If the meal is served in the evening, candles are essential. They always cast the most flattering light on faces, food and glassware. Wolfman suggests using pillar candles instead of tall tapers. The slow-burning pillars can be placed in saucers safely nestled in greenery as a centerpiece or aligned down the center of the table.
Masters of tradition, the British have made the holiday dinner table a center of warm and jovial celebration. One old holiday custom had diners lifting their spoons to toast the good health of absent friends. Nowadays, the table is invariably set with a Christmas cracker (of the party-favor variety) alongside each plate. At the end of the meal, when all are feeling merry, arms are crossed and linked around the table, each hand holding one end of a cracker. On the count of three, everyone gives a tug, and the crackers loudly burst open. Inside each cracker is a cache of tiny toys, a paper hat and a printed riddle. The festivities continue at the table, with everyone wearing a silly hat and reading their riddle aloud. It's a grand way to end the meal with spirits high.