Mrs. C says: So what’s the well dressed Christmas table wearing these days? Ed Elf: In your house, I’d say Chanel.
Mrs. C: If you are uncertain, we’ll steer you through the basics of preparing a dinner table fit for the Christmas festivities. It’s getting dressed for dinner – but not quite as you know it.
Start at the Very Beginning
What is your table made from? You may need to cover it with a heat resistant table protector to avoid marking from heat, food or drink. These are available from many of the major home-ware outlets or online through Amazon. Whether or not wooden tables are laminated they will require some degree of protection. Laminates may resist grease or wine stains but will still need protection from heated crockery. It’s possible to treat real wooden tables with a wax or spray on product such as HG Protector for Untreated Wooden Furniture. Always test such a substance on an inconspicuous part of the table first to ensure that it won’t cause any darkening of the tabletop. If your table is made of glass, your surface will easily wipe clean but care will need to be taken with hot dishes. Use suitable tablemats as a precaution.
Next to the matter of tablecloths and runners. There are many beautiful tablecloths available for Christmas in a whole host of colours and patterns. If you lean towards plainer fabrics, perhaps Christmas is the time to try pattern for a change. Consider the colour and design of your crockery. If it’s plain and unfussy you’ll be able to choose from a greater range of colour and pattern for your cloth. A white cloth often works best, however, because it reflects light on your guests’ faces. A base of white can easily be dressed up for Christmas and New Year dinners. You may like to add a runner down the centre of the table to provide a focal point for displays and serving dishes.
Elf Helper: Tablecloth tips – use a base cloth held down by waiter’s clamps; this will prevent the top cloth sliding about. You can iron the tablecloth when it is in place by putting a clean tea towel on it and gently ironing the creases away segment by segment.
Putting on the Glitz
Our table is now dressed and ready to go. Time to start adding the placemats and chargers. The chargers are larger decorative plates used to dress up dinner tables at special events such as weddings and Christmas. Dinner plates rest on top. Chargers can be made in a variety of materials, most likely metal, wood and plastic. Frequently seen around Christmastime in gold or silver, as well as metallic reds and green, they are often embellished with faux jewels and other decorative detail. Chargers can be left on the table throughout the meal and removed before serving dessert.
Napkins made of cloth are preferable for a formal dinner. They are more elegant than paper napkins and will more likely stay on one’s lap. Paper napkins will serve a purpose in a buffet situation. You may already own napkin rings you use throughout the year, but at Christmas you will inevitably find a lovely and tempting selection of snowflake, holly and other festive designs from which to choose. Alternatively, you may wish to fold your napkins into an interesting design to minimise the number of objects on the table.
And finally the rule of thumb. A good way to space out cutlery, glasses and plates is to use the thumb test. Cutlery should be a thumb’s width from the edge of the table and a thumb’s width apart. Ditto for spacing glasses and plates. You will discover more ideas on a similar theme if you visit our etiquette section on our Food & Drink page.
You can make your festive table sparkle without spending the earth by adding twinkling tea-lights, candles and perfect blooms. There are colours you can employ that will serve you well before, during and after the holiday season. Perhaps you can use a dinner service you already own, accompanied by napkin rings, place cards and tableware of a classical theme. Silver and white, in combination with darker shades, can work for December dinner parties and most especially New Year.
There has been an increasing desire in the UK to follow the long-established American penchant for collecting beautiful pieces of tableware that will be used only at Christmas – but that can be passed on through the generations. Be it complete Christmas dinner services or individual serving platters, bowls and gravy boats, the choice of tableware across the United States is immense. We may be playing catch-up, but there are increasing numbers of options here to entice you to splash out on your Christmas table. And there’s no need to stop at crockery. Stunning cutlery and glassware will complete the dazzling effect.
Spode Christmas Tree – This is one of the earliest seasonal tableware ranges and was designed by Harold Holloway in 1938 for the US market. The decorated tree design is an iconic image. Plates, bowls and cups are trimmed in a classic Christmas green and all items are available through spode.co.uk. Consider buying statement Spode pieces and mixing and matching with inexpensive white plates.
Portmeirion The Holly and the Ivy – This design has become as familiar in the Christmas crockery aisles as Spode’s ‘Christmas Tree’. It will sit better in a traditional or country setting and can be found at portmeirion.co.uk.
Portmeirion Christmas Wish – Portmeirion’s products have global renown. On the website at portmeirion.co.uk, this desirable choice is marketed thus: “Each and every design in the range complements the other allowing you to build and enchanting collection.” This will tell you not all the designs on each item is identical – but they are charming and do mesh in their own way.
Villeroy & Boch – Leading stores carry a pleasing array of decorative items from Villeroy & Boch each Christmas – some more functional than others. We like the ornate bread & butter plates that are trimmed in deep red and decorated with tiny toys, gifts and Christmas trees. Consider these for statement pieces to complement simpler dinner plates and serving dishes. You can visit villeroy-boch.co.uk.
Williams-Sonoma – Products from American brand Williams-Sonoma are now available in the UK for the first time at London’s iconic store Fortnum & Mason. You will find a wonderful array of dinnerware, linens and festive décor to see you through every seasonal event. Designs include: Santa’s List, Reindeer, Santa & Sleigh, Tartan, Nutcracker, ’Twas the Night Before Christmas and Snowman. Founded in 1956, Williams-Sonoma Inc. operates more than 600 retail stores internationally under a portfolio of brands, including Pottery Barn, West Elm, Mark and Graham and Rejuvenation.
Elf Helper: Don’t forget the kids. If you are setting up a separate table for the youngsters you can give them their own fun theme for under a tenner. You can use the brilliant film “Frozen” as the theme or perhaps “A Mickey Mouse Christmas”. The party packs for eight at partydelights.co.uk include balloons, paper cups, paper plates, napkins and table cover.
If you already possess a beautiful set of cutlery – maybe a sumptuous sterling silver service or a sleek stainless steel designer set – you will want to see them making their own Christmas statement on the festive table. But if your set is basic and functional you might not want it to detract from the rest of the plates, bowls and decorations you have laid out. In this case, it’s a good idea to wrap the cutlery in a cloth napkin and tie with ribbon to match your colour scheme. You can always add a nametag and use this as a place-marker, resting the bound swag of cutlery in the middle of the dinner plate. This works better if you are not having several courses and are therefore not binding together five, six or seven pieces of cutlery. There are specific pieces of Christmas cutlery out there if you so desire, designed with festive embellishments. Otherwise, invest in a classic shiny stainless steel set that will serve you for many a dinner party to come from such manufacturers Villeroy & Boch or online suppliers such as Habitat. The mirror polish 24-piece sets, made in Italy, are excellent value from habitat.co.uk. Any mirrored finish works perfectly on a Christmas table, reflecting light from candles and tea-lights. You will also find excellent selections and any advice you may require in store at trusty John Lewis.
Elf Helper: If you wish to remove tarnish from silver, first line a bowl with aluminium foil. Put hot water in the bowl and add a dessertspoon of salt. Put cutlery in the water. The mysterious and very safe chemical reaction will clean solid silver and silver plate of tarnish. It’s like magic. For stainless steel: put a small amount of olive oil on a cloth and wipe over cutlery. This will remove any residue collected in the dishwasher. Repeat the process with a touch of vinegar on a cloth and the cutlery will sparkle.
Keeps the Fizz: Cutlery, but not as we know it. Consider this as a gift or for your own home use: a silver plated Champagne spoon by The Cutlery Commission through notonthehighstreet.com. Engraved on the spoon are the words “to keep the fizz fizzy” – and that’s exactly what it should do when popped in the neck of an open bottle of bubbly.
If you imagine each place setting at your table will have a water glass, a wine glass and a champagne flute, this is a good template. Three crystal glasses per guest is tantamount to perfection but could bust the budget. Think also, then, of colour and texture to add to the lustre of the table. Like mirrored cutlery, sparkling glasses – however inexpensive – will reflect candlelight and help the table glisten. Indeed, ornate or coloured glasses become jewelled decorations in their own right on a Christmas table. We suggest one of your first stops is the excellent online cornucopia of delights Not on the High Street – and in particular the French-inspired stockists Dibor. If you are aiming for an opulent look, using traditional festive colours, then red and gold-trimmed flutes are available online or in store. Visit notonthehighstreet.com or dibor.co.uk. The wonderful organic farm at Daylesford is worth a browse, too. Check out daylesford.com. For glasses you will go on to use every day, department stores have you covered. But for Christmas, perhaps you will want to go all out and invest in crystal glasses that can be treasured for years to come – like the beautiful ones produced by Waterford.
Elf Helper: If you want to make your glasses smear-free, mix a small amount of bicarbonate of soda with a touch of water in a small bowl and make into a thick paste. Wipe it on the glasses and remove the smears left by dishwasher cycles.
Christmas Mugs & Mince Pie Plates
We can’t very well overlook the good old Christmas mug, nor the plates to accompany them for mince pies or cookies. The choices are as tall as a mountain, as vast as the sky. Rather than list endless options from countless stores, here we simply give our favourites a generous nod.
John Lewis – Each year there are charming Christmas mugs offered by John Lewis for just a few pounds. Although the designs and themes change, the quality does not. View johnlewis.com.
Sophie Conran for Portmeirion – Four white porcelain mugs with subtle red and green decorations: ideal for Christmas and far from out of place throughout the year. There are side plates to match for those cookies and mince pies. Visit portmeirion.co.uk.
Emma Bridgewater – Emma Bridgewater products equal quality and she has even designed an exclusive range annually for Fortnum & Mason. Some items, like mugs and plates, can be personalised online at emmabridgewater.co.uk. Christmas Joy awaits.
Belle & Boo Collection – The “Let Me Help You” mini mugs are an absolute delight. Quintessentially British in quality and design, with red and white colours to the fore and a hint of snow on the motif, these mugs will thrill as gifts and warm the heart every time you open the cupboard and see them sitting there ready for use. Check out belleandboo.com.
Your Mug on a Mug – Select the colour and design of mug and personalise it with a name or a photograph…even your own face should vanity sweep you. Good value for under a tenner a pop. Browse yourdesign.co.uk/christmas-mugs.
Ed Elf says: I have a question for you Mrs. C. I’d be lying if I said it was keeping me up at night, but I’d like to know the answer for my own peace of mind. What constitutes a table decoration?
Mrs. C: That’s a relief. I thought for a second there you were building to something momentous and philosophical. Table decorations, at least to our way of thinking at How to Christmas, include ornate centrepieces, floral arrangements, candles, candle holders, festive figurines, name-cards, napkin rings and crackers. Christmas crackers are such an important part of the festive table we have a separate crackers page devoted to them.
Ed Elf: So no baubles? I like a nice bauble.
Mrs. C: Well, yes – if you want. You can hang them from a twig tree centrepiece or pile them in a bowl to form a different kind of centrepiece. Before the questions keep on flying, I think it best I put you in the safe hands of our trusty team to give you more ideas on table decorations.
Bold & Beautiful
Stunning centrepieces for your Christmas table can be made in several ways. The simplest involves a collection of small vases, four or five blooms per glass and a small plate underneath on which to place pine cones, decorations and sprigs of greenery (as pictured using red roses). If you want something taller and bolder consider using a solid tree branch, a plant pot and hanging tea-light holders. Aim for a uniformity of colour that complements your dinner service, tablecloth, placemats and runner. A simple white ceramic pot containing a painted white branch is wonderfully effective. Make sure the tree branch you use is brushed free of any loose debris before you paint it. The branches of a twisted willow or the slightly thicker branches of an ash tree work perfectly. Aim for a branch that has plenty of sturdy offshoots. The height and weight of the branch will determine the size of the container and the material you might use to hold it in place. Stones and pebbles are recommended, but ensure you put the branch in the pot first and surround it with pebbles rather than the other way round. Trust us when we say you will never force the branch into a pot of pebbles.
Once the branch is secured, hang clear tea-light holders from the offshoots. Add other decorations as you see fit – maybe a few light baubles or sparkling stars. You could even dangle foil-wrapped chocolates from the branch for guests to enjoy after dinner – as long as they are not too close to the tea-lights or you’re using battery tea-lights. Reindeer moss from a florist or garden centre can be used at the base of such a centrepiece to cover the stones or pebbles in the pot, should you wish. If this sounds like too much hard work in your busy schedule, but you like the idea of an abundance of twinkling candlelight, keep it straightforward by dotting tea-lights across the festive table. Add a few pillar or taper candles in the centre – perhaps alongside a shop bought centrepiece ornament – for height and impact. It’s about creating an inviting atmosphere, a sumptuous table and illuminating the greyest of winter days or chilliest of Christmas nights.
Elf Helper: If you want to decorate your table lavishly, carve your turkey on a side table or in the kitchen. You can always parade the whole cooked bird around the room first for the requisite “oohs” and “aahs”.
One large circular bowl or a tall vase made of clear glass filled with a multitude of baubles in colours to match your room decorations is simple and incredibly effective – even more so if a small strand of battery-operated white lights are thrown into the mix. If you have a long table, we suggest using three bowls or vases down the central runner. Group together an odd number of shot glasses – maybe five or seven. Place them in a simple round glass container with a flat base or on a flat plate. Both the shot glasses and plain container can be bought from many major stores. The shot glasses will take pretty much any small to medium headed flower. Group the blooms tightly and cut them down so that just the heads appear over the top of the glasses. If you prefer, use sprigs of holly and ivy instead of flowers.
Elf Helper: Consider this as one of your final flourishes for a dinner party setting – “Personalised After Dinner Fortunes Dinner Party Gift” by Bread & Jam. An example of one of the fortunes reads: “It’s a Magical World out there. Go Exploring.”