Set Your Dining Table for the Holidays

Decorating your table for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Day is a time-honored tradition. For some of us these holidays are the only occasion when preparing the dining table is a truly formal and festive affair!

Holiday meals should be special, memorable occasions, a time to polish our best silverware and china dishes, get out the crystal stemware and embellish the table with candlesticks and centerpieces, fine cloth napkins and a festive tablecloth or table runner and placemats.

But what are the elements that make your tablescape warm and inviting for guests during the holiday season, setting the mood for great conversation and the enjoyment of delicious food and beverage together in the company of friends and family?

Read on for a primer on what to do and not to do when getting your dining table ready this holiday season for those special meals.

Make your holiday dining table festive and unique with these great holiday tablescape tips and ideas.

Tips on Setting Your Dining Table

For those who never went to finishing school or who don’t set a formal table on a regular basis, let’s start with a quick overview on how to set the table:

  • Forks should go on the left and spoons and knives to the right of the plate.
  • An easy way to remember the correct order to place utensils is that they go in the order in which you use them; so the salad fork goes on the outside left while the larger fork used to eat the main course goes on the inside left. Turn the blade of all knifes so they face toward the plate.
  • Place the side plate to the left of your place setting; if you are serving a cold first course such as a salad, the side plate should be set ahead of time, while warm dishes such as soup should be delivered to the table when that course is served.
  • Place the wineglass at the tip of the main-course knife. The water glass and any other glasses should be arranged in the order they will be used with the first one on the outside.
  • The napkins can go under the knife and spoon or on the side plate. Alternatively, if you choose to use napkin holders or fancy folds, the napkin can go on top of the main plate for a more decorative place setting.
  • A nice touch will be to create decorative name cards so that you can strategically decide ahead of time who sits where. Place cards can go at the head of each place setting or on the main serving plate. You can make your own holiday name plates by downloading a free template and use a calligraphy font or hand write the names yourself if you’re good at calligraphy.
  • Finally, for an extra special touch your guests will be sure to remember, you could leave a small gift at each place setting. If you shop around in dollar discount stores you can find all kinds of small gift items such as jewelry boxes, Christmas tree ornaments, etc. Wrap them and use ribbon to give them a holiday look. Opening the gifts will make a great conversation starter when everyone sits down at the table.

Decorating Your Dining Table for Holiday Occasions

Now that we have place settings planned and ready to go, it’s time to embellish our holiday table, giving it some holiday color and style. Should you use a formal tablecloth or decorative placemats? Perhaps you’ll want to try a seasonal table runner and matching placemats?

In part the decision rests on whether you want to expose the natural beauty of your wood dining table top or conceal your less formal dining table from view. Here are a few tips on selecting linens and placemats for your holiday dining table:

  • Placemats can be in plain, solid colors or patterned, woven or linen. It’s best to choose something that is heatproof to protect the table surface.
  • If you use a tablecloth it should drape about six inches over each edge of the table top. Depending on the material, a heatproof protective mat under the tablecloth may be needed to protect the table surface from spills.
  • Choose colors and patterns that complement your table ware; solid color linens work well with patterned China sets while a more festive pattern can really highlight white or other solid colored China.
  • Although a white tablecloth is often associated with a formal table setting, for the holidays you may want something more festive such as a deep red, green or gold. A patterned table runner, tablecloth or placemats are fine as long as everything is color coordinated and the patterns don’t look too busy or cluttered.
  • Placemats in solid colors like red, blue, green, gold or silver are very versatile and can be reused for non-holiday formal meals too; you can use other accents such as the centerpiece to add pattern for a more festive feeling.
  • If you are using a tablecloth, take time to remove creases and wrinkles. If you don’t want to bother ironing it, you can try throwing it in your clothes dryer set to “Air” or “Fluff” setting; put a damp towel in with the tablecloth and it should come out nice and wrinkle-free!

Selecting Tableware for Your Holiday Table

Now, if you don’t have a set of formal tableware, you can find some great deals if you shop around; with the economy being so weak this holiday season, expect retailers to offer great sale prices even before the normal after-holiday sales. Look online at, Amazon or on eBay and you can really save money on luxury items such as China, formal silverware and crystal stemware.

A nice touch will be to add decorative chargers to your table setting; if you are using gold or silver as an accent color you can match your chargers to give your holiday a real designer look without spending a fortune. Chargers don’t have to be high quality or expensive to add a special accent to your holiday table!

Try to choose a color scheme and stick with 2 or 3 colors, picking up the colors you have already used to decorate your dining room. Winter colors that work well as a primary color in your holiday dining room décor include deep reds and greens. You can either choose contrasting secondary colors or use two shades of the same color to keep things simpler.

If your walls are taupe or another warm tone, then gold will make a great accent color in your holiday tablescape. On the other hand, if you have gray walls tinted with green or blue then silver makes a great accent color for accessories like candlesticks and napkin holders.

Setting a Holiday Tone in Your Dining Room

OK, so we’ve got our tableware and place setting plans in place; now it’s time to consider some holiday accents and embellishments to really give our holiday dining tablescape the right mood for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. By simply changing a few elements you can achieve a nice progression with subtle changes to your holiday tablescape:

  • For Thanksgiving, you might do a simple fall centerpiece with pumpkins, gourds and fall flowers or fruits. Read our complete story on Fall Tablescapes and Floral Arrangements for lots of great ideas. Warmer accent colors help echo the changing seasons and colorful leaves outside in late November.
  • As we move into December the progression moves toward winter colors and patterns. Consider a bright red poinsettia, winter berry or holly berry theme for your centerpiece with matching reds and greens for a Christmas feel.
  • An elegant approach is to go with a monochromatic color scheme such as winter white, New Year’s silver, gold, Christmas red or evergreen can give your dining table a unique, classy look.
  • For a unique holiday tablescape, you could try using colors such as mustard yellow paired with white to create a star theme or silver, light blue and white to create a snowflake/icicle theme.
  • Lights are sure to give any tablescape a holiday feel; try working some holiday LED or rope lights on the buffet or hang elegant crystal icicles from your chandelier. A mirror over your buffet will help reflect light and color into your dining room and open it up, giving the illusion of a more spacious room.

The Holiday Dining Table Centerpiece

The one mistake a lot of people make is to overdo the centerpiece; too tall it will only hinder conversation and separate your dining guests unnaturally. A low centerpiece will accent your table without getting in the way. You can even just lay a nice holiday wreath to serve as a simple centerpiece.

Make a centerpiece using real pine boughs, flowers, pinecones, berries or whatever strikes your own fancy; change the centerpiece once after thanksgiving and again after Christmas to help set the tone for each holiday celebration you’ll be hosting.

Candlesticks and Candles for Holiday Dining

Candles are a natural element in most traditional holiday tablescapes. Whether you have a set of your grandmother’s silver candlesticks or a matched set of China candlesticks that go with your tableware, candles add warmth and ambience to the table setting.

The Kids Christmas Table

We all remember as kids how boring it was to be stuck listening to adults talk all night long during holiday dinners. But whenever there was a special table for the kids we ended up having a much more memorable holiday dinner.

If you plan to have a lot of kids during the holidays then a kids’ holiday dining table is almost a must-have just for the shear lack of space at the main dining table. You can make it fun for the kids too by dressing up a holiday table of their own.

Use an inexpensive vinyl holiday tablecloth, plastic plates and eating utensils to make things easier. Use a white paper tablecloth and set out a holiday bowl filled with crayons as a centerpiece and let them decorate the tablecloth themselves.

All of these ideas are meant to serve as though starters. Get creative and make your dining room a reflection of your family holiday traditions. Don’t be afraid to go outside the lines and make it unique to your holiday celebration. The only important thing is to have fun and spend time with friends and family while sharing great meals and holiday celebrations together!

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