Thursday, November 19, 2009

How to Set the Thanksgiving Table and Why: The Short Course

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I am posting a wonderful article by Florence Fabricant published in the New York Times 6 years ago.  It not only details how to set a table  but also the reasons behind it.

It is interesting how those of us who were asked to set the table by our mothers at an early age continue to enjoy doing so later in life.   I developed such a passion for table settings that nowadays I have a  room full of different patterns of china, table cloths, glasses and centerpieces that cover every occasion and then some.  I am still unpacking and sorting but once I find the photos I promise to post pictures of past Thanksgivings. 

The only thing I can add to Faricant's articles is my pet peeve for colored tapers.  Except for holidays such as Christmas, Halloween (black!) and Thanksgiving, I prefer cream or off white candles.  Concentrate your colors in the china, the flowers, the napkins and whatever else is on the table. 


Published: Wednesday, November 26, 2003

WHEN I was growing up, a treat for me at Thanksgiving was setting the table. My mother spread out a thick white and gray damask cloth she said an aunt had brought from Germany (and which I now treasure). Then she would take down the special French dinnerware.

And I would set to work.

I was not more than 7 or 8 years old, but by then I knew exactly what to do,how to space the plates evenly and place the silverware properly, simple lessons that once ingrained are impossible to forget or to forsake.

In planning for Thanksgiving, more thought must be given to the menu and the guest list than to the niceties of setting the table. Unlike a social dinner party, the Thanksgiving meal will proceed regardless of whether there are enough matching plates or glasses.

Even if you do not own silver flatware for 12 or will wind up borrowing from a neighbor or a parent, what does matter when the plates, flatware, glasses and napkins finally do go on the table, is that they should not be placed helter-skelter but should follow certain conventions. It will make the table look more formal. And a nicely set table to greet the guests as they are seated will start things off in an orderly fashion on an occasion that often threatens to descend into chaos.

And if there are children involved at the holiday, for those who are too young to baste a turkey or help peel potatoes, learning to set a proper table offers an excellent opportunity to participate in the preparation of a festive, traditional meal.

The practice of table setting simply guarantees each dinner guest the same number of knives and forks and plates and glasses, to be used in the same order. In the Middle Ages, before the fork, there was no need for such conventions; dinner guests brought their own knives. (Forks were introduced in Italy in the 11th century, and finally came to France, it is thought, in Catherine de Medici's luggage.)

The particulars of today's conventions have evolved from Victorian times, when the family dinner and the social dinner acquired great importance, especially in England. In great houses, the setting of the table became almost ridiculously elaborate, as shown in the 2001 film "Gosford Park," which had butlers of that era wearing white cotton gloves so as not to smudge the silver and crystal, and actually using yardsticks to position each plate and fork, a detail the first lady, Laura Bush, noted during her visit to Buckingham Palace.
There is no need to go so far.

What we have been left with is what I will call the basic setting for a dinner table.

Traditionally, of course, a proper table is covered with a cloth. Tablecloths originated in Rome and represented wealth and dignity during the Medieval period. Damascus in Syria produced the best cloths, called damask, like my family heirloom. Centuries ago, several tablecloths were laid one on top of another, each to be removed after a course. This practice is still followed today in some cultures, in North Africa, for example. Then in early 18th century England, very fine wood tables were meant to be shown off, so doilies, named for D'Oyley, a London draper who is said to have invented them, came into use. These in turn became place mats.

On to the plates. The plate is the flat dinner plate, which evolved from wooden trenchers, which were in turn preceded by slabs of stale bread.

The plate is then flanked by knife and tablespoon on the right and usually two forks on the left. Utensils are placed to make picking them up and using them efficient and simple. The knife should be turned so the blade edge is on the left, next to the plate, a consideration dating from when knives were razor sharp. The forks, a larger dinner fork and a smaller salad fork, are placed in order of use from the outside in. In France the forks and spoons are usually turned so the tines and bowls face down.

(At Windows on the World, the late Joe Baum insisted that the tables be set with the knife, fork and spoon together on the right.)

However they are placed, in our culture, utensils are necessary as the intermediary between fingers and food. And they should never be held tightly grasped in one's fist.

To the left of the forks, there can be a small bread and butter plate with a butter knife placed across it near the top. Though butter is never served at a formal dinner or banquet and bread is optional, Thanksgiving is different. Aunt Alice may have made pumpkin bread, or Uncle Brent may have brought biscuits or cornbread, so the bread plate is useful.

For the dessert service these days, a teaspoon with the handle on the right and a dessert or cake fork with the handle on the left are often set horizontally above the dinner plate. The dessert fork and teaspoon can be omitted from the setting and added later, after the main dish has been cleared.

Now, glassware. Two glasses, a larger one for water and a smaller one for wine, should be positioned above the knife, with the wineglass to the right of the water goblet. Stemmed glassware is a sign of refinement. But until well into the 19th century, no glassware was placed directly on the table. It was lined up on a side table and offered by servants, already filled.

A napkin, simply folded, and for a nice dinner, cloth, never paper, might go to the left of the forks, but the 1960 edition of Emily Post's Etiquette insists the napkin belongs on the dinner plate itself. And she also noted that fancy foldings are in bad taste. Today, unless lobster is on the menu, the custom of tying a large napkin around one's neck is no longer accepted at a formal dinner, as it was in the 18th century. Napkin rings once held napkins that were reused, but are now merely decorative.

There are other niceties of the table that deserve to be observed. Only wine can be placed on the table in its original bottle. Water, juice and other drinks should be decanted into pitchers or carafes.

Thanksgiving is also a time when everyone pitches in, and not just the children who might be given the chance to set the table. In these servantless days, as an expression of helpfulness, guests tend to leap up to remove plates and bowls at the end of a course. That is fine, but when it comes to clearing the table, it's considerate to wait until everyone has finished eating. It will help to make a dinner that often comes with an array of built-in tensions a little more relaxed, and gracious.


  1. Oh no! I love colored candles/tapers!!! I search all fall for JUST the right color: not too orange, not too yellow. Have found them, this year, at a wonderful market near my Mother in Massachusetts! I'll take pictures and show you! Love those colors......

  2. For holidays it's fine as far as i'm concerned. I also look for just the right color for the Thanksgiving and Xmas table(dark pine green for me!). It's just for regular dinner parties and teas that i can stand them especially blue and pink!If you have beautiful dinnerware and tableware, color candles just detract from them. your eyes go immediately to the candles!


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