The Splendid Table
When we set the table this holiday season, we're doing more than setting out food. We're adding to our families' legacies
Written by Laurie Prince
Although a formal table is threatening to go the way of the rotary dial phone—both are too cumbersome and take too long to use—it often makes a reappearance around this time of year. Out come the silver, the real linen napkins, crystal water goblets, and fine china. Like suitcases, they are taken out of storage to carry us on another year's journey. Memories from years past are packed into them; at the holiday table, we make room for new ones to be added.
Setting a holiday table is about so much more than polishing silver and ironing linen napkins. It’s about creating new traditions. (istockphoto)
Being home for the holidays—a popular theme in December magazines—is not so much about decorating as it is about family. And family, even more than the silver and fine china, needs some gentle sudsing, some polish, and some setting in good order this time of year. Maybe that is why setting the table is such a strong ritual. While we soak glasses in a towel-lined basin, pull on gloves and begin the messy task of polishing the silver, or open a drawer for another cloth to dry a plate, we find ourselves pulling our own memories out of storage, cleaning them, buffing them to a polish, and setting them out to reflect upon and enjoy. Our secret longing is that this year, a good memory will be made, enriching the story of our table.
"Clothes make the man," Mark Twain observed, adding, "Naked people have little or no influence on society." Women like to influence society, so we dress our tables accordingly. A spare one will have little influence over those seated around it; a grand one can make the evening. So we take the time to make the table. There must be something exciting and new, like a good tie or hint of cologne, and plenty of the familiar.
Several years ago, as I became more thoughtful about the atmosphere I wanted to create when my family walked into the dining room, I began collecting antique silver napkin rings. My table, like my life, needed some bling. eBay turned out to be a repository of all sorts of treasures—I could look at sterling for sale in Paris, in an antique store in Massachusetts, or at an estate sale in Los Angeles. Plus, it didn't take a whole lot of money to get something really nice. Before long, packages were arriving from England and from different states. I started building a collection—a small one, a budget-friendly one, but nevertheless a collection that sharpened the dialogue between the table and me.
Mismatched and unique, the silver rings sparkled when I lit the candles. With white linen napkins, they provided a neutral backdrop for creative embellishments, like sprigs of holly tucked in folds. Sometimes I veered away from the formality, like the Christmas I made napkin rings from sand dollars gathered on a family beach trip—guests took them home as ornaments. But I have continued to come back to the silver. They are intriguing, having traveled here from other eras, and provide a stylish introduction to the evening. One has a cartouche of scrolling leaves surrounding an elaborate nineteenth-century monogram; another has tiny dragons in bands at top and bottom. Like the people in my family, the rings have come to me from different places and in different conditions. But each is sterling—made of something precious—and has a design uniquely its own.
It's not just how the table looks that matters, but also what is on it. While a host awaits the arrival of guests, the guests, once arrived, await the food. For me, since I love to eat, the holidays provide an excuse to stretch out the eating for hours. How else can you keep everyone seated? Wine is not enough. One year I found a recipe for Crisp Peppered Duck—you had to pepper the birds, which I bought fresh from Reid's, and leave them to dry on racks in the refrigerator for two days so that the skin would be good and crisp when cooked. The time this required, and the expense of it, were excessive, but when the plates were brought to the table, the effect was entirely worth it. People savor good food, and providing something unexpected promotes a spirit of celebration.
Taking the time to plan the meal, buy fresh flowers, track down candles that burn slowly, create amusing place cards, or select a reading and prayer all create a sense of place, a sense of community, a sense of belonging. The little children learn how to fold a napkin, a teenager is reminded that grace is found in saying it, and a young couple begins the journey of finding their place in a story they will carry forward. Creating a holiday table is the gift a woman gives her family. It requires patience and a decent sense of humor. It means that some things don't go according to plan, even though you still have to have a plan. The big table, outdated and cumbersome as it is, and ignored for most of the year because it takes so long to use, is our connection to the past, an old phone with a line that runs along the land. Those who set it hope it will ring with hellos. We hope the receiver will prove sound and the caller will be sweet, the lines will stay open and the connection will be clear. And if the dialing began with duty, we hope it will end with love, after a long visit and plenty of laughter, with pauses in all the right places. And that no one will be in a hurry to say good night.