Setting a Happy Thanksgiving Table

It is Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and that means table setting. This is my process, developed after many years of happy Thanksgiving meals at my house:

November boy

  1. Set down the table protector. It is important to protect the table.
  2. On top of the table protector goes a plain white damask tablecloth.
  3. On top of the plain white damask tablecloth, layer (after ironing) four tablecloths of various autumn patterns. This is important because you will want to remove the top tablecloth after the meal, possibly the top two. The remaining ones are already in place for the rest of the week.
  4. If you don’t have four tablecloths, layer as many as you have that are appropriate for the season. While you are doing this, congratulate yourself for not being obsessive about Thanksgiving tablecloths like some people.
  5. Choose a runner. The one from your mother with the (hardly visible) cranberry stains? The one from your mother-in-law with the very visible burns from the Year of Too Many Mimosas? The one you inherited from your great-aunt which is not stained or burned, but ask me again after Thursday? Stains and burns can be hidden, or not. They are battle scars, reminders of Thanksgivings past—there, but you don’t have to talk about how they got there, unless it’s an amusing anecdote.
  6. Select napkins. If you do not have multiple sets of cloth holiday napkins, see #4. If you do not own any cloth napkins, buy some. Paper napkins are not an option for a holiday meal.
  7. Double check your stash of paper napkins, and plates, that you will use for leftovers. Not for the meal.
  8. Decorate the runner with your collection of glass turkeys, pumpkin items, acorns, vintage Pilgrims and/or Pilgrim hats, and at least one turkey candle. If you don’t have these, at least invest in a paper fold-out turkey from a dollar store.
  9. Place the paper turkey far away from the turkey candle. (See #5.)
  10. Going by your seating chart—which you prepared in advance, right?—place name cards. Seat small children next to grandparents so parents can have a break and grandparents can find out that, no, they actually can’t coerce a three-year-old to taste the jellied cranberries.
  11. Seat young parents near someone they can talk to, but the subject isn’t children. Don’t seat anyone who would have voted for Franklin Roosevelt next to someone who would have voted for Ronald Reagan.
  12. Stack your clean holiday dinnerware. Note the word “clean.” If it’s been sitting in the basement or a cupboard since last year, wash them, please. Marshmallows from the yams are a dust magnet. If you are using everyday dinnerware, that should be clean, too. If you are using paper ware, why are you reading this? (But see #20.)
  13. Count out flatware for place settings. Stack the forks, knives, spoons in a pile and, when your mother-in-law arrives, ask her to place the flatware. This is to make her feel needed and part of the decorating process, not because you never can remember if the knives face in or out or where the dessert spoon should go.
  14. Place a wine glass or a water glass, or both, at each setting. It is acceptable for children to pretend they are drinking wine though it’s really sparkling apple cider, just like it’s acceptable for you to pretend that overindulgent adults and children hyped up on sugar are not identically obnoxious.
  15. Plan a place for serving dishes. Will the turkey platter fit on the table? Will you use a sideboard? Serve plates in the kitchen? Pass dishes around the table? Will someone come around the table to serve, a la Downton Abbey? If so, is that person steady of hand, strong of arm, and sober?
  16. Choose serving flatware. Keep the carving knife away from children and anyone with a grudge.
  17. If you have more than six people at your table, use two butter dishes and two gravy boats. Trust me on this.
  18. Perform a safety check. You don’t want people bending over lit candles to pass the dinner rolls. You don’t want a toddler within reach of the turkey fork, carving knife, or an antique dinner bell that will cause a tantrum when you try to take it away after it has been rung, and rung, and rung. Most of all, you don’t want the paper turkey next to the turkey candle.
  19. thanksgiving-paper-plates.jpgCircle the table no fewer than three times to make sure everyone has a place; everyone will feel comfortable in that place; that place is appealing; and everyone knows their place—which is, welcomed at your table.
  20. If  you ignore all of this and use paper plates and napkins, have a great holiday. But no matter what, don’t place the paper turkey next to the turkey candle!

Happy Thanksgiving from my table to yours!