Tips for Setting a Holiday Table

Tips for setting a holiday table to make your dinner guests feel extra-special.

Food and wine needn’t get all the attention during holiday meals. This season, bless your guests by layering your table with simple or luxurious accoutrements that will make your dinner party shine. Not sure where to start? No problem. We’ve enlisted a few local experts to help get you on your way to setting a lovely and inviting holiday table that will make your guests feel extra-special.

Where to Begin
Depending on what else is happening in your home, our experts say it’s OK to begin setting your table up to a week before your event. This can free up time on the day of your party for focusing on food preparation. “Begin setting your table with a base layer cloth,” says Kim Zitzloff, owner of Five Swans, a shop for distinctive home and kitchen gifts in Wayzata and Tonka Bay. “Measure your table and add about 20 inches for an appropriate drop on all sides.”

Chargers, cloth napkins, mirrors and garlands are terrific items for incorporating color, sparkle or thematic elements. And feel free to stray from traditional holiday color schemes. For a Thanksgiving table, think harvest. This lends itself to shades of green, mustard and rust. Consider a layer of colored kraft paper topped with a bowl of fresh seasonal fruits, vegetables or nuts.


A Christmas table can be set in any color, but silver, gold and white are most versatile. A wreath surrounding a candlescape or pieces of birch bark tied with glittery ornaments can serve as an elegant centerpiece. Home decorator and entertaining expert Teri Bennett suggests placing small ornaments under overturned water glasses. Then top the overturned glasses with candles. Spread more ornaments around the table for a whimsical effect.

For a more vintage tablescape, choose an old wooden box lined with a pretty holiday linen and filled with mixed evergreens or bundles of birch. Bennett has used little wagons, stools, cutting boards and buckets to create old-timey table settings. “Old just needs to look clean and appealing,” says Bennett. “The keys are texture and creativity.”

When setting a buffet, Bennett suggests utilizing lots of varying heights and color for the adornments as well as the food. “Use anything for height,” she says. “I once used a plant stand for a brisket and a whimsical beaded cake plate for pumpkin bars.”

Tableware and Seating Arrangements
When it comes to dinnerware, you needn’t buy everything new. Instead, find a set of holiday salad plates that complement your current dinner plates. And don’t be afraid to mix and match patterns. Or consider holiday-themed napkin rings or tuck a sprig of fresh spruce into your existing napkin rings for a bit of festive flair. No napkin rings? Use colorful curling ribbon. And while you’re at it, drape a bit of curling ribbon around your chandelier, or use it to hang small ornaments over the table for an extra-special embellishment.


For glassware, most any alternating combination can work as long as there is a rhythm of some kind. Stemware is most elegant, while tumblers work well for a more rustic or casual setting. But refrain from setting more than two glasses per guest on the table. Otherwise, things begin to look cluttered.

Seating arrangements are important for mixing things up, especially when your guests don’t know each other well. But be thoughtful. A big part of an evening’s success can hinge on conversations between guests you seat together. Here are some tips for getting creative with place cards:
•    Slice slits into fruit for inserting name cards or position name cards in pinecones.
•    Use a gold marker or glitter pen to write names directly onto large red apples or little pumpkins.
•    Write names in chalk on slate coasters (available at Five Swans).
•    Tie place cards onto napkins with curling ribbon.

Ask the Experts

What is the most important part of setting a holiday table?

“Make it festive and fun. Don’t repeat year after year.” –Kim Zitzloff

“Don’t make it a chore. Do a little happy dance before you begin.” –Teri Bennett

How do you pare down a table setting for a more intimate gathering?

“Select a smaller centerpiece and votive candles instead of pillars. Choose a menu that requires fewer serving pieces. Think one-bowl meals.” –K.Z.

“Use a low centerpiece everyone can easily see over. Set only one end of a long dinner table and maybe place a tray with wine bottles, glasses and dessert under glass at the opposite end.” –T.B.

Is it ever OK to use paper napkins for a holiday dinner?

“Absolutely! Paper napkins can enhance your colors or theme.” –K.Z.

“Yes. Tie something cute around a simple white paper napkin. People love it.” –T.B.

If you could add one special item to your holiday table, what would it be?

“A unique Santa Claus figure or a sparkly glass Christmas trees next to tea lights.” –K.Z.

“Love. Stay calm and enjoy your guests. Nobody likes a crabby, out-of-control hostess. Guests would prefer to overlook a missing item from your table and have the hostess be part of the party.” –T.B.


Holiday-themed tabletop items available at Five Swans

Shiny silver reindeer candle holders and figurines for a more modern tabletop; 3 inch pillar, $19, larger sizes available

Capiz shell and gold trees; prices range from $55 to $105, depending on size

Green-leafed trees tipped in gold; prices range from $58 to $98, depending on size

Antique tree lights; $10

Whimsical crystal or pearl beaded trees; 23 inch, $40; 34 inch, $66

Vintage-style Santa figures for a more traditional tabletop; prices range from $54 to $200

Check these websites for more information about entertaining or to find that just right item to top your holiday table: