The highlight of the holidays for me is gathering with friends and family, and it usually involves food. Sharing the feast is a holiday tradition on a par with decorating the tree and exchanging gifts. Volumes of etiquette manuals have been dedicated to setting a proper table, but even those of us who know a few of the basic rules - forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right, set from the outside in by order of usage, etc. - are unlikely to question their origins. And yet, like every tradition, table decor as we know it has come to us through centuries of custom heavily invested with meaning.
Eating is one of the most basic human activities, and eating in the company of others goes back to the earliest days of humanity. Bowls and implements for food preparation have been found in some of our earliest archaeological sites. In Europe during the Middle Ages, table-setting was easy because dinner guests would bring along their own knives, accomplishing all other tasks by hand. By the 18th century, rituals around dining had grown much more elaborate, particularly among the aristocratic classes, and it is from these traditions that our own concepts of proper decorum evolved.
Of course, there are cultural differences as well. Utensils vary by tradition and location; many Asian tables need only chopsticks and perhaps a ladle for soup, while other cultures rely on fingers to do the job. Even in our own time and place, notions of what constitutes a "proper" table setting vary with the formality of the occasion. The elegant place settings arranged by yardstick at Buckingham Palace have no place at a Texas barbecue, and the paper plates and napkins of the barbecue surely would stir consternation among the royals.
So, burdened with all that history and cultural sensitivity, how shall we set a festive table when friends come calling this holiday season? Taking our western culture as a given, the question of formality rises to the fore. Formality and elegance - not to mention cost - seem to increase as one climbs the social register. Fortunately, Spokane and the western states are generally more relaxed about such things than other parts of the country. Still, it's important to consider family tradition or the expectations of the guests when deciding just how formal to go.
For an up-to-date upscale holiday table, nobody offers more fun choices than Joel in downtown Spokane. The rich wine reds and deep earthy greens of last year remain popular along with other jewel tones like amethyst and topaz. Table coverings in luxuriously textured fabrics - brocade and tapestry prints, slubbed linens - continue to do well, but try to think beyond the standard flat tablecloth.
"If your table is a little long or a little short, we say just take [a table runner] and fold it and drape it so it's not stretched out," says Bunny Cronkhite of Joel. "It's a pretty and elegant look. Then you can put candles or a centerpiece and work it in."
Everyone loves candles for the holidays, especially pillar candles arranged on tall holders in the center of the table. "Candles are always really important, all year, but around the holidays especially," Cronkhite says. "They give that kind of warm intimate homey look."
Trees may be a tradition, but the table is not the place for a mini-pine or -fir this year. Cronkhite points out a centerpiece made from grasses, twigs and sprigs of berries in an antiqued urn. While still carrying a winter theme, this decoration can last well past the turn of the year. "Once the ornaments come off, then your trees are bare," she says. "We decided to do more with berries and twigs, and just more of a natural look instead. It's something our customers can use all winter, not just for the holidays."
To dress up a winter table for the festive season, garlands and napkin rings covered with glass and crystal beads are popular accessories. The crystalline theme carries over to the hand-blown glass ornaments and sparkly hanging icicles that can be added to the centerpiece.
Even if you have your heart set on the perfectly appointed table, it might not come together exactly as you want, due to any number of circumstances, including a limited budget. But don't despair. A similar effect may be achieved on a much lower budget - substitute a scarf for a new table runner, for instance, or change your old decorations into retro decor with a simple attitude adjustment. Remember the reason for the celebration - sharing good times with loved ones - and the mismatched dishes and less-than-perfect placemats will fade to the background, where they belong.