Setting a formal table for the holidays

Household 3 min read

Setting the table for the holidays is a creative exercise that many look forward to. Finding just the right china, just the right furnishings, and just the right place for each guest to be seated can be a work of art. Deciding who to sits next to who at a formal dinner to celebrate the season is a skill that is built over time (maybe mom-mom and Aunt Debbie shouldn’t sit next to each other after last year’s sweet potato incident). And with that skill comes setting the very table itself. The one where aunties, uncles, moms, dads, cousins, daughters and sons will all gather. When setting the perfect holiday table, we have some tips on making the formal setting a creative display of self-expression that all of your friends and family can enjoy.

Modern holiday table

Building a formal table is much like creating a work of art. You start with the raw canvas, and then create rich layers to form your final piece. For a modern holiday table that still celebrates the formal nature of the celebration, begin with the dishware. Fine china can be used to define your color palette for the tablescape. A black-and-white-striped plate is the base for this dinner party display. A white dinner plate layered on top creates contrast. To finish off the display, a scalloped vintage salad plate completes the color story with a hint of gold. Gold flatware with floral details complete the look.

Graphic elements

To make your tabletop pop, serving dishes and accent pieces like glassware are key. A mix of glassware adds to this tabletop display. Glass goblets with a black stem continue the color story. Highball gold-rimmed glasses become perfect water glasses for guests. And serving dishes, like the black and white bowl featuring a brush stroke detail adds a graphic element to the entire setting. Each piece alone is a unique, and together, these pieces create a beautiful symphony for this formal setting. The final element to finish the table is a footed black vase filled to the brim with fresh florals.

Dazzling moments

Once the dinnerware has been chosen for the table setting and set, it’s time for the flatware to make an appearance. For formal table settings you’ll want guests to have a salad fork and dinner fork to their left, and a knife and spoon on the right. Beyond where each piece of flatware should be accurately placed, use elements like forks and knives to complete the feel you want for the table. Here, sparkling gold flatware creates a dazzling moment among a mix of Asian-inspired and blue willow china.


For an intimate atmosphere for your holiday gathering, add candlelight to your table display. Candles are the perfect way to bring in heirloom pieces to complete the formal tabletop. A set of crystal candlesticks that have been passed down, a vintage candelabra, or candlesticks sourced from a local flea market or during travels can bring significant meaning to the tabletop display. Place them among other elements to brighten the table like a large floral display that reflects the beauty of the season.

Mix and match

Formal events may not seem like they’re right for playful elements, but that’s what can make the formal table so much fun. That ability to pull together a number of elements, from newer dinnerware elements to family heirlooms can be used to create a unique table each year that family and friends gather around the holidays. For this dinner, blue willow china has been effortlessly mixed with mid-century modern pieces. The mix of rustic elements with soft blue florals creates a tabletop display that is rich and visually exciting.

Just add napkins

To complete the look of any formal table, skip on the paper elements. Go for woven napkins for all of your guests, even the small ones. You can layer napkins beneath a salad plate, or get even more creative and layer them beneath the dinner plates on the table. Let them hang just a bit for dramatic effect. The addition of natural textiles will make guests feel extra special as they sit at the table, placing a napkin in their lap.

Unexpected pieces

To keep things interesting, don’t forget to add a bit of the unexpected into your tabletop display. Of course guests will expect plates, glasses and server ware, but surprise them with china that is outside the box. For the holiday season, you can bring in china that speaks to the gathering, or layer in vintage and found pieces that caught your fancy over the years. Here, a scalloped plate with a scarab detail becomes a unique bread plate for this formal dinner setting.

Touch of whimsy

Beyond the unexpected, holiday tables should also be about whimsy. Bringing people together for the holidays is so much about nostalgia and celebrating those moments we remember most from our childhood. It’s the whimsical things about the holiday season that we hold onto even into adulthood, and the table should reflect that. Add colorful elements through bold florals. Bring in some of grandma’s favorite pieces like oyster plates and golden ashtrays to add depth and meaning to your holiday table. Make it reflective of your family, and even though it’s formal, make it memorable for all who gather.

Click here for informal holiday entertaining tips

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