It's time to pay attention to the setting.

December 2, 2019

People pay too much attention to the food at Christmas and not nearly enough to the setting. By this we mean there is an art to cramming an unusually large number of people around the table. Every year the menu might change, but one of the most important Christmas rituals is to put everyone together.

You don’t necessarily need a childrens’ table, or  free-for-all seating with plates balanced on laps because everyone sits shoulder to shoulder, nicely. Nothing reminds you more of the fact that we’re all in this holiday together. Depending on the size of the crowd, the Christmas seating arrangement is often your biggest challenge. The record  for our family is around 40 .

Some people like to shoehorn a series of connected tables that stretch the length of their living room, and dog-leg into the dining room. They build a variety of plywood table extenders to seat all the relatives, including grown children, neighbours, friends and friends’ friends who might show up. Or they use a series of trestle tables along the hallway. And get smaller folding chairs with child-size seats.

Christmas is not the time for guests to be perched on the arms of the sofa, looking for somewhere to set their glasses.

Why does it feel like a new seating plan will ruin Christmas? Families have their own rules of physical order—who sits at the head of the table, for instance, and what serving dishes are used—and that gets passed down across generations, according to research on family routines. These things tend to be heavily scripted. But, the sign of a healthy ritual is one that can change. That’s because when it comes to family holidays, change is inevitable.

You can’t keep everything the same even if you wanted to,” says Anne Fishel, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and co-author of the newly published “Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook.” “Every year some people die or others don’t come back or you add new family members or friends.” So why panic? Christmas is the mother of all family meals, and it comes with a lot of freight. The holiday gives you a kind of double vision – where you have your Christmas meal, but you also see it through the lens of all your childhood Christmases. It makes us very aware that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves.

True, Christmas will inescapably be connected to all the others you remember. No matter where people sit, you’re probably eating from reassuringly familiar china.

There will most likely be flowers, and candles, and at our place there is usually food set up on a special tables with cheery tablecloths which only get used at Christmas. Maybe people should embrace new rituals. But where do those come from? In this case, they came from event planners.

People get chocolate Santas from retailers such as Williams-Sonoma and use them as décor on each plate, which is a lovely custom. Placecards are another tradition at our Christmas table. We are big believers in telling people where to sit – especially if you have guests who don’t know everyone. Also useful if you have to split up the guests at different tables. It’s not a bad thing for a table to be too tight. It can help a party ignite. Maybe you don’t need that dining room table extender after all. It might feel like a Christmas miracle.

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