A freshly starched and pressed white tablecloth used to be a requisite part of any major dining occasion, especially a family-filled holiday meal.
Chill, the pros say. It’s okay to be more laid-back about the whole holiday table thing.
Today, there are many stylish alternatives to cloths, whether it’s setting out your plates on bare wood, experimenting with runners or going modern with woven gold or silver place mats.
Or, for a fresh wrinkle on things, you could simply use your family’s heirloom linen cloth straight out of the dryer.
“We are not wedded to the rule of having tablecloths on the table to make an occasion seem formal or festive,” says Amanda Hesser, co-founder and chief executive of Food52, a home and cooking website. “People get worked up during the holidays because there is so much to do.”
If you are going to use a tablecloth, she says, don’t worry about ironing: “We love tablecloths that have not been ironed and have wrinkles to catch the light and look prettier.”
For the past few Christmas dinners, lifestyle blogger Julie Blanner has set her white plates directly onto her dining table, which is made of salvaged wood, and added natural elements such as garlands, cinnamon sticks and berry sprigs. “I find that for me, tablecloths require extra effort and time — things that I don’t have a lot of during the holidays,” says Blanner, who has written her blog, JulieBlanner.com, since 2008. “I’ll use them other times of the year, but now I’m busy prepping for the holidays with my children.”
She does recommend tablecloths when putting two tables together or to cover a folding table. Blanner doesn’t worry about stains or scratches on her own table, as it has a nice patina on it that she regularly treats with tung oil.
For Michael Devine, a dinnerware and textile designer, tablecloths are a quick and easy way to change the mood of the table without a huge investment. But they don’t have to be fussy white linen. “Step out of the box and experiment,” he says. “I have used antique paisley shawls, tartans, colorful saris and even patchwork quilts to create memorable tables.” One favorite is made of green felt. (His advice for round tables: Use tablecloths or chargers, not place mats, because they can “make the table look crowded.”)
Because white dinner plates are in vogue, tablecloths in the same color may not be a great choice. “A lot of millennials have simple white plates, and a white plate sitting on a white tablecloth feels kind of institutional,” Washington-area designer Marika Meyer says. She is fond of textured place mats, such as the round, woven, preserved boxwood mats she has used for clients’ holiday tables. Meyer is not a big fan of table runners: “I like to fill the table center with candles, flowers and interesting objects, so those end up covering up the runner.”
Another alternative is color. “I don’t sell a lot of all-white tablecloths,” says Joanie Ballard, co-owner of R.H. Ballard Shop and Gallery in Washington, Va. “I think that look is a little too formal for most millennials.” Instead, she likes bright tablecloths woven in the French style by Le Jacquard Francais. She sells several versions of this traditional French tablecloth, including one that is coated with a light matte acrylic so that it can be wiped clean with a sponge, while still looking elegant.
For Thanksgiving this year, Merrill Stubbs, co-founder and president of Food52, used a garland as her centerpiece, running down the center of her rectangular table. “I threaded in some small candlesticks of different heights on the garland and put out my rumpled linen napkins.” Stubbs says. The look is casually elegant and welcoming. “I might repeat the same look for Christmas.”
If you prefer a festive table look that is more minimal, Chilewich has a tuxedo-stripe woven design with a satinlike surface that looks luxurious without being fussy. Available in gold or silver as a mat or runner, it wipes clean and looks great layered. “I think that a big part of hosting is making your guests feel special,” says Sandy Chilewich, founder and creative director of the textile company.
As for “the rules,” Mindy Lockard, etiquette expert at Mindy Lockard Leadership Firm, would prefer hosts to not use a tablecloth at all vs. using one that is wrinkled. But she agrees that tablecloths are optional, even at the holidays. Her take: “You can create an elegant tablescape without sticking to the traditional rules of formal dining.” She suggests a neutral color palette, a runner, place cards, chargers, beautiful flowers and candles — and a correctly set table.