Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Setting a Table -- Some basics

1) Candles are used on the dinner table only or for any other type of night-time meal or party. Strictly speaking, you would never set out or use candles in the daytime. In other words, you would not have them on the table at lunch or for an afternoon tea. Etiquette demands that such lighting be used only when there is a real need for it -- i.e. after dark, when drapes are closed. However, I promise not to tell the etiquette police if you go wild and burn some lovely candles in the daytime for the fun of it. I merely want you to be informed of the rule, so that you won't break it unknowingly.
2) An important corollary of this rule is that you would never have candles on the table during a meal unless you intend to actually light them. The reason is that having candles on the table and not using them sends the message, "I will use these lovely lights later on, but not for you. You're not special enough to me that I would burn down my candles just for you." Thus, it makes your family and guests feel as if they aren't important to you. Now, I will share a secret if you promise not to tell the etiquette police about me: I will sometimes use candles in candlesticks as a decoration on my dining room table, when I am not serving a meal on it. Strictly speaking, this isn't adhering to the rules of etiquette. But, I do follow manners in this point: I never have candles on the table when we are sitting down to a meal in which they won't be lit. You will naturally use candles properly if you remember this: While they may make pretty decorations, their real purpose is as lighting. So, use them as you would any other lighting.
3) According to the rules of etiquette, you should never use less than four single candles or two candelabra at the dinner table. If using four single candles, you would have a centerpiece with two candlesticks placed on either side of it. The candlesticks should match. If you don't have four matching ones, at least use four of the identical height and similar shape and that go together well.
4) You may have heard that you should burn the wicks on candles before setting them out on the table. The reason for this, I hear, is that when electric lighting was new, not everyone had access to it or could afford it. Therefore, hostesses who did have electric lights would burn the tapers on their candlesticks to make it look as if they, too, still used candlelight frequently. They didn't want to call attention to the fact that they had the luxury of using light bulbs rather than candles if they wanted to. In this way, any guests at the party who could only use candlelight would not have to be ashamed of issuing a return invitation. If this is the origin of the principle, it was a lovely thought. However, it wouldn't be so vital today. If you are a traditionalist, burn the wicks on your candles just a bit before placing the candles on the table to be used.
5) Remember, the pattern that you use to place utensils and decorations on a table is a geometric one. If you are using a tablecloth, make sure it lies in straight, even lines. If you use a centerpiece, it should be exactly in the center of a table. Candlesticks, if used, are placed in identical positions on either side of the centerpiece. Each place at the table is set at the same distance form the next place. All table silver is placed about the same distance form the edge of the table (around 2 inches). Forks, knives, and spoonts, should lie in exact parallel lines at each place. If your plates have a design with a clear top and bottom, place them so that they appear straight to the eyes of the person sitting at that place. Bread-and-butter plates, glasses, salts and peppers, are in identical positions in relation to each place at the table.
6) In the old days, people used little salt and pepper shakers for each guest, or, at the very least, one salt and pepper shaker for every two persons. Some people today still use these little individual salt and peppers. If you have a large family or you are sitting guests at a long table, have at least two matching sets of salt and pepper shakers -- one for each end of the table. (Having the two sets match is best, but don't worry if you don't have such. Use what you have. The convenience of the people eating the meal is what is important.) You can find inexpensive small glass or crystal salt and pepper shakers at garage sales. Or, you can buy very inexpensive ones in stores. Also, if you are hosting a large party in which you will have guests seated at more than one table, make sure each table has salt and pepper shakers on it. Have just enough salt and pepper shakers to accommodate your family and a certain number of guests. Too many cause extra clutter in your kitchen or other storage area. Likewise, if you don't put out pats of butter at each person's place setting, make sure that you have multiple butter dishes placed on either end of the table for your guests' convenience.
7) The bread and butter plate goesw to the upper left of the dinner plate with the butter knife laid either horizontally or vertically across it.

Enjoy!
Elizabeth

8 comments:

abrianna said...

Elizabeth,

4 individual candlesticks or two candlelabras? How big are these tables? There would not be enough room left on my table if I did this, lol!

With the extension, my table seats 4.

I too will leave candles on the table as decoration. With all the scented candles out there today, I see nothing wrong with lighting them so your house smells pretty during the day, but that's just me. :)

I've really been enjoying this whole Finishing School series!

Elizabeth said...

It does sound as if you have a smaller table. So, I would do whatever looks best on your tabletop.

I, myself, was unaware of the four candle or two candleabra rule until recently. However, now that I have read this in several sources and have tried it out myself, I do see that this does look better on my tables -- even though I would say that my tables are of only average size. It also makes more sense as far as the amount of light that the candles put out.

I promise not to turn you into the etiquette police if you use candles in the daytime.

I would like to clarify, though. I'm not sure that the rule of etiquette about not using candlelight for daytime meals applies to burning one scented candle somewhere in the house in order to make your home smell lovely. I think that is fine, as the purpose of such a candle is not for lighting. I personally find, however, that I do tend to use even scented candles more for the evening than in daylight. I especially like candles when the days start getting shorter and shorter. Candlelight does warm up a house on a dark winter evening -- and, in December -- evening can fall around here about 4:30 or 5:00 in the afternoon!

abrianna said...

Thanks for not turning me into the etiquette police :)

It gets dark here around the same time as it gets dark in your neck of the woods.

I did do a long tablescape last autumn down the length of the table, but it was not in the center, but down one side. And a few years back, and even now, designers are saying that the centerpiece does not have to be in the center. It is nice to have that leeway nowadays.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear . . . please don't use scented candles, especially on the table. The scent confuses the aromas of the carefully prepared delicious meal - but worse, makes a horrible experience for those with allergies and/or asthma.

I have a dear friend who loves to put out scented candles at Christmas, and unfortunately am not able to enjoy her beautifully decorated home.

Mercy, please!

Elizabeth said...

Scented candles certainly can trigger asthma or allergies. I used to have to limit my time in one of my favorite stores because they sold so much potpourri and scented candles that it would get to me.

There are many who love scented candles, and they can make a home smell wonderful. I agree that candles at a meal shouldn't be scented. The aroma of a meal is an important part of the taste. Sometimes, the mix of a scented candle and the pleasant odors of a meal adds up to a very unpleasant competition of fragrances. Concerning other uses, I think that' up to a person's preference. It might not be a bad idea to ask company if they are allergic to the scent. And, it's not a bad idea to communicate if something in the home is upsetting your allergies.

In your case, I'm sure that your friend would rather forgo her candle than forgo your company. Perhaps, you could explain that her candles trigger your illness.

SQfrom SC said...

Thank you for your comments...I am hosting a late afternoon wine and cheese party. I have adhered to the rules of not burning a candle(s) until it is dark but wondered if maybe the rules had evolved into the 21st century.
Based on your blog, I think that I will use myn candles.

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