Set the scene
I moved on my own to the Boston area in 2001 from a small town in West Virginia, far, far away from anyone I knew. My first apartment was a 5th floor walkup in the North End. It was there that I hosted my first holiday dinner. We were given turkeys as our Christmas bonus at work. Having no clue what to do with it, I stuck it in my freezer for the time being. Fast forward a couple months and a good friend of mine was heading to Chicago to see her family but her fiancé couldn’t go, so the idea of orphan Easter was born. After about a million frantic phone calls to my mother, I successfully made the turkey and gravy along with a bunch of other sides… I hosted about 8 people in my tiny apartment. When I say tiny, I mean tiny… we literally had to move the table every time we opened the oven, there was food out on the fire escape and a buffet set up on an ironing board in another room. Such a far cry from the picture perfect spreads my mother puts out every holiday, but nevertheless, a new tradition was born. I have hosted Easter almost every year since then and after getting a job as a graphic designer in retail, I have started doing Thanksgiving as well since I can’t always make it home.
I have moved 3 times since that tiny apartment, each place getting a little bit better to host sit-down dinner parties, but still far from perfect. We had to balance a coffee table on our small sofa for the appetizer buffet at the next place and circle the table to fill the plates for dinner, musical chairs style. In Cambridge, we crammed all the ginormous living room furniture into a corner to set up a table, which left no place to sit after dinner.
Now in Somerville, I have an actual dining room with a table for 14! Moving on up! And yes, I have hosted 14 people at a time… with no dishwasher. And you know what drives me nuts? People stay seated at the table well after the dinner is over… in apartments past, there was no other option but now we have a huge living room that I practically have to bully people to use after dinner. It’s crazy.
Make it pretty
I know these holidays should be all about the food and it is, for everyone else. But secretly, my absolute favorite part is setting the table and making place cards and centerpieces. What can I say, I did go to design school… some years, I spend more time on the table design then I do on the menu.
Sometimes I get inspired by something early, other times its a last minute panic to make it all perfect, but I always try to do something different. I even take into account who is coming and remember what they have seen for past dinners.
I pour over Pinterest pictures, search for the perfect font and come up with unique ways to do the place cards. I think place cards are just that extra touch that puts any dinner party over the top. And considering the mishmash of people that get invited to my holidays, its a way to make sure everyone gets seated near someone they know or may have something in common with which helps to make everyone more comfortable, as there are usually new faces at the table based on who goes home for what holiday.
Best laid plans
The trick is to know your guest list in advance…. Or try to. It’s been rare that we haven’t had a last minute addition to the table because their other plans fell through or someone got invited on a whim, so I have made it a practice to have a flexible place card solution so that I can easily add people on the fly so they feel welcome. That flexibility usually means usually no computer stuff… who has time to fire up a printer when you’re up to your elbows in mashed potatoes and the door bell is ringing? I don’t like my handwriting, it’s too basic, so I also try avoid that. So in years past, I have used a old school label maker (the black tape kind…) onto origami butterflies, hand stamped onto shrink plastic, used a vintage typewriter on tiny cards, embossed letters onto a real leaf. Luckily, I have a craft room just off the kitchen that I can leave all the supplies for the place cards out and then shut the door so people don’t see the mess. I have gotten better about predicting these last minute additions and have even started just making a set of ‘just in case’ place cards to be safe.
The other trick I have learned (the hard way) is regardless of how many guests you are expecting, you should ALWAYS put all the leaves into the table. Worst case, you don’t have to strip the whole table to extend the table in order to add another plate, best case, everyone has plenty of elbow room and no one has to hold the ham!
My favorite table to date was Friendsgiving 2014. The guest list was on the lighter side, so I actually had some room to work with on the table. I decided that instead of place cards, I would put a photo of my guest into a paper frame which would be added to my dining room wall after dinner. After setting the table, I realized that having pictures as place card would only be effective if the person was by themselves in the photo. Whoops. So I tucked names into the napkins last minute to cut down on confusion when the turkey hit the table. But we all had fun reminiscing about the memories in the photos during dinner, which helped people get to know each other and made it a great Friendsgiving. Of course, I printed out pictures of people that might stop by just to cover the last minute changes.
In 2015, I had taken my dog on a walk and noticed how giant the leaves were falling on the path, so the idea was born. It’s a good thing that one of the guys I live with is a whiz with spray paint because I made a hot mess out of the project. He quickly took over and the results were stunning! I got so many compliments and questions where I found gold leaves… I guess I am the only one that could still smell the fumes! I am thinking I may want to try gold dipped pine cones at a future dinner! Or go funky with neon paint?!
One of my favorite things to use is washi tape. I love that stuff. You can do so much with it and the patterns are almost limitless. Last year, I wrapped it around candle sticks, used it on the place cards, made napkin rings with it and even wrapped it around the stem of the wine glass as a marker, which looked cool but in hindsight wasn’t that effective to claim your glass. (which I apparently didn’t take any photos of last year’s table…not that I can find anyway.)
I bought so much washi last year that I decided to use some of it again this year. Risky business attempting a repeat, but the table was filled with my family members last year and my brother was the only one coming this year, so I let it slide. I don’t think he noticed… and I broke my own rule again and actually did use the computer. I found this font that I fell in love with called watermelon script from dafont.com, my favorite font site. Check it out here!
My work around for the last minute changes was to make a place card for anyone and everyone that may darken my door that day. I found these great little easels at Target for 6 for $3 and reused the binder clips from last year to hold the names. Easy last minute switch out, just in case. I also did wine tags for the first time in an attempt to keep people using the same glass throughout the day, although that backfired when someone started cranking out rounds of old fashioneds, not that I am complaining.
My big splurge was the addition of these candle holders. I got them at CB2 but I believe they have been discontinued. I stalked them for the better part of the summer waiting for them to go on sale and snatched them up after getting a small bonus at work. They are usually plain white, but I love that I can add a touch of color using my trusty washi tape to pull together the table.
Thankfully, I decided to set the table early so I caught the fact that the tea lights I bought did not fit into the candle holder. What??? Did you know there’s 2 sizes of tea lights? 1.5″ versus 1.4″. Barely a difference, but they wouldn’t fit!! Aaah, so I packed one candle holder up and was off to Michael’s as I wasn’t taking any chances the night before Thanksgiving. I had bought LED ones from IKEA that did fit, but I wanted real flames for dinner. After staring at the tea lights, I broke another cardinal rule and opened the package in the store. I wanted to be sure. It fit perfectly, so quick purchase and off to pick up my brother at the airport. Crisis averted. I think the real candles looks so nice and twinkly during dinner, especially with the glittery tablecloth. And I have to say, I was shocked on how long tea lights burned. I thought I would have to stop dinner and switch them out 😉 but now I have the LED ones in for safety.
I can’t wait to have another dinner party to light them up again… when’s Easter again?