Setting the Scene for Holiday Festivities
by Chase Dermott, Education & Public Programs Manager
It’s the time of year when friends and family gather together for holiday celebrations and no matter how you celebrate, it’s possible that you may host a meal in your home. While many parties will be fairly casual, there’s always the possibility of hosting a sit-down dinner. Now, many people lean towards buffet style dinners (read: me) simply because it’s easier than finding seats for so many people. However, if you’re inspired this season to host a sit-down dinner, boy do I have just the thing for you: doilies!
Let me preface this with how I got this idea in the first place. In our last blog post, I found a wonderful pumpkin pie recipe in Museum volunteer Sherry Steele’s cookbook titled “Any one can Bake,” published by the Royal Baking Powder Company in 1927. While exploring the cookbook, I discovered entire sections of tips on everything from kneading dough to using a table grill. One of these sections contained the holy grail of 1920s table setting guides.
My first thought was how handy this would be for setting the table correctly, but the selling point was that it has doilies. I could not pass up this kind of fun.
I’ve never purchased doilies before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I searched at my local thrift stores and did an online search, but my efforts to find a set of doilies that were real cloth, inexpensive, and big enough to hold plates was unsuccessful. Then one night during some late evening Christmas shopping, I happened upon a package of 72 paper doilies with three different sizes for, like, $3. Bingo. Paper doilies: frilly and responsible.
According to the table setting instructions, you may either use place mats, or “cover table with silence cloth made of felt, heavy flannel, or bound asbestos.” Yeeeaahhh, it’s gonna be a no from me on the asbestos, so I used what I had. The instructions are a little unclear regarding which exact arrangements are used for each type of meal, so I used them all as inspiration while sticking to what I had on hand. Besides, whoever wrote “runners are often used in place of doilies” was no fun. We’re using both. #livedangerously
I spent about an hour trying to remove the wrinkles from my red tablecloth and plaid runner before giving up and hoping you fine people wouldn’t notice. We do the Christmas thing in our house, but you can change the color scheme up to suit any celebration! The instructions are specific that we should use a white damask tablecloth, but until the Royal Baking Powder Company sends me one, this is what we’re using.
With the foundation laid, I followed the place setting guidelines, adding doilies for each guest’s plate and drink, and eventually doilies for each of the serving dishes. I placed napkins on the left and arranged the silverware according to the supper layout: knives to the left of the plate and the fork and spoon to the right.
Not too shabby. I mean, the doilies aren’t exactly my style, but then again I only put a tablecloth on the table once a year, so who am I to give advice about table decor? Mostly, this is where we all dump our stuff on the way in the house, so this is a huge step up.
Now that the table is set and the turkey is in the oven, it’s time for a little holiday bonus. You’ve probably heard carolers sing about it a hundred times, but how many times have you actually had wassail? My answer is zero. I’ve had zero wassail. Among Sherry Steele’s collection of cookbooks are loose recipes tucked in various places, put there by her mother and grandmother in years past. One of those books happens to hold a single page recipe for wassail, which appears to have been copied from a Betty Crocker Cookbook.
I couldn’t pass this up. The ingredients were easy to gather, all found at my local grocery store. Instead of full sized oranges, I chose these little guys. Honestly, I was really just excited about sticking cloves in them like some fancy-pants hostess.
We will certainly not need a gallon of apple cider, but what Betty Crock wants, Betty Crocker gets. Also, I do not own a punch bowl so this will be interesting.
We got everything mixed together quickly and put the pot on the stove. Once it was boiling, it filled the kitchen with the yummiest, spiced apple smell ever. Highly recommended.
After lowering the temperature, we started sticking cloves in the oranges. This was definitely the fun part. Even the kids enjoyed it.
I strained the wassail and put it in the Crock-Pot to stay warm until later. Slow cookers weren’t invented until the 1940s, but I needed my stove top for the rest of the meal so I cheated.
With everything set, dinner was served. Everything looked wonderful on our fancy table and I was pleased with how it all turned out. However, in the future, I think I will opt for placemats with less…. doily-ness.
After dinner, it was time for some warm beverages and a crackling fire! I transferred our wassail to the
mixing punch bowl and plopped those oranges in there giddily. I also added a cinnamon stick to each cup because I do what I want.
The wassail was delicious, rave reviews all around! Try adding some brown sugar bourbon or rum, if you like that sort of thing (spoiler alert: it’s good).
What I’d keep: the wassail was perfect, and the table looked really pretty, but…
What I’d change: …I would not put doilies on my table.
Cost: Paper doilies were $3 (and you’ll have, like 60 left over, yaaaaay!) and the ingredients for the wassail were about $10 if you have the spices already.
Happy holidays from our table to yours! If you decide to decorate your holiday table with doilies, PLEASE tag Everett Museum of History on Facebook and @everettmuseum on Instagram and Twitter because we really want to see it. Seriously. And don’t forget to share this gem with your friends so more people can watch us embarrass ourselves for the sake of history.