Even at gatherings exclusive to family, I kind of like the idea of shaking things up as host by exerting a bit more control over the dynamic. If Uncle Fred always harasses cousin Betsy about her college search, why not seat him next to elderly Aunt Jane instead? To avoid ruffling any feathers too drastically, consider assigning seats for dinner and then encouraging guests to mingle over dessert by doing dessert as a cocktail-style buffet with plates on laps in the living room.
Place cards also create an opportunity to add pretty, simple touches to your holiday tables. Here are some of our favorite ideas (pictured above, from left to right):
• If your dining chairs allow it, a sweet little tag attached to the chair looks lovely and doesn't clutter the place setting. Enlist helpers among your younger guests to get these tied on early in the party.
• A single natural element, like a burr from a sweet gum tree or a small fruit (seckel pear or crabapple) makes a perfect botanical touch. Just tie on a little piece of ribbon and a name tag.
• The matte surface on the back of a magnolia leaf makes a beautiful "card" in itself. Use a thin gold pen as an elegant way to write the guests' names.
• An idea borrowed from a wedding: Use your computer to create little vellum slipcovers for simple, inexpensive votive candle holders. Print each guest's name on the vellum, light the candles, add a length of ribbon if you're feeling fancy, and create an instantly intimate mood.
• I love these pop-up paper place mats from Publique Living. The cut-out shapes make perfect built-in place cards. They're made of kraft paper, which might seem too casual for a holiday dinner, but when you dress them up with china, elegant napkins, and flowers, they totally lose any picnic-y vibe.
Place cards can be controversial, but at the holidays, when there are so many social stresses to overcome, I think they can actually be a great way to help everyone relax. What do you think? To assign your holiday dinner seats, or not to assign?