As Passover approaches, hosts often have a laser focus on the menu. This is understandable and appropriate, given that the seder is, first and foremost, a ritual meal. But true balabustas also keep an eye on the table settings and seating arrangements.

I am not a great decorator. I am guilty of devoting all of my resources to the food and generally forgetting about the centerpiece until guests are on the verge of arriving. At that point, I let out a stream of obscenities and scramble to come up with something that doesn’t look like it was attacked by the cat and then placed on the table.

On occasion, I have had the forethought to outsource this task — truly a best-case scenario. It is a great job for someone who wants to “bring something” but can’t cook. Every host has one of those guests and lives in pre-holiday dread of what they might offer — this is a win/win work around, and wise hostesses will assign the centerpiece to this guest, with clear parameters of height, dimension, color, etc.

But if you are inclined to handle your own centerpiece, and you consider it in advance of the first guest ringing the doorbell, you are in good shape. If you are aiming for a formal look and plan to pull out the best Passover china, silver, crystal and table linen, then a special centerpiece is a must.

Flowers are beautiful and traditional. Just be sure to order (or make) an arrangement that is low enough for guests’ eyes to meet across the table. You don’t want an arrangement so large and dramatic that it dwarfs the gathering. Seasonal spring flowers are traditional for Passover; these include lilies, violets, carnations, irises, cherry blossoms, hyacinths, tulips, daisies and daffodils.

In planning your tablescape, consider the number of dishes that will be on the table — the seder plate, matzos, soup, main dish and sides take up a lot of space, so make sure to use your real estate wisely. If you are super-squeezed for table space, consider having your candles do double duty; cluster a few elegant candlesticks in the center of the table. This delivers a minimal, elegant look and is a nifty way to create an attractive focal point without adding apparent clutter.

I am a huge fan of the floating candle centerpiece. Fill a shallow, wide-topped glass vase or bowl half way with something colorful and attractive — cut lemons or limes, cranberries, flower petals, leaves, even decorative beads. Then fill the vessel with water, and place tealight candles floating in the top. It’s beautiful, eye-catching and low cost.

Aiming for a less-formal table? Consider a basket or bowl of fruits and vegetables. Mix colors and textures for visual interest. Or strew some Mason jars or short candle holders filled with tealights (floating or not) along the length of the table.

Table aesthetics are, perhaps, the easier part of the non-food aspects of hosting. The other, creating a seating arrangement that prevents bloodshed, can be more of a challenge. Some hosts prefer to let guests sit where they wish. This might be fine. Spouses will likely sit with spouses, kids with kids, and hosts in their “regular seats,” or at the head of the table to preside. 

But if you have a large gathering, assigned seats with place cards are a great way to mix up the crowd and streamline the process of getting everyone seated. They can also add a decorative element, whether you buy pretty place cards, make something festive or recruit a creative relative to help.

The cards provide a strategic way to manage, ahem, personalities. Take, for example, the youngster who plays his mom and grandma like fiddles, disrupting the seder and generally wreaking havoc on the evening. Sit him next to his strict schoolteacher aunt who will take no nonsense.

As for the political extremists? Opposite ends of the table, please, surrounded by people who will either distract them from their dogma, or are well able to quash the discussion. And it may not be a bad idea to declare the seder table a “politics free zone” for the duration of the holiday. This is well within a host’s right, and arguably his or her duty to ensure a peaceful seder for all gathered.

Regardless of what is on the table or who is seated around it, the most important thing is to focus on the joy of the celebration. Happy Passover to all! JN

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