EVER since the hour went back, I’ve been lighting a candle at the dinner table. Candles are a contentious issue in our house: a potential fire risk, is the spoilsport male verdict.

Sorry to indulge in gender stereotyping but I, and many of my female friends, agree that men tend to have a utilitarian approach to lighting, glaring overhead lights being their preferred option.

My one concession to this unduly alarmist, fire hazard view is an igloo-shaped porcelain tea light holder, bought from a Shelter shop for £4. The ceramic is so thin that when it is illuminated within it glows like an alabaster lamp.

As the nights grow darker, and 2020 shows no signs of becoming any easier, this evening glow comforts me.

Its presence on the table seems to signal that whatever craziness and jeopardy lies outside the front door, right here, around this table, right now, we can still make our lives lovely.

But then candles to me are just an element in a convivial table-setting ritual that has been steadily eroded over the years.

A few years back when I tried to give away a dining table – 1990s Habitat and probably a collector’s item by now – no-one would take it off my hands.

“We’ve got a warehouse full of them” said one charity. “We can’t get rid of them. No one eats at tables now”, another told me.

How has this happened? The advent of the microwave, and the prevalence of ready meals, enabled us to eat without cooking, and also casualised our whole approach to meals.

Who needs a table when you can eat your reheat on your lap on the sofa in front of the TV, or dine in your bed while browsing social media?

Solitary grazing has got a grip, and so many home meals were, pre-lockdown, staggered, largely because of conflicting timescales and work demands.

A sharp escalation in poverty has accelerated this habit. An average rent is 68% of household income. People are forced to sleep in the dining room just to spread the burden of a backbreaking rent.

As Christmas looms, TV ads show scenes of happy, prosperous families sitting around tables bedecked with china, canteens of cutlery kept for special occasions, pristine table cloths, fabric napkins, and glassware that has not yet surrendered its sparkle to dishwasher dullness.

Browsing a magazine, I came across a ‘tablescaping’ brand called Mrs Alice, brainchild of Alice Naylor-Leyland. She says that the interest in table-setting, already trending last year, has gone into overdrive with lockdown, as people stuck at home turn their attention to enhancing their dining areas.

Alice’s lavish Christmas tablescapes make me feel inadequate and poor. They heave with bone-handled antique cutlery, impeccable porcelain, hand-embroidered linen table mats, crystal candelabra, ornamental silvery stags and toadstools, and fresh flowers, the latter colour-themed to match the hue of the water tumblers.

A blue and white Enchanted Forest Tablescape from Mrs Alice costs £350 for a four-person set. Not cheap.

Yet I do share Alice’s love of a well-set table. You can “get the look” on your Christmas table for a fraction of that cost, by, for example, strewing it with gold-sprayed squashes and sprigs of berried holly, or winding fronds of ivy from the park around your undistinguished candle holders.

But why confine the art of table setting to Christmas? Why eat from that battered plate when you have that Sunday Best china shut away in a cupboard?

In the current anxiety-ridden climate, let’s grasp every opportunity to build positivity and beauty into our daily lives, whether it be a candle, a laundered napkin, or a well-designed knife that is a pleasure to hold.

If we could design a food experiment that measured the physical and emotional benefit humans gain from eating in a civilised way around a table, compared to consuming the same meal on your lap, or on the hoof, I suspect we’d find a major difference.

A friend, who is 95 and lives alone, always lays her table, even for breakfast. This daily act of etiquette and self-care may well be one of the habits that has taken her to this ripe old age.