Who says you have to take out a bank loan to set a festive table like a pro? All you need is a good imagination, an available dining room, and a hungry mob. Follow these tips, and you’ll be able to revel with your loved ones and buy them Christmas gifts this year.
If you have dozens of Waterford crystal glasses and Lenox china place settings, congratulations. For the rest of you, don’t worry about being too matchy-matchy or buying all new plates and bowls—simply focus on achieving a complementary palette. For a Thanksgiving gathering, browns, reds, oranges, yellows, and ivory capture a harvest aesthetic. Silver, gold, and porcelain create a gleaming effect. A combination of white, cream, and glass pieces is always elegant. And you can never go wrong with all-white dishes, which are best for making food pop.
A hodgepodge of serving dishes, bowls, and trays is both eye-catching and convenient. Furthermore, holiday parties represent an opportunity to present food in unexpected receptacles: cocktail glasses can hold olives or mixed nuts, a trifle bowl is ideal for showcasing layered dishes, and a glass cake dome can keep dinner rolls fresh. For even more festive accents, place holiday-themed wrapping paper or autumn leaves beneath the glass of a large hanging picture frame, and use it as a serving tray for food, or transform a simple autumn wreath into a charger by laying it flat on a table and placing a serving plate on top of it; this technique adds both height and color to your food display.
A plain white or off-white tablecloth will suffice at any holiday gathering; it’s the decorative flourishes you add that will make the difference between a simple dinner and an elegant celebration. Buy low-priced fabric remnants at a fabric store, fold over the raw edges, and iron them in place (no sewing required), then add contrast in the form of a table runner, placemats, or napkins.
If you’d prefer to forgo a fabric tablecloth altogether, unrolling a thick, good-quality themed or metallic wrapping paper to cover the length of your dining table creates an instant, inexpensive runner (and no laundering required!).
Caitlin Flemming, San Francisco–based interior stylist and Sacramento Street blogger, says, “If you’re hosting a large group and want to have place cards, try something new. At the holiday party I hosted last year, I got photos of all my guests and put silver tinsel around each photo, and voilà—I had beautiful, unique place cards that everyone wanted to take home.”
Other unique place card options include:
Write each guest’s name with a Sharpie on gourds, mini-pumpkins, or yellow pears, then set the fruit on each person’s plate.
Wrap clementines in pieces of red, orange, and yellow tissue paper. Cut leaf shapes out of heavy green paper and write your guests’ names in metallic ink on the leaves, then thread a piece of twine through a hole in each leaf, tie the tissue paper bundles with it, and place them on each person’s plate.
Make deep vertical slits in used wine corks and insert place cards into the cuts.
Help your guests find their seats and enjoy sweet treats by setting out glazed sugar cookies featuring each person’s name in icing.
While floral arrangements are most hosts’ go-to centerpieces (chrysanthemums are inexpensive and plentiful this time of year), you needn’t limit yourself to blooms. A nature walk will yield a spectacular array of leaves, branches, acorns, and pinecones that you can place on your tabletop or in vases to infuse your home with autumnal splendor. For a more wintry, antique feel, spray-paint these finds white or silver, then rub the paint with sandpaper.
Alternately, fill clear glass bowls with seasonal fruits: apples, lemons, cranberries, or pomegranates are all good choices.
Detail Decorating and Ambience
“For Thanksgiving this year,” Flemming says, “I’m taking a vintage French book, stamping out star shapes, and tossing them around my table to add a little flavor.” Incorporating thoughtful details like these into your tablescape and the surrounding areas will guarantee a memorable celebration.
Never underestimate the power of candles. A bulk bag of tea lights or votives will run you less than $10 and, as Flemming states, “will instantly brighten your dining room, making it feel magical and intimate.” However, be aware that these small candles burn for only four hours or so, so hold off on lighting them until just before your first visitors arrive.
Buy a large roll of harvest-colored velvet or satin ribbon, and use it liberally to brighten everyday items—for example, by tying it around the base of candle holders or wineglass stems, or using it in lieu of napkin rings.
Set the scene with feel-good seasonal scents made from everyday ingredients, such as cinnamon sticks and cloves simmering in a pot of water on the stovetop, or chestnuts roasting in the oven.
Finally, don’t forget to bid farewell to your revelers with mementos from the evening. In addition, if you find yourself with more food than you know what to do with, arrange colored, plastic-coated Chinese takeout containers (available at most party-supply stores) on a side table, and guests can liberate you of your leftovers by filling the boxes on their way out.
With a little creativity and resourcefulness this season, you can create a holiday tabletop that will make your guests feel special and give Martha Stewart a run for her money—and, better yet, you don’t have to refinance your home to make it happen. Long after the table’s been cleared and your friends have departed, you’ll all remember what a beautiful get-together you shared. Just remember not to sabotage your chances to marvel at your efforts—as Flemming reminds us, “A stressed-out hostess is an instant mood killer, so decorate a few days ahead of time so that you can welcome your guests warmly and enjoy the party yourself.”