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Setting the stage: Table tips

Gathering with friends and family to share a festive meal is a big part of what makes the holidays the holidays. And while the guests and the food are certainly the stars of the show, a beautiful table sets the stage for a more enjoyable and memorable event.

Whether you’re planning a rather formal dinner party, a more relaxed get-together with the neighbors, or an open-house buffet for a crowd, you’ll have your hands full with menu decisions and food preparation. So here are a few simple ideas for making your holiday table warm and inviting.

Light and Color

First things first: This is the time of year for candles. Tapers, pillars, votives, tealights, by the pair or by the dozen—it doesn’t matter. Dim that overhead light and let candles work their timeless magic. (Of course, be mindful of young children, or all the reaching involved in a laden buffet table.) Try to avoid perfumed candles while dining. With care, candlelight can go a long way toward enhancing a holiday mood.

Holidays all have their traditional color schemes, so unless you are really trying to counter expectations, it’s easiest to work with those colors. Silver and gold are popular color themes for holiday decorating as well and beautifully accent a traditional color scheme and help to update a table setting. Set your table with candles, linens, and accents in one or two colors—set off by complementary china, flatware and stemware. Add in silver or crystal candle holders and serveware—and get set for compliments. Unity of color and a limited color palette makes for a stronger impact and allows you to mix traditional and contemporary styles, old and new pieces, to great effect.

The beauty of continuity

Annual holiday celebrations by their very nature mark the passing years, linking today’s gatherings with all that have gone before. By all means, make your holiday table your own fresh interpretation of the season. But consider including an heirloom piece or small objects from your family’s past as part of your table setting. It adds visual interest, sparks conversation, and helps enrich the occasion by celebrating the continuity at the heart of the holiday spirit.

Centered on food

Thanksgiving is all about harvest time. In addition to the plentiful courses being served, why not let the earth’s bounty take center stage on your table? Apples and grapes in a crystal bowl make a simple and appetizing centerpiece. Or arrange some small gourds on a silver platter, accented by fresh chrysanthemum blooms. Fall hydrangeas mixed with harvest colored flowers create a wonderful floral centerpiece in your favorite crystal vase. Take care to keep your centerpiece low enough so guests can enjoy conversation across the table.

Gifts of the season

At Christmastime, candlelight, evergreens, sweets, and presents are the order of the day. Center your table around numerous candlesticks at varying heights, some with candles and others with Christmas ornaments placed on top. Arrange evergreen boughs and/or pinecones in a crystal or silver bowl - accent with beautiful glass blown ornaments. An assortment of small wrapped gifts (one for each guest) makes a centerpiece that builds anticipation. Or place a collection of old-fashioned wooden toys on a silver platter, and at each place setting, a miniature candy cane in a shot glass.

Linear thinking

Most of the ideas above apply to the buffet table as well: warm candlelight, limited colors, and simple decorative items appropriate to the season. Just take extra care with the candles—food in front, candles out of reach. (The Swedish, masters of the winter buffet, always include whole constellations of candles.)

A successful buffet is built on a logical progression: plates first, then the main course, side dishes, bread and condiments, and utensils and napkins last. If you have room, keep the beverages on a separate table, as well as the desserts. And don’t put out the desserts right away—sometimes temptation is just too great. Especially around the holidays.

Buffet Setting

Informal Dinner Table Setting
(Salad, Entree, Dessert)

Formal Dinner Table Setting
(Soup, Salad, Entree, Dessert)