Setting the Holiday Table


The tree is trimmed, the presents wrapped and the stockings hung by the chimney with care. But wait, you still have one more holiday task to complete: setting the table.

Creating a festive holiday table is a great way to get into the spirit of the season. It’s fun and easy: no 8-foot trees to chop down and wrestle into the house, no multitude of ornaments to unwrap and place ever so gently on just the right branch. Chances are you already have most of the ingredients you need for a beautiful table, and the rest are readily found or purchased.

We asked four local experts—event designer Mary Daffin, co-owner of Nouvelle Roux!; floral designer Wes Green, owner of Twiggs Floral Design Gallery; interior designer Kari Miner; and retailer Nicole Turner, owner of The French Hen—to share their tips on how to create a holiday table that will dazzle your guests. Here’s what they had to say.

Throw out the rule book. Sure, everyone associates red and green with Christmas. But who says you can’t dress your table in untraditional colors such as pink, purple, yellow, orange or brown? “Orange is very popular this year,” says Miner, who uses linens and china in trendy colors to give her holiday table a modern, up-to-date sensibility. Floral designer Green likes to combine orange and magenta flowers for a bold holiday centerpiece, while Daffin thinks chocolate brown is a great neutral backdrop. This year, she’s doing a brown tablecloth, ruby-red charger plates and a centerpiece of blood-red roses for a holiday look she calls “stunning.”

Think outside the box. For a holiday home tour, Turner created a one-of-a-kind table “cloth” using inexpensive paper maps of Paris. (First, she created a template out of paper, then spray-glued the maps to the template. To finish it off, she scalloped the edges.) “Everybody loved it,” she recalls. “It was so unexpected.” For that same table, she used bay-leaf wreaths as “placemats” under each plate. Different—and fun.

Keep it simple. You don’t have to order an elaborate centerpiece from the florist. “People are shying away from overstuffed arrangements with lots of floral filler,” says Miner, who advises putting three beautiful, large-scale flowers—red amaryllis, perhaps—in a vase. Green suggests lining the center of a long table with beautiful fruit, such as Bosc pears, interspersed with votive candles. Another idea, courtesy of Turner: Put a purple artichoke in a small urn at each place setting.

Light it up. Candles add a magical element to the holiday table. Daffin uses frosted votives. “They glow,” she says, “and you don’t see the candle inside.” Turner suggests putting votives in long-stemmed wine glasses, while Green likes to “layer” the light by mixing a tall candelabrum with low votives.

Use what you’ve got. Don’t have special “holiday” china? No problem. “Don’t spend money on expensive china you’ll use only once a year,” says Daffin. Green agrees: “Your regular white china is a nice, clean palette that works with anything,” he notes. If you simply must have holiday china, use your regular dinner plates as a base and top with a salad or dessert plate in a holiday motif. These days, everyone from Target to Lenox makes salad and dessert plates in holiday patterns.

But buy something new. To keep your holiday look from getting stale, invest in something small each year: a new runner, napkins or colored crystal wineglasses or champagne flutes. Target, Pier 1 Imports and Cost Plus World Market are great sources for inexpensive items such as these. 

Fill ’er up. The holidays are not the time to be stingy: Fill the table with lots of things that say “Christmas.” “I personally like my table very full: centerpieces, candles and ornaments at each place setting,” says Miner. “I want it to look very festive.”

Give tradition a tweak. Too often, says Daffin, traditional equals stuffy. “We like to take a tradition and twist it,” she notes. For instance, she’ll set the holiday table with a snow-white tablecloth—and lime-green napkins. “Lime green is a different spin on the traditional holiday green,” she explains. “We’ll also use a touch of red, maybe in a ribbon around the napkin—it really makes the lime green pop.”

Can you say ‘yardage’? Don’t purchase a tablecloth. Instead, go to the fabric store and buy several yards of sheer tulle, organza, faux suede, even burlap. Daffin likes to cover the table with rough burlap, topped with a soft cotton lace overlay, for a look that mixes the rugged and the refined. Green even uses drapery panels instead of a “real” tablecloth.

Give everyone a gift. Turner likes the idea of a small gift for every guest. “Everyone loves that,” she points out. Her favorite gift: a small topiary in an urn or teacup at each place setting. Miner ties a ribbon on a Christmas tree ornament to make a napkin ring; each guest gets to take one home after the party.