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Set the Holiday Table and the Mood With Creative ‘Tablescaping’

Boost the festive factor with colorful linens, seasonal decorations, candles and greenery

Tablescaping design

Keita Turner Design

En español

There’s nothing like sitting down to a beautifully set and decorated table to create ambiance, elegance and drama. 

This holiday season, set the mood for your food with tablescaping. Use colorful linens and dishes, festive centerpieces and decorations to wow family and friends as they gather for a meal. For many celebrating winter holidays, it might be the first time in years that they are seeing friends and family because of the coronavirus. And for those who are still parted from loved ones, taking time to create a special look on the table can boost spirits. 

“Creating the perfect tablescape is imperative this year,” says Tracy Morris, a Washington, D.C.–based interior designer. “The table is the heart of the home. We need … a beautiful space to gather.”

Create a pleasing table setting

Cvetelina Petrov, 52, of Orlando, Florida, loves to create festive spaces in her home for the holidays — no tabletop is safe. She decorates kitchen counters, side tables, coffee tables and her dining table, especially on Christmas Eve.

Petrov, who grew up in Bulgaria, serves traditional Bulgarian vegetarian dishes and covers the table with a red tablecloth featuring a traditional Slavic design. She uses a large, folksy Bulgarian pottery bowl as a centerpiece. She then arranges napkins, dinner plates, silverware and pine cones in a starburst that radiates from the center. 

Petrov admits that when she lived in Bulgaria, she rarely used Bulgarian tableware. Now, the pottery provides a connection to her country. “These things are more special now. We don’t have family here, so that’s the way I feel close to my family,” she said. “Whatever they gave me over there, as a present, even if it’s worth only a dollar, I bring here and I cherish.” 

To create a beautiful table setting, you don't need to go out and buy decorations, says Morris, who encourages her clients to harvest tablescaping decor in their yards or from their homes.

"Take a look at the trees, the evergreens and the hollies,” Morris says. “I go around and clip everything.” She arranges the evergreens in little vases and places them around the house in mini sprays, creating a festive winter atmosphere perfect for marking Christmas.

"You can do the same for your table,” she said. “If you have antique glasses, maybe a highball, take five of those and fill them with beautiful sprays and put them down the center of your table."

Morris’ go-to table decorating staple is an antique champagne bucket. “I fill that champagne bucket with all the greens,” she says. “It smells fantastic.”

Two side by side images of tables nicely decorated

Courtesy Debi Lilly, A Perfect Event

Decorations that reflect the holiday

​Incorporating items that have special significance to the holiday being celebrated is a great way to boost the impact of table embellishments. Candles and candleholders can set the mood. Linens, like cloth napkins, decorative napkin holders, table runners and vintage tablecloths provide a rich backdrop. Ornaments and holiday items, collections of decorative knickknacks, and even fruits (think red cranberries, pomegranates) can be put to use.

Judith Mish, 80, of Tampa has used dreidels and menorahs to decorate her table for Hanukkah. Last year she dined alone for the holiday because of the coronavirus pandemic, but still pulled out her best crystal and used blue and white china atop blue or silver chargers. She topped the table with menorahs and dreidels she’s collected over the years and sat down for a meal with her family on video chat. “It gave me a good feeling,” she says.

Other holidays may call for specific items to decorate the table. For Kwanzaa a wooden unity cup, a woven place mat and a kinara, a candleholder similar to the menorah that holds seven candles, are decorative essentials.

Nicely decorated table

courtesy Alan Berry

Sometimes, those items are hard to find. “If you don't own a kinara, opt for seven individual candleholders or votives to hold your candle sticks, lined up in the same red, green and black arrangement order,” says Keita Turner, president and creative director of Keita Turner Design in New York.

When it comes to her own tablescapes, Turner prefers a flair for the dramatic. One way Turner creates drama is by mixing styles, including different patterns for place settings. “I'm not afraid to use modern, almost pop-art-looking, black-and-white chevron pattern dinnerware with a traditional dining table setting,” Turner says. “It's unexpected and keeps things young and playful."

Those who lack time or creativity can opt for ready-made tablescapes found in retail catalogs such as Williams Sonoma, Anthropologie or Bed Bath & Beyond. Crate&Barrel features an Alpine ski-themed tablescape with white Christmas tree candles and a table runner with a design reminiscent of a warm winter sweater.

For Petrov the holidays are a chance to go all out, even though she and her husband are empty nesters: They have a 20-year-old daughter who is away at college in Boston. When their daughter returns, it will be just the three of them, for dinner. Yet, Petrov decorates as if she were awaiting the royals. 

“Someone asked me, ‘Why do you decorate? You don’t have small kids.’” she says. “I don’t care. I love it. Even if I’m extremely busy, I’ll find time to decorate.” 

Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 21, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new information. 

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett is a contributing writer who covers sports, interior design and human interest stories. A former reporter for Sports Illustrated and tennis columnist for Bleacher Report, she is the author of the biography Serena Williams: Tennis Champion, Sports Legend and Cultural Heroine.

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