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Set the Holiday Table and the Mood With Creative 'Tablescaping'

Even if you're dining solo or with virtual partners, boost the festive factor with linens, seasonal decorations, candles and greenery

Tablescaping design

Keita Turner Design

Whether dining alone, entertaining a partner in isolation or hosting a backyard soiree, set the mood for the food with festive holiday tablescaping.

Judith Mish, 79, of Tampa, lives and dines alone, but she took extra care with her table decor for a virtual Hanukkah gathering. She 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.

Friends have asked Mish why she went to the trouble when she was the only one physically at the table. “It just gives me a good feeling,” she says. “I feel useful and that I'm getting through this."

Taking extra time to create a beautifully set table with seasonal or holiday decorations can boost spirits, especially for those who might be celebrating apart from the ones they love because of the coronavirus.

"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

Mish had already tried her hand at tablescaping for Thanksgiving dinner, when she celebrated her first major holiday without her husband Joel, who died in March. For that dinner, she feasted while talking via FaceTime with her daughter and grandkids, who live in central New York.

At one end of the table, Mish placed framed photographs, perched atop stacks of books, of her parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, friends and, of course, Joel.

"I just put them on all different levels, all at one end of the table so that when I sit down, the head of the table, I'm looking at everybody, all of my family,” she says. “It gave me a good feeling."

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.

Two side by side images of tables nicely decorated

Courtesy Debi Lilly, A Perfect Event

"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.”

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.

Mish used dreidels and menorahs for Hanukkah. 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.

Even though she was marking this year's holidays alone (though she had plenty of company on video chat), Mish says it was important for her to take the extra time to get creative about her table.

"Just because something has happened in your life, and you're by yourself,” she says, “why should you not enjoy the spirit of a holiday, whatever the holiday is?”