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Tablescapes: Setting the Holiday Stage

The Holiday Buffet

From pumpkins and berries, to golden aspens and greens, Thanksgiving naturally lends itself to bringing the outdoors in and the buffet table is the perfect setting. “Fall colors create the perfect look and texture,” says designer William Lancaster of Tweeds Fine Furnishings. “After all, Thanksgiving is a celebration of nature’s bounty.”

Creating an inviting buffet requires careful planning with regard to height and easily reachable food, lighting, table size and traffic flow.

“There is not as much natural light at this time of year and you want light on the food to make it look more inviting,” Lancaster says. Remote-controlled battery-operated candles and lighted branches that can be placed in arrangements or along side your bounty light the way for guests.

As for height, co-owner Milt Sommers says you must get your food on different levels for a more balanced buffet but also to make it easier to serve and for guests to reach. “I find it easier to place my serving pieces and then tuck in the décor,” Sommers says. He also suggests using linens to cover stands that have created height to add more texture and natural color.

And don’t forget traffic flow. If guests will be accessing the buffet from both sides, you need to ensure your décor looks finished from either side, Sommers says.

The Formal Gathering

Mel and Diana Tolbert of Platte Floral say it is imperative to decide on a menu and time the meal will be served before trying to set the table. This will allow you to account for the number of pieces of china and utensils needed as well as what will be needed to create the right ambiance.

“Lighting is the key to ambiance,” Mel Tolbert says. “Candles should be used in the evening but you might choose more casual votive candles or other lighting for an afternoon holiday meal.” The latest in holiday lighting includes the tiniest of LED lights strung on wire. The lights can be used indoors and out and also can be submerged in water so they can light a floral arrangement from inside the vase. The lights come in a variety of colors including white, red or green.”

The place settings also are important for organization and comfort. Diana Tolbert suggests using place mats instead of a tablecloth to create the sense of each guest’s space at the table. “For a formal meal, I always suggest using a charger plate,” she says. “Because the china sits on top, it creates a more formal setting and also creates a place for a creatively folded napkin to sit.” Metallic chargers are popular in bronzes, coppers, silver, platinum, red and green.

The rule of thumb for centerpieces is simple. Choose flowers without a strong fragrance and consider a height that won’t impede conversation. Mel Tolbert says one centerpiece, not more than 8-12 inches tall, should be chosen for a round table, and a low rectangular centerpiece or a series of smaller arrangements should be used for a rectangular table. The color palate of the arrangement should blend with the colors in the china and may include fruits such as cranberries and limes, natural foliage such as ilex berries and even family heirloom figurines.

The Children’s Table

At larger family gatherings there’s a good chance there’s an adult table and a kids’ table, and the rules should be different at each, according to Jen Johnstone of abaTina Boutique. “The kids shouldn’t feel like they’re in exile,” Johnstone says. “They should be able to enjoy the holiday meal without having to act like miniature adults.”

She suggests having activities built into the tablescape for children, including a butcher paper tablecloth complete with markers or crayons for doodling, and an interesting centerpiece that encourages conversation. “The table should be set with the exact tableware as the adult table so it feels special, but additional activities will help keep kids entertained over the course of a longer holiday meal,” she says.
Large age gaps at the children’s table can be tricky but Johnstone says giving the older children some responsibility at the table, such as reading holiday books and helping the younger children draw and write or complete a simple craft, can help.

The key to the kids’ table is to make it fun and child-like but not childish, she says. “It is important for the kids’ table to be in close proximity to the adult table so the kids can participate in the family traditions. The kids will step up to the expectations if they understand the importance of the holiday.”

As the holidays approach, deciding on menus and giving consideration to your guests’ comfort will help in creating your tablescape. Mel Tolbert says, “People get overwhelmed and intimidated and they really just need to go for it and have fun setting the holiday table.”