Setting the Holiday Table

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By Emily J. Weitz; photography by Michael Heller

The table is a gathering place. It’s a place to pause and to relax, a place to reflect on all the senses of the season. When it comes to capturing the essence of the holiday spirit, a thoughtfully set dining room table could become the focal point of the home and set the mood for the entire celebration. We spoke to three designers with distinct and discerning eyes, who each set up their interpretation of a beautiful holiday table.

A Thanksgiving table designed by English Country Antiques in Bridgehampton.

A Thanksgiving table designed by English Country Antiques in Bridgehampton.

Thanksgiving

At English Country Antiques, a large farm table was decked out in full autumn splendor. From the pewter turkeys to the reindeer goblets, each item on the table was evocative of the time of year. That’s part of making a holiday table feel special, says Chris Mead, owner of the antiques store on Snake Hollow Road in Bridgehampton.

“It’s a matter of decorative themes,” he says. “We use the colors of Thanksgiving, the leaves, and the candles. And then obviously seasonal flowers. We do a lot of shells and whites in the summer, and at Christmas things are sparkly, with lots of silver and gold. But Thanksgiving is about autumn colors. We use lots of leaves.”

Mead likes to use elements of nature as he decorates his tables, but he finds it particularly appropriate at harvest time.

“Thanksgiving is a time we’re connected to the earth,” he says.

Mead’s partner, Zoe Hoare, emphasizes that the love and effort you put into decorating your holiday table will be felt by the guests.

“It makes a meal more enjoyable when you’ve put effort into it,” she says. “We use the table as a canvas.”

For this reason, Hoare believes it’s important to keep certain items reserved for certain occasions so they maintain a sense of specialness.

“Instead of using what we use everyday,” she says, “we take out special items.”

She points to the turkey napkin rings and the pewter faux bois (fake wood) that recall a sense of nature to the table. Another touch that Hoare recommends is to take oranges and puncture them with cloves. It not only adds a splash of autumn color, but a beautiful aroma that will encourage guests to pause and breathe.

“When someone spends time at the table, it makes people think that this is not just another dinner party,” she says. “I’m not sure if it makes the food taste better, but it does cause people to slow down and taste it.”

Other musts at the Thanksgiving table, according to Hoare, include candlelight.

“It’s the most flattering light,” she says. “It’s earthy and warm and cozy.”

She recommends bringing herbs and spices onto the table for the aroma and the connection back to the earth.

“And good, quality glassware,” she says. “If you’re going to invest in nice wine, you need to have something equally as nice to drink out of. It’s an occasion. All those things add to the feeling of occasion.”

On this occasion in particular, Hoare and Mead agree it’s a good idea to go in excess.

“Buy more than you need,” says Hoare. “Have apples overflowing from the basket. You need to give that feeling of abundance.”

 

A Hanukkah table setting from the Sag Harbor Florist.

A Chanukah table setting from the Sag Harbor Florist.

 

Chanukah

For Annie Lavinio, owner of Sag Harbor Florist on Bay Street, her work with elements of nature is paramount in designing for any occasion. As she thought about creating the perfect Chanukah table, she began by thinking about the time of year.

“It’s about embracing the winter season,” says Lavinio. “In winter, evergreens become the shining stars of the season. Bringing that in and creating a natural scape in your house.”

She wanted to keep her designs in the greens, grays, blues and silvers to match the colors of Chanukah.

“I’d use silver Brunia berries, soft Artemisia leaves, and seeded eucalyptus,” she says.

She also suggests bringing family traditions into the décor of the table, featuring heirloom platters or special candlesticks. Incorporating silver whenever possible will also help to evoke the feeling of Chanukah.

Chanukah sets aside a special place for lighting, of course, with the eight lights of the holiday burning from the menorah.

“You can place the menorah,” she suggests, “not as a centerpiece, but on a side table as a focal point. Lay it on a bed of evergreens and silver berries.”

In addition to the menorah, Lavinio likes to use different layers of light to cast the right glow.

“Low votives light the table top,” she says, “while taller candles will illuminate people’s faces. Different levels of light are very important.”

Lavinio also likes to use fresh herbs in arrangements.

“It’s not quite so floral,” she says, “but earthier. Herbs have their own language.”

She suggests incorporating rosemary into the centerpiece, and placing a sprig of rosemary in each napkin ring.

“Rosemary is for remembrance,” she says, “which is an important aspect of the holidays as well.”
By bringing in a sense of remembrance with a carefully placed herb or a featured heirloom, you can add a delicate balance to the sense of celebration that reminds your guests to enjoy this moment you’ve created.

 

The Christmas table setting at the Country Lane Store in Sag Harbor.

The Christmas table setting at the Country Lane Store in Sag Harbor.

Christmas

At Country Lane on Main Street in Sag Harbor, Vickie Nolan’s window always showcases signs of the season. The same goes for her dining room table.

“When you have guests or family around the table,” she says, “you’re showing your love for them and you want them to feel special.”

While a table setting for Christmas could go in many different directions, she decided for this shoot to stick with the traditional.

“Some people are moving away from the traditional,” she points out, “and working in whites and shells and coastal themes.”

She stuck with red and green patterns, but she certainly wasn’t afraid to mix and match and layer.

“It’s perfectly fine to mix and match patterns,” she says, “as long as they’re done in proper scale. I used floral with chickadees, plaid, and stripes, but they’re all in the same proportions.”

Nolan also believes in the value of bringing the outside in and using elements of nature to decorate the holiday table.

“Look around outside and see what you have,” she says. “Walk around the yard and cut junipers or herbs. Anything that touches your heart can make a centerpiece.”

For her centerpiece, Nolan filled a basket with old ornaments and twinkling lights.

She also says that any item can be elevated to a place of grandiosity by being literally elevated on a pedestal.

“Even the simplest things,” she says, “once raised on a pedestal, gain more prominence.”

She used a cake plate to display ornaments of white and silver, and they captured the more subdued feelings of winter.

If children are going to be around the table, Nolan suggests adding something fun for them, like tucking oversized candy canes into the cutlery or placing jars of candy along the table runner or garland.

And of course, twinkling Christmas lights add mood and softness to any setting.

“Everyone looks and feels better when the mood lighting is sparkly,” says Nolan. “It makes everything look better, even the food.”

The most important thing at the Christmas table, of course, is the company.

“Invite all the people you love,” says Nolan, “and enjoy the season. It’s a beautiful time of year.”

 

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