Setting the Holiday Table

A Thanksgiving Day table setting, as created by Vicki Nolan at Country Lane in Sag Harbor. Michael Heller photos

A Thanksgiving Day table setting, as created by Vicki Nolan at Country Lane in Sag Harbor. Michael Heller photos

By Dawn Watson

Nothing makes a happy holiday gathering into an unforgettable occasion like a gorgeously and generously laden table. Regardless of the season, be it Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year’s, everyone eventually gathers there during the celebration. Here are a few tips to make the holiday tablescape a memorable one.

According to Vicki Nolan, owner of Country Lane in Sag Harbor, the rules for setting a top-tier Thanksgiving table are fairly universal, but also flexible.

Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not necessary to use orange just because it’s Thanksgiving, she says. In her tablescape, created especially for The Express, she chose to incorporate a palette of cream and gold pumpkins, with warmer, softer fall colors added in. For another layer of color, she also recommends adding some fresh plant material in and around the table setting.

“I just walk around my garden and cut a little boxwood or sedums,” she says. “Herbs are always a nice touch. Or my hydrangeas have changed color to a gorgeous fall cranberry/bronze color.”

Whatever color scheme you decide on, make sure you carry it through to the buffet table, kitchen island or whatever spot you use to set up the food, adds Ms. Nolan. Also, try to alter the heights on all the tabletop surfaces as well. Cake stands, she says, are great for this, as are candle sticks, serving trays, and even small little benches. But don’t elevate the items so high that you block your diners’ views at the table.

Different textures also add to the setting. Contrast the china with cloth table runners and placemats. Burlap makes a great runner, she reports. And mix it up with the other necessary items too. Use ceramic dishes, metal utensils, adding a wooden serving board, etc.

“Just look around your kitchen and get creative and try to think of your everyday items in new ways,” the shop owner says.

Flowers are always great accessories, she adds. In addition to the centerpiece, use several smaller arrangements down the length of the table, set off with candles, pumpkins or other items to create texture and interest. And don’t forget to add something that sparkles.

“Everyone looks better in candlelight and it just makes the table glow,” Ms. Nolan says, adding that this year she is using battery-powered flicker candles instead of the real thing. It’s an especially good idea if there are lots of children or pets in attendance.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to get personal. Every year, her family makes “The Thankful Tree,” made from construction paper maple leaves.

“At the end of the Thanksgiving meal we all pass around pens and write down what we are thankful for that year,” she says of the family tradition. The leaves are then placed on a paper tree trunk, which is decorated from leaves collected from years past.

“It is so interesting to look back and re-read the leaves of the kids, the family and friends that have shared our Thanksgiving table,” says Ms. Nolan. “Some are thoughtful, some are funny, but they all create a wonderful Thanksgiving memory.”

A Christmas Day table setting created by Jessica de Kerillis of Salty Home in Bridgehampton.

A Christmas Day table setting created by Jessica de Kerillis of Salty Home in Bridgehampton.

Jessica de Kerillis, owner of Salty Home in Bridgehampton, shares her tablescape tips for festive occasions, including Christmas and Hanukkah. Regardless of the event, for her, whatever the reason for the gathering, it all starts with a single item.

“Whether that item is a runner, salad plate, candle stand, etc., that’s what gives me the direction,” she says. “It’s typically that one item that will give the personality of the table. However, the theme may lead off as I build upon the initial item.”

For Ms. de Kerillis, there are a few key elements to keep in mind. Layers, textures, colors, views and ambiance are at the top of her list.

For layers, she recommends different heights and lots of movement. Tiered baskets, she adds, work well for breads and appetizers.

Texture can be achieved by adding botanicals and plants, such as herbs, seasonal veggies and fruit. The tablescape can also be set off with different varieties of linens for the runners, placemats and chair wraps.

For color, she recommends going with your favorite, regardless of whether or not it’s the traditional holiday hue.

“That way the table coordinates with the rest of your space without it standing out like a sore thumb,” says Ms. de Kerillis. The guest view is also something that should be taken into account when setting the table. Remember to actually sit in one of the chairs to get the perspective right, and to make sure that everyone can see each other.

As for the finishing touches and ambiance, she recommends adding in everyday objects to complete the décor. Don’t be afraid to throw a few everyday objects into the mix—use towels for napkins, food-safe votive holders for saltcellars and condiments, and take-home gifts to mark place settings. And it’s totally fine to add in everyday or special candles, she says, just make sure they are unscented if near the food.

“The candle smell shouldn’t compete with the aroma,” she says.

At the end of the day, it’s less about making everything traditionally perfect and more about putting together a space that’s filled with wonderful atmosphere, the retailer says.

“Create a story. Think outside the box,” she says. “Go with your gut and personality. It is your design.”

A New Year's table from touchGOODS.

A New Year’s table from touchGOODS.

A good tabletop can be made great with a few personal touches, says Norine Pennacchia, owner of touchGOODS in Southold. For her New Year’s tablescape for The Express, she incorporated items from her modern/vintage furniture store, plus additional elements from her neighbor next door at Complement the Chef, and a few added touches from friends and from her own home.

“I like to mix it up with items from different eras and styles” she says.

It’s been a busier year than usual in the Pennacchia household, she says, adding that her shop opened in March and her husband is the co-owner of the bustling Touch of Venice restaurant down the street. As a result, her family’s life has been more hectic than ever for the past few months.

“So the theme lately has been ‘work with what you’ve got,’” she says. “Being busy forces you to take in what’s around you and then use that to be more creative and come up with alternate ideas in daily life, which is this year’s holiday table theme—use whatever is available!”

The challenge in adding items from so many places was in creating a cohesive look. Combining modern and traditional, vintage and new, and layering it with global-inspired patterning, and topping it with some backyard foliage, she managed to pull it off quite nicely and with lots of personality and style.

“I’m not a formal ‘polish your silverware’-type of person. I prefer fun, casual, welcoming and warm,” says Ms. Pennacchia.

For her New Year’s table, she started with a reclaimed cherry wood farmhouse table, vintage Burke tulip chairs from the 60s, zinc overhead lights by Il Fanale, a kilim rug, and kantha quilt from her shop. She then set the table with her vintage Russel Wright original china from the 40s. Adding in Simon Pearce flatware and glasses, plus select linens from Complement the Chef, she began to build.

Other items that she incorporated into the design scheme included reproduction bullet planters, twining decorative grape vines accented by antique mercury ornaments from home, and mums, pinecones and assorted greenery from the backyard, plus “grandma’s old candlesticks,” and tea lights. The tablescape was punctuated by a pair of yellow turkey feather headdresses created specially for the occasion by Greenport-based artist Taffy Lang.

“I like unique things, especially when they are paired to give a new life to things you thought would never see the light of day again,” says Ms. Pennacchia of her tabletop design philosophy. “And never forget to add a bit of whimsy.”

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