For holiday tables, professionals agree: Respect the seasons, honor tradition and fashion the table top to look extraordinary. Table settings establish the mood, stimulate the appetite and create the anticipation of excitement essential to the success of every party.
"The table-top design is half of whatever you want to achieve," says Inge Reiser, a free-lance designer in Rockville. "If you want to have an elegant affair, for instance, you need an elegant table."
Let your table settings reflect the style of your home and the type of food you are serving, say Ms. Reiser and other designers. Incorporate interior decoration concepts into the dining experience.
"Mix and match," advises Kristin Lyle, owner of Designs for Dining in Washington. "I like different china patterns for each course." But, she cautions, "be sure something is consistent. Either the china or the place mats can be different, but not both. Use color to hold everything together. Give yourself a range. Think red is pink is orange."
"Look for contrasting textures," she suggests. "Mix sleek with rugged, sterling silver with stoneware.
"Choose a theme. If your candleholders are stars, look around your home to see what else you have with stars. And challenge yourself to set the table with the same dishes in two different ways to establish different moods."
An unconventional choice of accessories will help carry out your theme, the professionals say. Substitute a rug, a beautiful shawl or a printed sheet for the white tablecloth. Amass a collection of shiny, colorful shopping bags to use as fun place mats. Serve food on seashells. Use cauliflower, cabbages, pineapple and eggplants as candleholders. What's around the house that might work as an unusual napkin ring? As a container for flowers?
Here are more holiday table-setting ideas from the pros:
Thanksgiving is a time to hold on to tradition. The Pilgrims had no fancy table arrangements, so take a back-to-basics approach: Use homey things to help set the scene, such as baskets of breads, bread sticks and rolls. Wrap party favors in raffia and tie with raffia cords. Incorporate grain stalks and fruit, and fashion cornucopias to underscore the importance of giving thanks.
For Thanksgiving, Ms. Reiser celebrates the earth's bounty with an earth-tone color scheme. She lays a piece of wheat next to each place setting and scatters oven-dried apple slices, cinnamon sticks, tiny corncobs and dried pomegranates and cranberries directly on the tablecloth. Candlesticks fashioned from miniature pumpkins surround a dried-flower centerpiece arranged in a rustic basket.
Ms. Lyle favors a refined version of the standard harvest look. She disdains mums and traditions that easily become cliches. So she employs a homespun rag rug as a tablecloth. A twig wreath anchors her table's centerpiece, a large bunch of baby's breath resting over the wreath.
"If you collect Native American artifacts, this is the time to use them in your table design," says caterer Lainie Forman of Potomac. "Cover the table with a Navajo carpet or fabric printed with an Indian design and trimmed with fringes. Use silver belts to set off the centerpiece and Indian ceramics to support the theme."
Western and gardening motifs are perfect for Thanksgiving, Ms. Lyle says. Her garden-theme table top blossoms with flower-patterned place mats and a large basket of fresh fruit and vegetables.
For a Western-style table top, she chooses a cloth printed to look like a brown and white pony skin. Napkin rings sport a steer head, and new cowboy boots filled with flowers form the centerpiece. She serves venison instead of turkey to complete the effect.
Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over King Antiochus of Syria and the miracle that allowed a one-day supply of oil to burn for eight days during the rededication of the Temple. The lighting of a menorah candle for each night of the eight-day celebration is central to this holiday. So set the table with candles, candles and more candles.
Leonard Schleider of Schleider Kosher Caterers in Baltimore suggests creating a menorah centerpiece and dressing it up with other symbols of the holiday.
Israeli Accents in Rockville stocks more than 100 different menorahs, including some in the shape of dinosaurs and the Three Bears for children. Neon green and pink candles make the candelabras look especially festive, says owner Leslie Kanner. The shop also stocks foil decorations in the shape of the Star of David, banners and garlands proclaiming "Happy Hanukkah" and, of course, dreidels (spinning tops) of multicolor plastic, Lucite, ceramic, porcelain and sterling silver as well as paper goods printed with dreidel designs.