The Thanksgiving table traditionally is the one marked by the most warmth and bounty, although other holidays may present more opulent settings.
It's a nice practice, after all, to sit down with loved ones and give thanks for all the good things in our lives. To that end, setting a welcoming table is more than merely a cordial gesture. It's an occasion to decorate in celebration of all we hold dear.
Some hosts reserve dinnerware to be used just for this hearty meal. Even so, introducing new accessories can freshen the table and make it more festive and colorful.
The autumn palette is especially appealing at Thanksgiving. It is rich in colors of nature -- russet red, olive, gold, orange and even purple tones (think of the aubergine hue of ornamental cabbages). These favorites remain enormously popular.
But in tabletop displays in department and specialty stores and mail-order catalogs, you might notice a quieting of the typical fall colors this year. The oranges may be softer terra cottas and apricots, the greens yellowed or toned down to pale pistachios, the golds a whisper just beyond cream. Some dinnerware and even tablecloth and place-mat patterns are rendered with an almost impressionistic sensibility.
Along with seasonal hues, the harvest theme dominates, as usual. Fruits such as pears, grapes and pomegranates and all sorts of gourds, squash and pumpkins re- inforce the fall colors, and their shapes add another attractive dimension. Other images from nature -- game and birds, including, of course, the turkey -- continue to be popular subjects on serving pieces.
Start with the table itself. If your dinnerware is plain, a colorful cloth of woven cotton or damask provides an easy dress-up. Pretty leaf patterns, which are as much a staple at Thanksgiving as snowflakes at Christmas, are available from about $15, depending on size. The pattern of leaves sometimes overlays tone-on-tone stripes for an intriguingly subtle effect.
Don't overlook vintage fabrics such as richly patterned paisley throws, which can make excellent table toppers and often are available in autumnal hues. Or, top a solid-colored cloth or bare table with place mats. Among the most fetching this season are leaf-shaped mats accompanied by striped or floral linen napkins in complementing colors, from the Horchow Collection.
Such shapes have been translated in ceramic dinnerware and serving pieces that take their forms from nature. Leaf patterns offered in place mats might also be available in a ceramic plate, bowl or platter detailed down to the stem and veining. Buy a set of salad or dessert plates and mix them with your dinnerware to accent the table.
Serving pieces offer many creative opportunities. Pumpkin tureens have been on the market for some time, but the options for tapping into nature's artistry continue to expand. Covered casseroles, soup tureens and ceramic salt and pepper sets can be had in natural colors that match food and other decorations on the table, including gourds and acorn squash.
Even on the smallest scale, spicing up the harvest table is possible with fall-themed salt and pepper shakers. A recent Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) catalog featured a set of shakers that resembled miniature pumpkins, yellow squash, purple figs and asparagus. Though pricey -- ranging from $48 to $54 -- they're sure to be conversation pieces.
Echo ceramic shapes with the real thing, which you can use to create a colorful centerpiece. Any fruit or vegetable that can be hollowed also can be used as a vessel to hold flowers, candles or even food. Last month's Country Living featured a gorgeous bouquet of an apricot rose, yellow freesias and berries set into an artichoke.
How you choose to set your table is as personal a selection as your Thanksgiving menu. Perhaps the best advice is from Peri Wolfman and photographer Charles Gold in their book Great Settings (Clarkson Potter, $30). Wolfman, former head of the design team for Williams-Sonoma, now is entertainment editor for Country Living magazine.
"We really believe that you can't separate the food being served from the table setting, so our table always reflects the meal, the season," Wolfman writes.
As you add something new to your traditional table setting, just make it as comforting as your family recipe for stuffing or pumpkin pie. Finding a way to personalize your table will create a magic that your family and guests will remember and look forward to year after year.
Here are some tips to create an inviting and attractive Thanksgiving table:
* Place cards help alleviate that uncomfortable hovering around chairs at dinnertime. Handwritten ones can be simple yet pretty.
* Use glasses in a variety of sizes and shapes for visual interest.
* Having unmatched but complementary dishes, a melange of new and vintage serving pieces, is not only acceptable but stylish today.
* If you're using candles, make sure to buy unscented ones so other aromas won't get in the way of the meal.
* Shake out your napkins instead of stiffly folding them for a more welcoming table.
Sources: Author Peri Wolfman and Family Circle magazine
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