Think of your table as a stage setting that can make a festive meal a production that will win rave reviews.
If you're economy-minded this holiday season, as so many people are, you can still create a table that will announce, "This is a special occasion" without having to spend a lot of money.
Be dramatic in your table setting, urges Kimberly Schlegel Whitman, author of the recently published Tablescapes: Setting the Table with Style. "It doesn't have to be expensive, but do it with flair."
To create a beautiful table on a tight budget, she suggests using things you already have around the house. Start with a white tablecloth, Whitman says, and decide on one color as a contrast, depending on the china and accessories you have - perhaps gold, green or chocolate.
"Keep it clean and simple," she says.
You might place a row of small containers in the center of the table and put one flower in each. Hydrangeas are beautiful this time of year, or you could use gerbera daisies. You could alternate them with little gourds spray-painted in your accent color.
Whitman loves "lots and lots of candles" on a table, but they should be unscented so as not to fight with the smell of good food.
Like the other design experts we talked to, Whitman likes tradition at the holidays but steers clear of cliches. The Thanksgiving table in her book, for instance, is decorated in red and silver, not the harvest colors we've come to expect. No one interviewed mentioned dried corn, pumpkins or fall leaves without being reminded of them.
You can go with traditional colors for a holiday table, but use only two at a time, says Eric Stalzer, district manager of Great Gatherings, a home entertaining store that opened in Annapolis Towne Centre last month. He agrees that a table shouldn't be "overaccessorized," as he puts it.
"At the holidays, people get a little overzealous."
The table settings on display at his store emphasize natural themes, in keeping with the current eco-trends. Use items like pine cones, pine needles and berries as accent pieces, he suggests. You can add a bit of sparkle to the table with faux oak and maple leaves and a little gold glitter. "It can add energy and interest to the table."
He loves a personal touch this time of year. One hostess he knew wrote something she appreciated about each guest on a little piece of parchment paper, wrapped the paper around a votive candle and tied it with a thin strip of bamboo. Each place at the Thanksgiving table had a candle in front of it.
"The challenge the host has," says Stalzer, "is to make the table more intimate."
Missy Connolly of Fern Hill Design in Butler likes to layer her holiday tables. She starts with a white tablecloth and adds place mats or runners, with napkins and flowers that coordinate. If sunflowers are still around, she says, they would be a good centerpiece flower for Thanksgiving - an unusual choice but one that has a definite fall feel.
A pumpkin makes a nice fall vase for flowers (a white one would be striking), but keep the arrangement low so guests can see over it to the other side. For the same reason, she suggests using fat candles rather than candelabra.
"I like not going overboard," Connolly says. "I like a pretty table, but people still have to sit and eat and drink."
Floral designer Robert Zimmerman, who is on the Walters Art Museum staff, focuses on the center of the table for that very reason. For a wedding that took place during the holiday season, he decorated the table with pomegranates, red apples, red grapes, boxwood and oak leaves.
"Do something interesting in the middle," he says.
You could create an unusual and inexpensive centerpiece, for instance, by taking an eggplant and sticking roses all the way in it. The vegetable has enough liquid in it to keep the flowers alive. Get flowers like orange roses that will make a wonderful contrast of colors against the almost black of the eggplant, he advises. (You can buy the flowers for a reasonable price at a supermarket.)
"If you have little sculptures that relate to the holidays," you can also use them. A friend of his, for instance, had a collection of small ceramic squashes and pumpkins.
As for candles, Zimmerman isn't fond of tapers, which tend to get in the line of sight. "A scattering of votive candles adds glitter and light to the table."
Money isn't the only thing busy hosts are worried about these days. Time is often just as important. Celebrity party planner Marcy Blum believes a beautiful holiday table can be created in just a few minutes. Use traditional things in untraditional ways, she suggests. Gourds, small pumpkins or tree ornaments can become place cards by writing names on them with a Sharpie. (Other designers suggested cutting a small slit in a gourd or apple and sticking a place card in it.)