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Two Ways to Set a Stunning Holiday Table

This season, we’re Making Magic, bringing you a series of easy transformations to embellish already-wonderful things, from cakes to mantels to trees. Today, you’re invited to our holiday table: Slide back and forth on the image below to see the magic happen.

When I was little, one of the few things my mom let me do during the holidays was set the table. It was a relatively easy and child-appropriate way for me to lighten her load and feel useful (as opposed to my brother, who only surfaced for snacks in between Nintendo 64 games). In my family, a beautifully set table marked an impeccable start to each holiday meal before it eventually devolved into card games and revelry.

The tablescape in my family’s home was involved. First came the tablecloth, embroidered with fallen leaves or holly and bells, depending on the holiday. There were always cloth napkins in complementary colors, courtesy of my grandmother, who’d made it her business to “borrow” full sets of napkins from weddings for nearly 30 years; I dutifully strung them through rings made of shiny raffia. There were glossy chargers in silver and gold, topped with plates and then smaller plates, plus knives and forks and smaller forks. I’d set out glasses for wine and water; taper candles in tall candlesticks; and, finally, a fresh floral centerpiece accented with mini gourds or berry garlands, along with yards of ribbon. The whole thing took what felt like hours, but the result was, to my small self, spectacular.

Now that I’m a grown-up, my holiday duties involve a bit more than just setting the table—I roast the Brussels sprouts and mash the potatoes, bake the pumpkin and apple pies, mix (and sample) all the cocktails. But setting the table is still something I do, out of habit and out of love. The same impractical candlesticks and tapers are there (to be lit, snuffed, and removed within minutes of our sitting down), but the pomp of it all, which admittedly is not for everyone, is what makes the holidays feel like my holidays.

How we set our table at Food52 is a little less adorned than my family’s version, but every bit as thoughtful. We start with a nubby, neutral tablecloth and napkins. Handcrafted plates and mismatched vintage silverware keep things welcoming, while gold and brass touches from glasses, a bold decanter, and bud vases (featuring different types of eucalyptus) add just enough elegance to remind you that it is a holiday and, yeah, your wines deserve decanting (the first bottle, at least).

Our outfit change doesn’t require much more than adding a few pops of color. We opted for subtly tinted ceramic mugs and bud vases, and the same comfy napkins, only in richer hues. The metallic touches are there, too, via painted nuts (because yes, sometimes we paint nuts gold and use them as decoration) and a sleek enamel tray to hold them. Et voila! A completely different but equally lovely setting.

Maybe, for you, a magical holiday table means linens, stemware, and china. Or maybe it means woven placemats and old jam jars of flowers. Your table can be as elaborate or as pared down as you like—as long as it’s warm and inviting (and full of delicious food), that’s all that matters.

How do you set your holiday table? What details make it feel special? Tell us in the comments.

Photos by Rocky Luten

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