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Originally published November 29, 2013 at 12:13 PM | Page modified December 7, 2013 at 7:40 AM

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Setting a welcoming, festive table is all about small touches

Seattle Times food critic Providence Cicero’s style is to, well, wing it. Her hutch is crammed with china, glassware and serving pieces, and a “party box” full of ribbons, ornaments, bells, baskets and holiday-related gewgaws and gear — stuff acquired either used or on the ch


Special to The Seattle Times

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WHEN IT COMES to decorating I’m not the Martha Stewart of the family (that would be cousin Susan), or even the crafty one (that would be sister Jo), but I do enjoy puttin’ on the glitz when I set the holiday table.

My style, to the extent I have one, is to wing it. I have a dining-room hutch crammed with china, glassware and serving pieces, and a “party box” full of ribbons, ornaments, bells, baskets and holiday-related gewgaws and gear. It’s stuff I’ve acquired over the years either used (Goodwill and Value Village are favorite haunts) or on the cheap at discount stores such as Tuesday Morning, T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s. The fun for me is using what I have in new and creative ways.

For table decorations, I favor foraged, found and repurposed objects. I’ll scavenge the backyard for greenery or branches to use as the base for a centerpiece — one that I don’t remove for dinner, even when serving family style. Platters and bowls go on a sideboard nearby after they are passed.

Ornaments too heavy for the tree might end up on the table — or sometimes above it, suspended from the light fixture. I collect containers of all sorts. At a Dollar Store I once scored square glass vases in various sizes just before another customer gathered up the rest of the lot for a wedding reception. I use them as candleholders filled with shiny glass pebbles (also from the Dollar Store).

Lots of candles on the table are essential. I’ve amassed several pairs of crystal candlesticks in various heights and styles. Instead of placing those two-by-two, I cluster them in groups of three. Or a trio of pillar candles might anchor the centerpiece, surrounded by tea lights (purchased in bags of 50 or 100 at Michael’s, JoAnn Fabrics or Ikea). Glassware from my breakfront serves as tea-light holders: I’ve conscripted martini glasses, snifters and amber-bottomed German wine goblets for the cause.

For years my husband and I hosted a holiday open house. Because many of our friends had small children, we developed a simple repertoire of finger and fork foods with broad appeal: macaroni and cheese (Martha’s recipe!); Caesar salad; sausage and peppers or a spiral-cut ham with rolls for making sandwiches. There would always be a fruit salad (red and green for Christmas), and for little ones, PB&J tea sandwiches cut into Christmas shapes with cookie cutters, though plenty of adults liked them, too.

The food was informal, but I fussed over the table. Varying the sizes, shapes and types of serving pieces makes a buffet look more inviting. I might put salads in crystal bowls, meats on a rustic ceramic platter, cheeses on a wooden board and bread in baskets. A tiered plate caddy held the tea sandwiches, its height adding to the visual impact and the acreage.

For our traditional sit-down dinner on Christmas Eve, I love liberating the fine china from its zippered cases and polishing the silver: Small bowls to be filled with nuts or candy, trays to hold biscotti and pizzelles made from my grandmother’s recipes.

I’ll use a tablecloth and cloth napkins, perhaps tied with ribbons, and little bells as napkin rings. I hate to iron and decided having the linens laundered is worth the splurge. The laundry does a better job at pressing than I do, and the linens will return sheathed in plastic, ready to go for Easter dinner.

Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at providencecicero@aol.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.



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