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How to set a stunning holiday table without spending a lot of money

Design a festive tablescape that will look good now through Christmas with these simple tips.
Image: Holiday table
Candles and natural elements like fruit and greenery are an affordable way to elevate your table.VICUSCHKA / Getty Images

Setting a gorgeous table for a holiday meal doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult, says interior designer Elizabeth Stuart. Sometimes, a simple design using just a few plants and candles can be more beautiful than an intricate display.

“There are no rules,” says Stuart, and you can plan a table that looks great from Thanksgiving all the way through the December holidays.

We’ve asked Stuart and two other experts — HGTV’s Vern Yip and interior designer Kyle Schuneman — for advice on centerpieces, color palettes and decorative touches to easily elevate a dining table for the holiday season.

Comfort and conversation

Yip begins with an important premise: Holiday meals are about people, not flower arrangements. So make sure your guests can see each other, without a vase of flowers or tall candles blocking their views.

Stuart suggests filling several small containers (silver cups meant for mint juleps, for example, can be inexpensive or real silver) with a few roses trimmed very short, and then adding a sprig of pine or holly.

“You scatter those down the table and then add tea lights in the middle,” she says, “and it’s exquisite.”

Also, says Yip, don’t crowd too many chairs around one table. Adding a second table is better than crushing people together. “It’s going to make the experience really unpleasant if you don’t give people enough elbow room to be able to pick up a drink or their utensils,” he says.

He advises leaving at least 24 inches between the center of one chair and the center of the next.

Let nature help

Schuneman is a fan of natural wood chargers (flat pieces of wood placed under dinner plates) to add simple beauty to a holiday table. “Using your simple white dishes, if you just add a simple wood slice charger under each plate and some fresh greens in the middle, you have a festive table for not a lot of money,” he says.

You don’t have to look beyond the grocery store for table decorations.

“Stores and boutiques have beautiful things for the holiday table,” Schuneman says, “but adding that sprig of rosemary to each napkin or a cascade of oranges and pinecones to the centerpiece elevates the whole table.”

Consider using live plants as a centerpiece rather than cut flowers. Stuart loves tiny boxwood topiaries with little colored flowers or herbs. Try arranging three rosemary topiaries on a silver tray, she says, then cluster some holly or pine cuttings along the bottom.

“Not only are they going to smell good,” she says, “but they’re going to last almost a month.”

Go nontraditional

Don’t worry about tradition, Stuart says. Her design firm and retail store are in South Carolina, where it’s warm year-round. So while she loves using holly and pine in her Christmas decorating, sometimes she uses palm fronds from her yard.

She also uses shades of pink and plum, rather than sticking only to red and green. Embrace whatever delights you, she says. Or go beautifully neutral. All three designers say silver and white are great choices.

“I love adding winter sparkle. Whites layered with golds and silvers gives you such a great backdrop,” Schuneman says.

Silver and white can brighten up dark winter nights, especially if they’ll be reflecting candlelight. (Candles are a key to creating a beautiful table, says Schuneman: “Candlelight mixed in glass votives, tall candlesticks and pillars will make any table glow and feel special.”)

Yip also encourages creative centerpieces: “Sometimes I’ll ask people to print their favorite photo from their past year. It could be a photo of a breathtaking vacation they went on or it could be a picture of their kid going back to school,” he says. “And I’ll frame those photos and kind of have them scattered down the center of the table.”

Another creative option: Ask each guest to bring a favorite book they’ve read in the past year. Arrange them on the table as decorations and conversation starters. At the end of the night, each guest can leave the party with a different book than they brought.

Holiday Survival Guide

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