Southerners know that the table makes the party, especially during the holidays, when Christmas china, sterling flatware, and perfectly pressed linens collaborate with lush greenery, flickering candles, and seasonal accessories to create a stunning backdrop for the year’s most festive meals.
This year two Columbia hostesses have opened their dining rooms to share their inspirational tables, secrets for pulling off an elegant holiday meal, and even a few foolproof recipes.
Lee and Cantey Heath have hosted Christmas dinner for more than two decades. For them, setting the holiday table is a joyful event. “I love a full and welcoming table,” Lee says. “I fill it with as much as possible, especially now that the children are older and things won’t get broken.”
Lee begins the process of dressing the table a week or so before Christmas. “Our son was born on Dec.18, so I don’t start until after we’ve celebrated his birthday,” she says. “My goal is to have it completely set by the time the children come home. It looks so festive, and having it finished allows me to enjoy my time with them.”
Though Lee chooses not to use Christmas china, the table is awash in Yuletide touches. Herend Rothschild Bird china, a favorite of Princess Diana’s, sets a festive tone atop gilded Annieglass chargers; dashes of Christmas red come courtesy of candy canes that peek out from silver julep cups, cranberries that fill antique bonbon dishes, and bright taper candles. Creamy blooms of hydrangea, rose, camellia, and tulip overflow from tureens, julep cups, and crystal vases alongside pittosporum and other greenery. Clouds of smilax surround a mirror, and, within a carpet of magnolia leaves, four porcelain carolers silently ring in the season.
What makes the Christmas table even more special is the history that goes with nearly every accessory. “Everything I chose has special meaning,” Lee says of her tableware and accessories. The crystal vases have been collected one by one over the years on vacations. The silver wine caddies were a special gift from Lee’s father to Cantey; Cantey’s mother gave Lee several pieces of family silver as well as her collection of carolers. “I love them,” says Lee. “I am so thrilled she chose to give them to me.”
Lee says that now that her children are grown, they enjoy hearing the stories that go along with the family heirlooms they’ve seen on the table since they were small. “Their questions end up turning into wonderful conversations about family,” she says. “I hope someday they’ll want to use these pieces on their tables.”
Though the family’s Christmas menu varies slightly from year to year, Lee says that everyone can always count on beef tenderloin, spinach gratin, artichoke pickle, and other traditional Southern condiments. “The children ask for the gratin, so of course I make it,” she says with a laugh.
The family has fun, too, thanks in part to the Christmas crackers that grace each place setting. “My mother always put them on the table, and it’s a tradition I’ve continued,” says Lee of the brightly wrapped cardboard tubes that, when popped open with a crack, reveal a paper crown, a silly game, and a corny joke. “Everyone wears their crown and tells their jokes; we look crazy, but we have so much fun.”
Another Columbia hostess finds that the key to a gorgeous Christmas table is the strategic placement of a few Christmas elements into an otherwise beautifully set table — especially when there are grandchildren in the mix. For this hostess, the tablescape begins with a holiday-themed needlepoint runner that she inherited from her grandmother. Since the table is a gorgeous and durable slab of natural limestone, placemats or a tablecloth are both unnecessary; instead, Spode Drummer Boy dinner and salad plates rest upon a pale blue charger embellished with a finely-painted gold edge from Anna Weatherley Designs.
Surrounding the dinnerware are forks, knives, and spoons comprising two silver patterns, crisp Fairfax by Gorham and Towle’s graceful Old Master, and both silver and crystal glasses. Years of hosting holiday dinners taught this hostess that the best centerpiece is a large poinsettia — in a bronze-toned ceramic vessel that allows the red leaves to drape gracefully toward the table.
Guests arriving for Christmas dinner at the home of Catherine and Hank Mabry often rave about the gorgeous table, but what they often don’t notice is that, beyond what’s on the Christmas tree, no Christmas red or green is to be found anywhere in the house. “I use gold, silver, blue, and other shades of green,” says Catherine. “I don’t get tired of them, and they work for New Year’s as well.”
Catherine starts her tablescape with a set of napkins monogrammed in a lovely shade of pale green that she discovered in an antique shop in Camden and loved so much that she bought them even though the monogram is incorrect. From there, she adds silvery beaded placemats, her grandmother’s silver wine goblets, wedding crystal, family silver, and, hanging from the chandelier, a collection of delicately painted gold and white Christmas balls. After that, she says that pretty much anything goes.
“If something moves me, I’ll take it from any room in the house and use it on the table,” she says. “The green majolica is usually on the bookshelf in the kitchen, but I love the way it looks on the Christmas table.” Catherine will also often decorate the tables with small boxes wrapped and decorated like packages. “We call them the phantom circes,” she says with a laugh. “I sort of sprinkle them around so no one thinks they’re actual gifts.”
Most years Catherine designs two tables: her regular, round dining room table and a second round table in the entrance hall. Based on what she’s chosen for each table, Catherine designs coordinated arrangements of flowers that, though lush, are always low enough to ensure that guests can see each other clearly. Though the flowers vary from year to year — this past year’s mix included roses in palest pink, mauve, and sunset pink; white lilies; variegated pittosporum; cedar; and other greenery — the arrangements always include fragrant sprigs of eucalyptus, which Catherine adores. She also uses it to fill tall vases set on a chest in the dining room and to add texture to the boxwood and cedar garland that curves along the bannister. Silvery blue velvet ribbon is tied into large bows on the banister, adorns a mirror in the dining room, and functions as a hanger for a Christmas wreath. It serves to pull the whole house together.
Tucked into a cozy corner beneath the staircase, the entrance hall table is topped with a cloth that Catherine says she pulled off a skirted table in the living room. “I had a white cloth on it, but it was too short, so I layered,” she says. The table is encircled by wooden chairs decorated with a perfect camellia bud that Catherine wired to the back. Purchased specifically for this purpose, the bamboo-patterned gray chairs spend the rest of the year in the attic. “I found those in an antique store as well, and they have turned out to be a terrific purchase. They go with everything.”
Sour Cream Muffins
2 sticks butter, softened
2 cups sour cream, full fat, at room temperature
2 cups self-rising flour
Blend butter and sour cream with an electric mixer on low until smooth. Fold in flour by hand. Spoon 1 tablespoon batter into ungreased mini-muffin tins. Bake at 350 F for 25 minutes. Makes 3 dozen. These freeze well after they’ve cooled.
Scalloped Oysters by Catherine Mabry
1 pint oysters
1 stick butter
Ground white and red pepper
1 pint half-and-half
1½ cups cracker crumbs
Layer crumbs and oysters in a buttered casserole dish twice, ending with crumbs; dot with butter. One hour before baking, pour half-and-half over all. Bake at 450 F for 15 minutes; brown under the broiler 2 to 3 minutes and serve hot.
Spinach Gratin by Lee Heath
4 tablespoons butter
2 large sweet onions, chopped (about 4 cups)
¼ cup flour
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups 2-percent milk
5 10-ounce packages of frozen chopped spinach, thawed, and squeezed as dry as possible
1 cup grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ cup grated Gruyere cheese
Preheat oven to 425 F. Melt butter in large, heavy saucepan; add onions and saute until soft, then sprinkle with the flour and nutmeg and stir until well combined. Stir in the milk and cream and continue cooking and stirring until the mixture thickens, then add the spinach, ½ cup Parmesan, salt, and pepper. Pour into a greased baking dish and top with the remaining Parmesan and the Gruyere. Bake 20 minutes. Will keep in the fridge, unbaked, for two days.