Thanksgiving — an act, an attitude, and a holiday all rolled into one of the happiest days on the calendar. While each holiday has a number of attributes to recommend it, Thanksgiving is one of my favorites.
It tends to be laid back, it’s a time for family to gather, the meal is wonderful, and since the focus really is on the meal there aren’t too many rules or expectations about what the decor should be.
From a burlap runner on an improvised outdoor table, to silver and crystal in the dining room, and every level of formality in between, people are simply excited to gather. Since such a broad range of Thanksgiving decor options are available, you might be awash in a sea of indecision about what to do for the holiday this year. Formal, casual, inside, or outside? We need to wipe that indecision away so you can put your focus where it needs to be: on important matters like how many desserts you’re having and what they’re going to be.
One of the beautiful aspects of Thanksgiving is that you don’t have to decorate your whole house inside and out (unlike another holiday that won’t be mentioned here). The decorative effort is focused on the table where the meal will be served. A second beautiful aspect is that decorating a table or even multiple tables does not take long.
While we’re basking in the happy realization that, well goodness, it’s just setting the table for heaven’s sake, we’ll move on and start to gather the things we’ll need. Plates, napkins, glasses, and utensils are all good starting points, and, as luck would have it, we have all of those so, we’re sort of on a roll and we just started! Now we’ll just add in some of the traditional symbols that evoke the Thanksgiving story — turkeys, Pilgrims, pumpkins, corn — and away we go! Things are moving so quickly we might be finished with the table any minute now leaving plenty of time to start thinking about dessert.
While you’re trying to remember why you bought so many faux pumpkins last year, and where your good tablecloth is anyway, we’ll take just a minute to talk about three main forms your table can take, and then you can decide which form will be the most useful for this particular Thanksgiving. The table can have one long runner spanning its full length, one main centerpiece in the middle of the table, multiple small decorations scattered around the table, or more than one of these elements can be combined into a whole new design.
Starting with the table runner, the only real guideline is to leave room on the table for everything that needs to go there. The width of the runner shouldn’t crowd the place settings. A runner is best when the food is being served from a sideboard or buffet because the runner takes up the space on the table that the food would have occupied.
The runner itself has so very many possibilities, such as a tablecloth with a cloth runner on top, a bare table with a cloth runner, a cloth runner with a wonderful assortment of large and small pumpkins spilling down the table, a bare table with a wonderful assortment of large and small pumpkins spilling down the table, simple greenery interspersed with pumpkins and candles running the length of the table, and did we mention all the very attractive paper runners that are on the market now? Lots and lots of choices are available. A runner will emphasize the length of a table in the same way that wearing vertical stripes emphasizes the height of a person; a long narrow runner makes a table look longer.
You can create a runner quickly and simply with some greenery like magnolia placed down the middle of the table with some baby pumpkins and/or small gourds tucked into the spaces between the leaves, possibly with some candles mixed in as well. If our greenery and gourd runner is on a white tablecloth, it looks more formal, and if our impromptu runner is on burlap or a bare table, it looks less formal. After the construction of the basic runner, you don’t have to stop unless you really do need to get going on dessert. If you have a minute or more to spare, you can add a few quail feathers or some Indian corn, or maybe some wheat stalks or pomegranates or grape clusters — you get the idea.
Next on our list to consider is the centerpiece. If you’re picturing mums in a basket and you’re yawning a little bit, hang on, don’t go to sleep yet — we’re getting ready to have fun. A centerpiece leaves more room on the table than a runner, so if you’re serving directly from the table then a centerpiece will be a good choice. The only real guideline with a centerpiece is that it should be low enough for guests to see over when they’re seated. If you’re concerned that making the centerpiece too tall will impede conversation, in one sense you’re correct but since this is Thanksgiving, your guests will just pick it up and move it (they’re family, remember) so the conversation won’t suffer but the beauty of your table may be diminished.
Much like the table runner, there are any number of possible centerpiece arrangements. If you want to go back to mums in a basket, add some assorted gourds and maybe some extra greenery and end up with an attractive centerpiece in record time. Or you could go a more formal route and start with roses in fall colors and fill in with bright fall leaves and asters and maybe a few luscious fruits in the same fall color palette. You could go the minimalist route and place an attractive group of pumpkins in the center of the table. You might put a nice fat pumpkin up on a cake stand with a few more baby pumpkins and gourds scattered around the base, add in a few candles, and consider it a centerpiece.
Our third option, scattering small things all around the table, is a useful style if you have a small table and a lot of people. If you have the opposite — a big table and a few people — it’s a handy style to use along with a centerpiece. If you have some little heirloom turkeys or baby cornucopias just waiting in a drawer for their moment to shine, this is the time to bring them out and let them play with some tiny flower arrangements and baby pumpkins to create a very charming table. An often overlooked bonus of this particular style is that it can double as an “I Spy” game if small people get restless at the table. Repetition helps lead the eye around the table so using a few of each item rather than one of each item brings cohesion and order and makes an interesting as well as an attractive table.
Whether you spend a day or an hour getting your table ready, whether you remember why you bought all those pumpkins last year or not, whether you do your own centerpiece or someone else does it for you, the important point is to pause, reflect, and give thanks for all of our many blessings — and maybe have some pie.