Let me first be totally upfront: The idea of setting a holiday table kind of terrifies me. I am not someone who can just effortlessly whip up an Elsa’s castle centerpiece made of handmade gingerbread, or pick up a calligraphy pen and go to town on place cards. I don’t even own fancy china or “holiday” dinnerware because we tend to have holiday dinners elsewhere.
I quietly envy the spectacular holiday table settings and place card ideas on Pinterest, and repin them, but in my head I’m thinking, yeah, right.
In other words, I’m not living the glorious home decor blogger dream. I’m just a regular mom with some cool stuff and some not-so-cool stuff, trying to make it all work within a budget.
So when I had the chance to put together a holiday table for my family on behalf of our newest sponsor, IKEA, I was totally intimidated…and yet, totally psyched.
I grabbed my stepmother, Amye Gumbinner, who happens to be an amazing stylist and professional organizer–like a doctor, it’s great having one in the family–and we hit the Red Hook IKEA in Brooklyn for affordable inspiration.
We probably would have moved in if the smell of those cinnamon buns at checkout weren’t calling to us. Also, because I made the run for you, I can help you out with recommendations for stuff that really looks amazing in person.
Through the process of trial and error, we discovered some awesome tips for creating actual, doable holiday table settings that will hopefully help you too.
Working backwards, here’s where I ended up. I was so happy with it!
Now, I’ll back up and let you know how I got here.
Oh, and for more context? If you look closely at the doors behind the dining table–that’s not dirt. It’s the down and dirty height chart outside my girls’ room that’s actually in our dining area. Clearly we’re very fancy around here.
Maybe you can relate.
Setting a Holiday Table: Start with what you’ve got. Then add.
I only own white dishes because I think food just looks best on them. As pretty as colored dishes are on their own, the white lets your food be the star of the plate when you’re actually serving. So I started with what I owned and tried to create a look from there. You do not have to buy all new stuff for a holiday table (you know, the reindeer dishes, Santa glasses, holly candles), tempting though it may be.
Know your taste
Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. I am so charmed by country place settings in pictures, and yet my own taste leans heavily toward mid-century modern. (WWJAD: What would Jonathan Adler do?) I collect vintage white ceramic vases in interesting shapes, some black Fiestaware, and studio glass and modern sculptural pieces from independent artists. I have a lot of blondewood Heywood-Wakefield furniture too, all of which definitely doesn’t support a traditional, rustic holiday look.
I accept that.
As for my dining table, it’s a walnut-colored wood with a matte silver leaf down the center, and since I like the look of wood, I didn’t want to cover it with a tablecloth.
I also know I have some totally random pet decor peeves: Candles with more than one wick make me crazy. (Don’t ask.) Not a fan of fake plants and flowers. And scented candles at the dinner table–no way, no how. So that’s where I was starting from.
Dig out your stuff!
It helps to take out everything you might use and lay it all out in one place–old trick picked up from years of working on commercial shoots.
My kitchen counter look like a prop station: First all my dishes came out. Then for accents, I dug out some 50s-era candlesticks, a vintage hammered aluminum ice bucket, some heirloom cordial glasses and random accessories inherited from my grandparents. I gathered a few kinds of fresh flowers, and some ceramic vessels I collect.
The idea is that, if you buy every single thing new, it begins to look like a catalog page. Bring your personality in! Look at your stuff!
Shop new stuff based on your old stuff.
As far as our IKEA trip…score.
Remembering I was starting with a modern wooden table and white dishes, I had my heart set on IKEA’s black and white LJUDA placemats. I tried some red ones too–also great–but the black and white just felt more surprising and fun for me. Plus, they wipe clean easily which is a mom-bonus.I found some simple red cotton table runners with a subtle cord texture for the table and a natural color for the bar I was setting up on a nearby hutch. The photos on the IKEA site don’t do them justice, by the way–I really like them in person.
Oversized gray cloth napkins we found look like linen, but lower maintenance, so I grabbed those. I was also searching for some new glassware–because I thought it might be nice if everything matched for a change and nothing was chipped (ahem) — and found some really cool mouth-blown white frosted tumblers that look like fancy ones I’ve seen in NYC boutiques. I knew they’d be great for water or cocktails, or even wine. I could also use them for votives. And only $1.99 each.
They’ve actually become our new glasses. And if you don’t want white, there are other colors.
The gorgeous blue DIOD tumbler wasn’t right for my holiday table but darn, wish I had grabbed them. I may go back for them.
Then I gathered lots (and lots and lots) of white candles–I’ve been using IKEA tea lights since I got out of college, and haven’t turned back. They have so many great ones and the best prices. So I got them in both sizes, some tapers, plus some sets of pillar candles that I know will get good use.
I tried red candles too but…eh. It felt a little theme-y for my taste.
Finally, I ravaged the holiday decoration section which features a ton of garlands, ornaments, gift wrap supplies, strings of Christmas lights and gift tags that I knew would be put to good use. The prices are so good, I can afford to experiment a little. It’s not like I can’t use gift tags–even if they don’t end up on the holiday table as place cards, which is what I had in mind.
7 Affordable, Easy Place Setting Ideas for a Holiday Table
Once I settled on white plates and cool black and white striped placemats (seriously, they look like something from the MoMA store) and laid down the red table runner, I had to figure out the place settings next for a base.
Remember, I was looking for easy. I only wish I had 8 spare hours to devote just to place cards.
Turns out, experimenting was so fun and it helped me come up with some ideas I loved. Aaaand then some that were not really my style.
1. Felt bird ornament on a paper napkin
Yes, paper! I know that’s blasphemy in some circles, but I think they can look cool if you pick nice ones, and don’t set a formal holiday table.
I actually had these red cocktail napkins lying around–so long, that I guess my daughter hid a little message on one of them for me to find one day. (Thanks Thalia. I found it.)
We skipped the “lucky” napkin and lay these cute little felt bird ornaments down on the others.
He was totally sweet all by himself on my plain white plates. But adding pine cones to create a little tableau fills it out a bit.
2. Using hanging ornaments as napkin rings
I spotted cute ceramic toy soldier ornaments in packs of three, that I thought might be fun somehow. Like to wrap around the napkins instead of napkin rings.
The ornaments happened to be matte, so I thought hm, maybe we can draw on them? Then I thought, wait! I’ll let the kids decorate their own! Isn’t that charming? Winner.
3. Candy dishes
I imagined there would be something fun about little cupcake wrappers filled with a few shiny, yogurt-covered peanuts and raisins, with a place card popped into them. But…my imagination deceived me. All I could think of were my kids filling up on those before dinner. And weddings.
4. Sparkly pinecones
I have a bunch of pine cones that I put out each winter in this cool, hand-blown glass bowl I have. However I do not have spray paint in my house (much to Amye’s dismay), so we came up with the idea to take thin IKEA silver garlands and just wrap them through the pinecones. So easy, and no mess!
They truly make pinecones look more contemporary and less rustic. Then just pop in a gift tag for a place card.
I set it on a vintage red glass dessert plate I have, over a gray cloth napkin I lay right under the plate. Just to see how that would look. A little more formal but still playful.
5. DIY Holly
Turns out those gray napkins were a good call–and helped break up the black and white. I lay one over the plate, then I snipped off a large leaf from some greenery and just pulled three tiny red ornaments onto the ends to make a holly place setting.
(I admit I was kind of impressed with myself with this one.)
6. Fresh greens or flowers
This tableau was a little much for me–it might have been nice just to tie some twine around the greens with the card, and lose the ornament. Also, pine branches would have been great. D’oh. Next time.
7. Simple ornaments with name tags
Instead, I just got rid of the berries and stems and–I loved how it looked. There’s something elegant about the simplicity.
I do really (really) like the holly idea, but it kind of competed with the soldiers thematically and those were a definite. Maybe next year. So for this year, I opted for the color-your-own soldier ornaments for the kids, and the simple ball ornaments and name tags for the adults.
You can also see that I played around with a bunch of teeny ornaments in a dish next to a white mum but…not crazy about that. Plus, don’t worry, I replaced the candles in my vintage candlesticks.
Little stubs, not so great looking.
For the kids I lay two crayons each on the napkin then stuffed a bunch more in some ramekins–thanks, every restaurant ever for that idea–and added a swath of the garland to hold them in there. I knew the kids would be psyched and it would keep them occupied if we started lapsing into too much grown-up speak.
Consider making one for each kid so they’re not reaching across the table and fighting over crayons. Or is that just mine?
You could also put down craft paper for the kids instead of placemats, or lay down some printable coloring pages on heavy stock paper. Whatever keeps them busy and happy is good by me!
As the finishing touch for the kids, we have a chocolate Santa tradition in my family; as in, everyone gets one. So I was psyched to find an affordable six-pack of teeny chocolate Santas at IKEA. I placed each one in a cordial glass and loved it! Just keep them in the fridge first so they’re not inclined to melt or get squished.
Think of it like a bribe–your kids see it there the whole dinner long, and know they’re not getting it until they eat a good dinner. Mom trick.
Candle Tips for Table Settings
Candles: Essential, right? Here are some tips for using them beautifully without investing in a ton of accessories.
To make candles look lush, group them together in all different sizes.
I have this weird thing in which I hate candles with more than one wick. Don’t ask. I’d rather have lots of candles each with one wick, as candles are meant to be. (Says me.)
While there are some cool votive holders that line up the candles in a perfect row, I think it looks more lush to have a ton in different sizes, as tight as you can pack them without them looking squished. IKEA just has soooo many and they’re so affordable. Make sure to grab a tray too so they don’t drip on the table. I like the long rectangular ones, but square dishes are cool too.
Then, just mix and match votives and pillar candles, and put a ton of them together–even more than you think. Be sure not to line them up in size order! Stagger the sizes.
Think twice about where you put tapers
While there are tons of tall tapers available for glorious candelabras and the like, it’s not always the best idea to have a bunch of high flames while you’re reaching across the table and serving. Says the woman who once saw her friend’s sleeve catch on fire.
I usually set the table with them in the middle, but move them to the end of the table when everyone sits down. Or put them on a sideboard or cabinet near the table.
If you have kids, use your judgment. Mine know not to touch the candles, but it can’t hurt to keep them closer to the adult seats.
Skip the scented candles on the table
They can be lovely for keeping your home smelling nice, but during dinner they compete with the flavors of all that yummy food you’re cooking. As tempting though it is when you see eucalyptus or cinnamon scents, get the unscented candles for your holiday table. Or hey, get the others and put them in the bathroom and bedroom.
If you want a fresh scent, try cinnamon sticks on the table, or just freshly cut flowers.
Mix in flowers with candles
It can look nice to mix a monochromatic flower in there with the candles. White mums look great and are in season.
Instead of a bud vase, Amye suggested I try an extra votive, fill it with water, and cut the stem really short. It looked so great!
Looks so pretty, right? Also, you can see a little ramekin of baby roses, plus a stem of clementines with the greens still on. They added a nice organic touch to the table and the clementines brought in another color.
Make candles more fun with glitter
So I wouldn’t end up with so much white, we put a few more pine cones around this coolstar candle we found at IKEA, then sprinkled some really fine blue glitter over it. It actually looked great and not preschool craft-y at all.
Don’t worry, I lit it and tested it. Nothing burns or gets weird. The glitter just kind of pools up in the melted wax in the center. And my kids loved it.
That said…glitter hands! This stuff is so fine it can get everywhere. I would not necessarily let my kids help with this one. It was on my face for like a whole day afterward.
Out of respect for my totally diverse family, we include a menorah in the dining room too. You can just put candles in without lighting, since Hanukkah is earlier this year, unless your holiday party falls during Hanukkah.
If you need to skip the candles altogether….
Like if you have babies and toddlers? Totally get it. You can use those LED tea lights instead which are kind of fun. Instead of glass votives, I think they’d look great in some kind of larger colored glass tumblers so you get the effect of the candlelight without seeing the bulb.
Keeping the bar simple
In our family, we have drinkers and non-drinkers and don’t want the booze to be front and center. I tend to keep non-alcoholic bottles of cider or sparkling juice plus a pitcher of water on the table. Then I set the bar up on my nearby buffet so it’s close–but not actually on the table.
Instead of doing a really Christmas-y runner, I went with this natural one which looked fantastic against the blonde wood. I added a few art pieces, put cocktail napkins in a tumbler (I hate when kids spill and there go all your napkins) and even sprinkled a few Christmas balls around so it would hold together with the dining table.
Also I know this sounds a little anal, but put out bottles that look nice. Isn’t the Breuckelen Distilling Gin bottle gorgeous? And Widow Jane bourbon–yum. Skip the dusty old bottle of gin from your cabinet or an old wine bottle with a peeling label, and pour into a decanter if you need.
(In case you’re wondering, the wall hanging is called Trinket Net and it’s from an awesome artist named John Garrett. It’s my favorite thing.)
Making kids feel welcome at the holiday table
In addition to the crayon set-up, I really wanted some things on the table that made my kids feel comfortable; while they are eating off of real plates and using real napkins, it can be easy to get so caught up in “the perfect table” that we forget about kids who get squirmy in too-adult settings.
I grabbed a pack of straws ($1.49 for 200!) and just grabbed the red and lime green ones. Then, great tip: cut the straws to the right size if you’re using a rocks glass.
Why does everything just taste better with straws?
I also played around with this quirky lime green reindeer sculpture from IKEA which my kids adore. “It looks like Minecraft!” they said. So basically, it’s their new favorite thing.
But I confess it did feel a little cute for the table. I tied a ribbon around its neck just for fun, and put it on a tray of cups in the entranceway to welcome guests instead. Just know it’s a bit more fragil-ay (must be Italian) than it looks, so don’t bang it around.
Oh, and IKEA really has some fantastic packs of affordable ribbon. Any excuse to buy more is good by me.
Another creative idea for the holiday table: Table Topics cards for families. My kids are now obsessed with it. We ask each other questions from the deck every night at dinner–but for a big family gathering it’s a cool way to get a family-friendly conversation going. You could even put one at each place setting, or the pretty lucite box means you can put the whole stack right on the table.
It doesn’t feel cheesy, promise. I have a sensitive cheese-o-meter. Oh, and it’s especially good if you need to wrangle that one controversy-loving relative who just can’t stop talking politics.
A few simple holiday table setting lessons learned
It doesn’t have to scream Christmas to be festive
The black and white striped placemats not only bring the table to life, I can use them more than once a year. Items like the red table runner, the candles, the red roses, plus the ornament place settings made the whole table seasonal.
Pick red. Or green. Maybe not both
When I tried to add lime green into the setting it started feeling a little too on the nose for me. Consider an unusual accent color, like cobalt blue or an icy teal. We put down those pretty clementines with the leafy greens for an extra pop of unexpected color.
Square placemats are a lifesaver if you’re short on space
For some reason I’ve only ever owned more rectangular placemats, but now I see that the square ones help save space and still keep everything organized.
Less is more
It’s like Coco Chanel’s line about getting dressed in the morning then taking one thing off–after you’ve set the table, figure out what can go.
Stock up on ramekins!
We used ours for the crayon holders; we filled them with water and clipped a huge bunch of short rosebuds in them; we can use them for condiments, olives, nuts, you name it.
Buy more candles than you think you need
The packs are priced so well at IKEA, you really have room to experiment. And it’s not like we’ll never use them, even if they don’t all make it to the holiday table.
There is a right way to do Christmas ornaments in a vase…and a very wrong way
I finally figured out why mine never looks like the ones in magazines. I always used the wrong kind of vase.
So very wrong.
The trick is to work with a wide vase–like, really wide. Wide and deep. Maybe a hurricane. Then fill with ornaments until they’re over the top. I like the combo of matte and shiny ornaments in the IKEA set. If you look at the narrow vase–cool vase by the way, but wrong for this purpose–the ornaments look like they’re all stacked up badly in a single row. In the past, I’ve always tried it with vases that were too narrow.
Plus, those ornaments are $9.99 for 50! I spread a few on the bar too, knowing I can leave my nice glass ones on the tree where they’re less likely to get bonked.
Matching chairs make you feel like a grownup
By necessity, I’ve always mismatched our chairs when I had more than four people over. Not a big deal. But I do like the idea of being a little more grownup these days, and adding some chairs that work with what I already own.
The second I walked into the store I found these bentwood chairs on sale for just $29 each ($39 after November 25–still a great deal) and knew I had to have them.
They look so great in person, right? I mean, not like high end super designer chairs, but the shape is modern and wonderful, and they sure beat folding chairs. Plus the legs disassemble easily if you want to store them later.
Making a Rudolph nose for your kids is always funny
What can I say, I’m a kid at heart.
It all comes together
My favorite part: The cute little chocolate Santas in my grandmother’s vintage cordial glasses. I even love that pop of cobalt against all the red, black and white.
Thanks so much to our sponsor IKEA, who makes it so so easy to set a holiday table that looks really cool and effortless. Visit their site to browse, but visit a store near you which is where all the fun happens.
[photos: Jon Armstrong, © Cool Mom Picks all rights reserved]