Ally Ravnaas's place setting for D Home's holiday issue, which includes Dallas-based Fenwick Fields’ hand-illustrated placemats and scalloped-edge napkins.

Entertaining

Designer Tips for Creating a Stunning Holiday Setup, Whether Dining Inside Or Out

Try these designer-approved ideas for a sophisticated yet safe holiday celebration, whether it's a cozy dinner for your household only or a socially distanced outdoor event.

This year, holiday celebrations will require some out-of-the-box thinking. Perhaps you’re hosting a few friends or family members for a well-spaced outdoor dinner. Maybe you’re sticking with a small celebration for those in your immediate household. Either way, it’s possible to design a setup that’s both safe and stylish. We asked Ally Ravnaas of The Petite Party, Kelsey Sheets of The Loveliest Home, and interior designers Juliana Oliveira and Courtney Warren to share their suggestions for a beautiful holiday table.

Outdoor Gatherings

If you must host friends or family for the holidays, dining outside is your safest option. The pros weigh in on how to create a warm, welcoming outdoor atmosphere.

Juliana Oliveira

Make the space inviting. Your outdoor living area should not only look welcoming but also feel welcoming, says Oliveira. “Enlist all your senses,” she says. “Light your favorite candle, adjust the lights to a low glow, and use textures that feel cozy.” To add more visual warmth, “I sometimes use indoor rugs for an outdoor gathering as long as the weather looks nice and dry,” says the designer. No Christmas lights? No problem. Oliveira suggests using tea lights on the tables and throughout the outdoor space to create a little twinkle.

Set up a serving space away from the dining area. That way, says Oliveira, the conversation can flow without the risk of contaminating food on the table. “This also opens up more room for decoration at the center of the tablescape.”

Or, prep individual servings. “Grazing tables are all the rage right now, but they pose a problem when trying to minimize contamination,” says Oliveira. “This the perfect opportunity to get creative with serving ideas. For example, you could create beautifully-curated individual charcuterie boxes.”

Use a seating chart. Rather than a long table, use several smaller ones to group guests by household. A visual chart will help direct everyone to their seating area. Consider adding hand-lettered place cards for a personal touch.

Be creative with your layout. If you want to opt-out of a sit-down dinner, you can use cocktail tables instead, suggests Oliveira. It may be easier to stay socially distant while standing and walking around.

Ally Ravnaas
Elizabeth Lavin

Consider disposable options. This also can help minimize contamination, as every place setting can be discarded at the end of the night. To keep things festive, Oliveira recommends looking for out-of-the-box disposable designs, like wooden, metallic, or color-dipped utensils.

Don’t forget the greenery. Ravnaas firmly believes that flowers are a must on any table, whether you go with a pro arrangement or opt for a DIY. When in doubt, she says, keep it simple: “One color, one style. Get odd numbers and always more than you think.” And instead of having your aprés-dinner cocktails inside by the tree, decorate your outdoor space with wreaths and garlands to recreate that festive feeling.

Stay warm. Heavy blankets can be stashed in woven baskets and placed around the space. “Fire pits are great as well,” says Oliveira, “and some models on the market convert to ice chests and can be used in the warmer months.” 

Courtney Warren

Indoor Gatherings

Even if your holiday soirée is limited to those in your household, there are myriad ways to make a small setup feel special. Our sources shared their ideas for creating memorable tablescapes with family heirlooms or kid-friendly décor.

Courtney Warren

Pick a starting point. Don’t let the prospect of setting a table overwhelm you—choose one item as your inspiration and let it set the tone. Ravnaas started with Spode’s “Christmas Tree” dishes and used them to them dictate the color scheme of the table.

Break out your fine china. “Any great Christmas tablescape starts with amazing china,” says Warren. “Bring out your special pieces, like your grandmother’s wedding plates. This time of year, I also elevate things by making my everyday table fancier and fun. I bring out my monogrammed linen napkins and tie them with a rosemary spring and twine.”

Add an activity. Keep kids busy with small toys or games at their place setting–the decorative nutcrackers in Sheets’ tablescape also double as a craft. Kid Art in Snider Plaza offers several prepackaged craft kits to choose from.

Mix high and low. If your children aren’t old enough to be trusted with porcelain dishes just yet, keep them in the china cabinet. Sheets believes in mixing price points, especially when little ones are present; she uses Christmas glasses from Hobby Lobby on her own table.

Kelsey Sheets
Elizabeth Lavin

Invest in heirlooms that double as décor. “I try to find a new ornament or plate every year for my kids, to create a collection for them,” says Sheets, “and I decorate the table with them, too.” For Sheets’ own table, she enlisted Tricia Lowenfield to create 12 Days of Christmas–themed plates—their collection is now available at tricialowenfielddesign.com—and placed ceramic keepsake ornaments atop custom napkins by Hibiscus Linens.

Get the conversation going. Icebreakers can be a relief for perfect strangers, but sometimes making small talk with family can be just as tough, especially if you’re dining with loved ones whom you see every day. Ravnaas offers personalized sets of conversation-starter cards to spark meaningful discussions.

Feel connected to far-away family. Incorporate borrowed items from family members or heirlooms, suggests Ravnaas. On her table, she uses gold Christmas trees on loan from her mother-in-law. It’s a fun way to represent the family members who can’t dine with you in person this year.

Finish with a sweet ending. “I finish my tablescapes by adding an unexpected treat,” says Warren. “This could be holiday-themed sugar cookies or bundles of candy canes. If I am serving hot chocolate, I include stirring spoons made of peppermint and serve in Christmas mugs.”

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