Finally snow has begun to fall, and unbelievably Christmas is here. The trees are up, the outside décor is perfectly in place, and the refrigerator (and in my case — the patio) is packed and stacked far beyond capacity full of ingredients for the holiday meal. It is also at this time when I always realize I have forgotten to plan any kind of centerpiece for the tables. This generally results in me applying one of my father’s very favorite proverbs “necessity is the mother of invention,” frantically scavenging through the pantry and the yard for beautiful things to adorn the table. In a perfect world, I would set my centerpiece days in advance and check it off my list. Unfortunately, my 14 year old cat respects no boundaries and would more likely than not make himself a napping spot right in the middle of my labored-over masterpiece. For this reason the centerpiece simply must be assembled shortly before the meal. This year, however, I am equipped with a plan. Much like gardening outdoors, a little bit of planning goes a long way. A centerpiece really is one of the most important elements of an all-star Christmas or Hanukkah dinner. Regardless of your holiday there are a few universal qualities to keep in mind when designing any centerpiece. After all the meal you have worked tirelessly to craft will shine even brighter on a well-set table. The keystones of adorning a table are height, color, texture, and fragrance.
First and most importantly, one must decide the general theme and palette for the table. High contrast with greenery and vivid pops of violet and tangerine, monochromatic and natural with cedar, boxwood, and pine mingling to create texture and subtlety, or a white tablecloth with white flowers and white ornaments — just a few jumping off points for a spectacular table. Your centerpiece can compliment, match, or completely depart from your other décor.
One of the very best tips I have to offer is waiting to shop for your live materials like flowers and greenery until today, Christmas Eve. Generally the nurseries have trees, roping, and wreathes deeply discounted. At this time of year when budgets are already stretched thin, something superfluous seeming like a centerpiece is easily justified when the cost is kept low. Often I will buy a discounted cut Christmas tree and only use it to cut branches from to fill in sideboards, mantles, and the table. Also florists and grocery stores generally have cut flowers on sale too. A little bit of running around on Christmas Eve will pay off in savings and beautiful materials to work with. Clusters of inexpensive carnations shine when mixed with just a few roses or hydrangea.
In my opinion, the cardinal sin of setting a table is a centerpiece that is too high. Difficult to remember sometimes because so often tables set in magazines and lifestyle shows on television make a spectacular statement but would not function for actually sitting around and promoting conversation. A wise rule of thumb to keep in mind, nothing on the table higher than ten inches. Wine bottles are a necessary exception, of course. Reserve topiaries and poinsettias for sideboards and buffets. When setting a table, I always place the center first. For a rectangular table, an oval or rectangular floral arrangement is best. For an oval or square table. circular or square is best. For value and impact, I generally use several small containers of flowers instead of one large and expensive arrangement. Several containers also permit varying heights. Flowers at different heights add interest and drama to the table. Variation in height can also be achieved with candles or containers of anything — ornaments, curled ribbon, or pinecones. Once the center and objects with height are set, it is time to fill in with texture. I fill in around the vases with cut greenery. The more variation the better. Layer first with the least expensive and most abundant greenery; generally I have a lot of white pine on hand. Then fill in with a more delicate green like cedar. Crown the mix with little touches of shiny boxwood. Easy layering like this provides a big return in impact. The matte needles of white pine juxtaposed by the laciness of cedar and gloss and depth of boxwood make each particular green look better.
Once the vases and groundwork of the greenery are placed, it is all about the details. Tucking beautiful star anise in the greenery not only adds texture and depth, but a light and spicy fragrance. Fill in holes with single ornaments as well as clusters. Also a marvelous addition to any holiday tablescape are edible and aromatic additions like candy. Tucking a few sprigs or thyme and rosemary into the greenery creates a rich and layered aroma.
Christmas is a chaotic time, and details are easily overlooked. I hope my years of mistakes — I mean — experience — can help shave off some of that pressure on you at the zenith of the season. Details that help make a special day even more magical.
Being Christmas Eve and the fifth night of Hanukkah I, on behalf of the whole Master Gardener Association of Delaware County, would like to wish you and yours a very merry Christmas and happy Hanukkah. We are so appreciative and proud to share our passion and education with this community; and are grateful for all the support you provide us.
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.