How to Create a One-of-a-Kind Holiday Centrepiece

Credit: Hilary Henegar

One of my favourite things about spending the holidays with my family is setting the table. That’s right—setting the table.

From the time I was a little girl, my grandmother—a casual artist at heart—would set me to work collecting knick knacks, trinkets and decorative greenery from around the house and the farm yard for an elaborate one-of-a-kind table centrepiece. The idea, besides keeping grandkids occupied while the adults prepared the meal, was to create a feast for the eyes that drew from personal items and the natural world to tell a story about who we are and where we come from.

One of the key advantages of this type of holiday centrepiece—especially when there are special dinner guests at the table—is that it offers instant fodder for conversation. A miniature statue of the Empire State Building, for example, may prompt a funny story from a past trip to New York City. A colourful shell swiped from the beach at Spanish Banks could offer the opportunity to reflect on a family barbecue in Vancouver. And an antique glass Christmas ornament can inspire memories of holidays past from family members all around the table.

A step-by-step guide to making
a one-of-a-kind holiday centrepiece
with hints for creating a truly
unique design and an instant
conversation starter.

As well, incorporating plant materials from the yard, indoor plants or a bouquet given by one of your guests brings life and vibrancy to the table, energizing conversation and reminding us of our debt to the earth for the bounty upon which we are to feast.

Key considerations when creating your distinctive holiday centrepiece are height, texture, colour and balance.

Height. Be sure the highest point of the centrepiece does not impede guests’ view across the table. The point here is to foster great conversation—not hide from each other behind a midget-size statue of Santa. When in doubt, just imagine the “cheers”: will everyone be able to reach everyone else’s glass?

Texture. Use materials of different textures for visual appeal and dynamism. Great materials for texture include fir tree branches, leaves, pine cones, flowers, gourds, ribbons, miniatures, anything reflective and so on. Where possible, candles are a must, as they add movement and life to the table.

Colour. Yes, red and green are season appropriate, but they’re also polar opposites on the colour spectrum—an important consideration for bringing vibrancy to your centrepiece. Purples and yellows, blues and oranges, pinks and lighter greens—all complementary colour pairings that will dress the table nicely. As well, white adds a lovely contrast, as do metallics like gold and silver. Add some warmth with terracotta statuettes, ornamental or edible squash, and pine cones.

Balance. Whether you prefer symmetry or asymmetry (a regular dispute in my household), it’s important that your centrepiece feel balanced—meaning, each item is placed in harmony with all the other items, creating a sense of intention for the entire design. When your guests look at your centrepiece, they should feel as if you wanted it to look that way—not that you’ve just thrown a bunch of random pieces out on the table.

Other things to consider are the “embarrassment factor” as well as the sentimental value of the items you’ve used from the house. No need to make guests uncomfortable because your centrepiece has “shared too much.” As well, that arts-‘n-craftsy popsicle-stick replica of your child’s favourite cartoon character may not fit the spirit of the season; however, a sparkle-covered cotton-ball figurine of your child’s best friend provides a great conversation piece that will include younger members of the family in the table discussion.

Of course, when putting any item on the table, where food will be eaten, you’ll need to clean it. There’s no need to be a maniac about it—you will be using plates after all—but a good wipe down to get rid of dust (in the case of household trinkets), dirt and bacteria (in the case of outdoor items) is an absolute must. And for greenery, you’ll want to trim away any imperfections or discolourations before using for decoration.

But remember, this is your creation! Think outside the box, ask for helpers and don’t worry about being perfect—this is your holiday, too, so you might as well enjoy yourself when entertaining guests.