Holiday Tablescapes -November/December 2010

Making a meal, setting a table and entertaining close friends are part of what make the holidays a special time for islanders.

by: Leslie Linsley

photography by: Terry Pommet

Nantucket is at its prettiest in December, when it looks like an old-fashioned Christmas card.

Islanders take special care to decorate their homes with traditional bowers and garlands of evergreen, holly, winterberries, seashells and pine cones.

The shops in town are decorated as well and the trees lining in-town streets are ceremoniously lit at sundown on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Nantucket still maintains many of the traditions associated with the past, especially those of small towns throughout the country. Perhaps this is why our island has become such a popular place to spend the holidays.

Making a meal, setting a table and entertaining close friends are part of what make the holidays a special time for islanders. This year Terry Pommett and I decided to present a variety of table-settings for celebrating Christmas and New Year's in Nantucket style using materials that are easy to find or that you may already have on hand.

Connecticut residents Michael Kovner and interior designer Jean Doyen de Montaillou live in one of the townhouses on Union Street where they often entertain during the Christmas season. The dining room in this typical Quaker-style home built in the early 1800s is the perfect place for an intimate Christmas Eve dinner with close friends.

"We always have fresh flowers on the table," Michael says, pointing out the bouquet of white hydrangeas and red roses created at The Flower Shop at Marine Home Center. "Keep the flowers low," Jean suggests, "so that they don't obstruct the flow of conversation. I especially like a square dining table," he adds. "It suits this room." Since the interior décor is yellow, black and red, the couple tends to play up the red as the dominant color theme for the holidays.

"I even change the lamp shades from the black and white check to red and white," Jean says.

Jean, who has decorated many of his clients' homes for Christmas, buys lots of accessories throughout the year and stores them away until needed. He begins setting the table with red beaded round place mats.

"Everything should be polished and sparkling," he advises. The napkins from Trillium have a red trim and are held in place on top of each plate with a red beaded starfish napkin ring. The table is adorned with starfish that Jean has spray-painted red and a few sprigs of green are added to the inside of each hurricane lantern. "Sometimes I use place cards," he says, "but often I like to do something a little bit more creative like adding a name to a shell at each setting. We are on an island after all and it's fun to include shells in the décor."

To this end he uses garlands of artificial greens on the mantel for safety's sake in an old house where one has candles burning, and places a variety of shells on top of the greenery.

"During the holidays we like to serve Niner Syrah from Central Coast Wine Estates in Paso Robles. The owners live at Eel Point here on Nantucket in the summer and the wine is available on-island. It makes any meal festive," he says.

No matter the time of year or the occasion, when it comes to entertaining, Peggy Kaufman does it with style and in a way that seems effortless. Every year she and her husband Eli host a New Year's Eve party. And every year she creates a totally different theme. This year the color is silver and she did away with the red and green of Christmas in favor of a clean, bright silvery look.

In this regard, up from the basement came all the boxes marked "silver:" silver-painted twig wreaths with French wired silver ribbons, twisted-metal topiaries, star garlands, silver balls and mirrored place mats. The former public-relations director for Ann Taylor stores, Peggy is now a consummate volunteer, tireless board member of the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum, Nantucket Historical Association and the Saltmarsh Senior Center, and the "go-to" person when you want a job done. She will, on a moment's notice, whip together a dinner party for 10 without giving it a second thought.

As we opened box after box, Peggy directed exactly where things should go. First the silver-wired topiaries down the center of the table, followed by a winding strand of silver garland, on top of this the silver spray-painted pine cones, followed by the silver mercury balls scattered here and there. This done, the place mats followed and as each place setting was added it was like making a painting with a paint-by-numbers kit. Everything worked together to create a full and sparkling table.

"Nothing I use is expensive for decorations," Peggy says. "All year I buy this stuff, not really sure what I will use, but I like to have options for setting my tables when I entertain."

Often she uses fresh flowers sparsely arranged in the collection of little lightship baskets she has amassed. These usually line the mantelpiece in the dining room.

"I always use my best china and silverware from Grandma Winkler," she explains. "I like family heirlooms on the table as they elevate the inexpensive decorations."

Lastly Peggy hung the two silver wreaths from each window over the Roman shades. "I bought these at one of the Festival of Wreaths auctions," she says, referring to the yearly charity event at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. When the guests arrive at the Kaufman house they always feel celebrated. The candles are lit, the lights are low and everything sparkles. The stage is set to welcome in 2011.

Island artist Donn Russell especially likes to have fun when he transforms his dining room for company. Toward that end he sets the table with things he has acquired from many years of travel. They add meaning to the celebration. Donn likes to infuse a sense of whimsy into his holiday table.

"I've always collected tin toys," he says, pulling a handful of colorful tops from a drawer. "They came from an abandoned toy factory and the colors are perfect," he adds, arranging them on a pewter dish. "These plates came from a Grace Line cruise ship around the 1920s," he explains with the excitement of a child discovering toys under the tree on Christmas morning. Hand-woven candleholders are filled with red rose hips and bright-green leaves picked from Jetties Beach. Made by his partner, Arthur Schaefer, the lightship baskets add the perfect island touch. English salt and pepper shakers found in London's Covent Garden Market, brightly-colored Chinese place mats from Hong Kong and Mexican tin plates are used to create each place setting. Finally, a tin merry-go-round becomes the centerpiece. "It's always fun to see how inventive I can be with what I already have on hand," Russell says.

"Now, the main event," he announces as he manages to secure a small tree upside-down to overhead rafters, adjusting it so the point of the tree is directly over the center of the table at the appropriate height. Then he adds sequins and beads "for glitz," pours the wine, lights the candles (not too close to the tree) and gets ready to receive his dinner guests. This is a good example of what makes the island so unique: its creative people who know how to express their individuality – even if it means hanging a Christmas tree upside-down over the dinner table.

The best thing about entertaining during this time of year is that anything goes. A simple bouquet of lilies, a lightship basket filled with a red or white poinsettia plant, an amaryllis on the table or sideboard or a vase filled with white French tulips will bring an air of elegance to your holiday table. My husband Jon Aron and I share Christmas Eve dinner with our closest friends and I like to set a lavish table with my favorite Christmas decorations, including my own découpage plates, each with a different wreath design that I set on top of gold chargers. I also fill the table with cherished heirlooms given to me by my mother and grandmother, such as my ornate silver candlesticks and silverware. This year I set an intimate table in my living room and used a clean green and white with gold theme that started with a favorite green and white quilted throw over a pure white quilted tablecloth and green plaid napkins with beaded rings. My outdoor hurricane candleholder became the centerpiece, filled with an assortment of beaded flowers and silk green leaves. And don't forget, lots and lots of candles will make any home as romantic as the season.

Leslie Linsley is the author of many books on home style and American crafts. Her column "Home Style" appears regularly in The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's newspaper since 1821.

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