Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Dan starts cooking the turkey early while I set the table for 27. At dinner time, our large but intimate party of family and friends packs around the table to raise a toast, share what we are most thankful for, and dig into the best food imaginable. Our daughter calls us the Loud Family because the volume gets high as we all share stories, catch up on each other’s news and roar with laughter.

If you are entertaining this Thanksgiving, I want to encourage you to make the setting for your feast as special as the people who will ring your table. Here are three steps I follow when creating a dramatic and memorable Thanksgiving table. 

Step 1: Aim to Awe

In this age of hustle-bustle, it’s sometimes hard to find the time to spoil the people we love most. Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity to do just that by taking some extra time to set a table that is so lavish and lovely it lets guest know how very important they are to you. The time you invest in creating a dramatic tablescape pays off when you see the surprised and delighted faces of your guests as they take in your dining room, decorated to the hilt just for them.


Create a Centerpiece that Wows

A powerful centerpiece is the key to creating a table that wows guests. I have designed some centerpieces that are intricate and complex, and I’ve fashioned some that are powerful in their subtle simplicity. The centerpiece in the photo above, taken at my Fall Open House this year, is somewhere in between. It looks layered and lush, but actually didn’t take very much time to pull together.  Since my table is a long rectangle, I balanced two identical urns holding a simple fall arrangement on each end. The space between the urns was left open to hold this gorgeous covered tray, reserved for Dan’s delicious turkey.

Orange and blue is my favorite fall color combination right now, so I filled two pedestal bowls with a compact bouquet of orange roses. If you look closely at the urns, you’ll see how simple they would be for you to recreate or modify for your table. If you don’t have matching garden urns like these, you could use tall, beefy vases or cake plates or hurricanes – anything that gives you some nice height and allows you to embellish with seasonal décor. We topped our urns with some moss and straw to hold the metal orbs in place. Then we filled the orbs with some fall foliage and other goodies, pulled together in a short, tight arrangement. If you like things bigger and wilder on your table, you could use longer tendrils of fall foliage and fallen sticks in your centerpiece.


Style Charming Place Settings

Lushly layered place setting that weave together different colors, textures and heights are among my very favorite, and a bedrock of the Nell Hill’s style. This table started with simple orange table runners, which provide a pop of bright fall color, break up the wood of the table top and serve as placemats. We mixed three different types of plates to create this lovely collage: a big white dinner plate as a charger, a green majolica dinner plate, a brown transferware salad plate and an amber glass bowl on a pedestal. We finished off with a mix of blue and amber stemware.  Look in your china cabinet and see what dishes you could mix up to give your table a blend of patterns and colors. You’ll be surprised by the diverse pieces you can weave together to create a charming place setting.


Step 2: Zero in on Details that Make a Difference


Personalize Your Place Settings

I recently blogged on ways you can personalize your tables when you entertain, but I wanted to show you how I used personalization to make each place setting on my Thanksgiving table that much more special. I used three different pieces at each place: a menu card featuring each course Dan had prepared for dinner, a name card so everyone knows where to sit and a conversation prompt: “I am thankful for ….” There is something special about seeing your name at your place setting, isn’t there? It makes you feel like a treasured addition to the party.


Tuck in a Few Surprises

On every table I set, I try to tuck in a little surprise, something whimsical or unique that shares a bit of our family with our guests. Since Dan and I are crazy about golden retrievers, this year’s surprise was a little figurine of a golden at the top of each place setting. In addition to a bit of our dog’s hair clinging to their pants, our guests will also take home this sweet gift as a reminder of the evening.


Thread in Seasonal Touches

Make sure to add in a few touches that applaud the season. You can do so by using fall themed dishes and table linens, fall foliage worked into your centerpiece, or other accents. A subtle way I celebrate the winter months is by switching the slip covers on my dining chairs. As the weather gets cool, I swap the cream linen covers for this rich plaid.


Step 3: Don’t Forget the Backdrop

While the dining table is the undisputed star of the show at Thanksgiving, don’t forget to add some decorative touches to the rest of your dining room.  If your table is loaded with drama, you won’t need much.  One of the spots I like to dress up for holiday entertaining is my buffet, pictured here. Many of the pieces on my buffet remain in place year round, like the matching lamps and the platter. I just poke in a few seasonal motifs, like this scale holding a fall figurine, a pumpkin and a tiny bouquet of orange roses, just like the ones on my table.

I often use this little marble top table to hold a drinks service when I entertain. Here it’s set for after dinner coffee and dessert. The coffee service and tiered server of fruit are so beautiful, all I added was another tiny bouquet of orange roses …

… and a mercury glass pumpkin. Done!


Next Week: One of the most powerful ways to add holiday pizzazz to a room is to decorate your light fixtures with seasonal greens. I’ll show you how next week.

P.S. Don’t forget — the Nell Hill’s Holiday Open House is this Friday and Saturday. Come see my home in Atchison dressed for the season. It’s my favorite way to kickoff the holiday season! For details, see

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15 Responses to “3 Tips for Setting a Dramatic Thanksgiving Table”

  1. Susan Stark Says:

    Have loved all of your books for years.

  2. Lisa Fernandez Says:

    Just got your book!!!!!!!!!!! Love it!!!!!!!!!!! Have already seen it three times since I got it on Saturday and still need to look through it and devour every word. hee hee.
    Love your Thanksgiving ideas. Can’t wait to use them.
    Hope your open house is spectacular, will miss it. You can hear me crying all the way from Pennsylvania!

  3. Kathy Staten Says:

    Love your Thanksgiving dining room table. Also loved the idea of incorporating a little something extra at each place setting – golden retriever figurines. Do you sell those at your store? We are also lovers of goldens – we have two of our own. If you don’t sell them could you tell me where you got them? Thank you!

  4. Linda Says:

    So gorgeous Mary Carol! I was lucky enough to see it at your Fall Open House. I am really looking forward to your Christmas Open House this Friday and the shopping spree to follow. I am always both exhilarated and exhausted after a day of both as I try never to miss any of your Open Houses. My head will be spinning with all kinds of decorating ideas. You are truly amazing and so inspiring. Both you and your excellent staff. I’m so grateful that you allow us take photos in your home and stores. There was only one time that I didn’t and the next day I really regretted it as I couldn’t remember it all. There was just so much beauty and so many ideas to take in and retain. Now when I look at the photos the next day I almost always see something I missed but captured with my camera and I just call your store and they mail it out to me. I love your personal shopper service and have been ordering things this way for many years.

    I will be raring to go on Friday and look forward to seeing you on your front porch as you dazzle and inspire us with more of your great ideas. I love all the little tid bits of info that we come away with after your visit with us right before we step into your beautiful stately home.

    Lets just say that I’m another one who claims to be your biggest and number one fan! I think there are a lot of us far and wide who believe this! I have been a fan ever since I first stepped into Nell Hills in Atchison, KS in the mid 1980′s. And as always, you are so gracious to each and every one of us and I appreciate that.

  5. Arleigh Heagany Says:

    I would love to see how you seat 27. Whether you lengthen one table or do several smaller ones etc. I have a big group coming too.

  6. Mary Carol Says:

    Lisa and Linda and all, thank you so much for your kind words. I could never do what I do without the wonderful ideas and energy of my amazing friends and customers!

  7. Mary Carol Says:

    Arleigh, seating a big group is a challenge, isn’t it? I’ve done it differently through the years. One option is to set the dining table as a buffet, then have guests eat on lap trays in the living room and other rooms. Last year, I cleared out my long living room and set up a series of tables and ringed it with ballroom chairs, so it looked like a huge banquet table. While moving the furniture is a bit of a job, it’s fun to have everyone at the same table together. Good luck!

  8. franki Says:

    This holiday is the fun one! Great tips! franki

  9. Linda Fleming Says:

    I moved to Georgia and miss you and your stores! It was so much fun to visit and see your beautiful merchandise creatively displayed. I couldn’t take away enough! I read your blogs and appreciate your ideas and photos. You are a “love’! Happy Holidays to y’all!

  10. Donna Boyd Says:

    Are the Golden Retriever figurines for sale in your store? I adore Goldens and have one, Dixie. I would love to have those on my Thanksgiving table this year!

  11. JEAN Says:

    I am in love with your table settings, purchased green salad plates on ebay last week and am looking for chalk board paddles. Your emails are such an inspiration to me. If I did not live in Georgia, I would be in attendance at your open house this weekend, but am planning on being there in the future. Thanks for your blogs so full of ideas.

  12. Linda Alden Says:

    Your Thanksgiving table ideas made my heart beat fast!!! I have the same amber stemware as well as Woodland, but NOT the beautiful blue stemware. Do you by chance sell the blue glasses in your store? I think I need them!

  13. Mary Carol Says:

    Donna, as of this morning, we have 5 of the golden retrievers left, and they are located at our Atchison store. They are made of resin, about 5 3/4 inches tall and cost $8 each. If you’d like any or all of them, give us a call at Nell Hill’s Atchison, 913-367-1086. I hope they will still be there!

  14. Mary Carol Says:

    Linda, we have a great selection of different colored stemware at our Atchison store, Give our team a call today at 913-367-1086 and they will let you know what we have in stock right now.

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