Meal times have become such an informal affair in most homes today that many of us have forgotten the pleasures of a sit-down meal at a well-laid-out table. Most people admit that they simply wander around the house eating, or sit in front of the telly, plate in hand. Parties too have mostly become buffet affairs (described by one old-world gentleman as "about as gracious a setting as a soup kitchen"). While a well-laid out, lavish buffet can also be a pleasure for your guests, somehow, nothing beats the coziness, warmth and genuine hospitality of a celebration around a well-appointed, lovingly set table.

It is sheer joy to be invited to a meal for which not only are the host and guest all dressed up for the occasion, but so is the dining table!

Besides the usual place mats, napkin rings, and tableware, there is so much you can do to pretty up your table for a meal - be it Christmas brunch or lunch, or a New Year's Eve dinner. The best part is, you don't have to go out and buy a whole lot of fancy crockery and cutlery, candelabra and other accessories. You'll be surprised at the effect you can produce by just a little imagination and a tiny bit of extra effort, using things that you already have in your home or which you pick up at festival sales. The effect can be as formal or as informal as you like.

Flowers, candles and dry arrangements are a favourite and easy to conjure up. But you don't have to stop there. For instance, if you have a collection of metal or glass animals, you could place one besides each plate, or a series of them on a runner down your table. A pretty, festive red stole could serve as the perfect central runner.

You could also decorate your table to reflect the kind of food you're serving. We, in India, with our mind-boggling variety of cuisines, have the chance to decorate along a whole host of themes. For instance, one hostess clumps a bunch of lovely glass fish at the centre of her table if her menu is going to be a spread of Mangalorean setting fish favourites.

Another enthusiastic host places a Collection of tiny toy/miniature kitchen utensils that he has collected from the old bazaars of cities like Chennai and Pune. It makes for a charming ensemble, complete with a model idli stand, cooker and coffee filter! Even just a small sprig of bamboo leaves tied with a bright red ribbon besides each plate can set the mood for a Chinese or Thai meal during the season. For a Gujarati meal, tie-dye chunnis bunched up tied on chair backs can add a vibrant touch to an already colourful meal. One collector of wood and ceramic owls and cats brings them to her table on special occasions, to watch over her guests wisely!

With the accent on warmth and well-being, personalized gifts can be used as table ornaments near each place setting, and the guests simply take them home after the meal -quite reminiscent of a kiddy birthday party!

Besides concentrating on the look and feel of your table, small attention to comfort and detail goes a long way. Overcrowding and clutter can be avoided by having the drinking water and other fluids set on a sideboard nearby, or even on a little trolley that is placed at hand.

Centre pieces make for great decorations, but do take care that they don't block people's view of each other, or are so tall that they become precarious and ready to tip over. If you're serving both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, do take care to see that both kinds of dishes are kept a little apart at the table, as are both kinds of diners! People are generally good sports, but they do appreciate their sentiments being respected and not necessarily being placed eye-to-eye with the meat and fish! If you're using aromatic candles or flowers, do take care to choose mild fragrances, or they can mingle and interfere quite oddly with food aromas.

While the sky is the limit when it comes to tableware and accessories, unusual and elegant menus, and faultless service, there is another intangible element that you can bring to your party table this season. On a more sentimental note, as it's a time of good will, sharing and caring, you can give the gift of good and genuine words to those near and dear ones who you have chosen to be with you around your table at a special meal.

Some hosts put in the effort to place a brief, well-worded small note / card at the place setting for each guest, telling the invitees what has been special about them in the year gone by, or what you wish for them for the coming year. So much is left unsaid between friends, and this is the time to really put it down in black and white - it works absolute wonders, for the occasion, for the relationship, as well as for the coming year. For old friends, you can write about the qualities you cherish in them.

For new friends, you can write what has drawn you to them, and what you hope and wish them in the future. One host simply pens five adjectives describing the person's best attributes on a card or a handmade bookmark for each of her invitees. A sure way of spreading a warm glow at your table that over-flows and is carried forward into the New Year.

As all good hosts have come to learn, what is known as a 'well-appointed table' or 'a fantastic party' doesn't always have to be about candelabra, champagne flutes, silverware, starched napkins, pristine porcelain and gourmet food. Just bring out some of your favourite curios, add some colour, flair and zing to your table, and take care to connect personally with each of your guests, and this season you'll end up being called the host with the most - or the hostess with the mostest!


Bolero Carver Roadster
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