For "the fun of the thing," as children say, - for the sentiment of it, as older persons put it, - tables may, on gala days, be arranged with special outfits and souvenirs, the insignia of championship in golf or tennis; with candied ships on yachting days, or with whatever the pleasure and excitement of the moment suggest. The occasion makes the justification, but the occasion must not be prolonged, else, like a diet of highly seasoned sauces, it ends by destroying the appetite.
A Thanksgiving dinner-table can, in its outlay, express a lavishness not proper to the conventional dinners of other seasons, for a Thanksgiving lavishness is the order of the day. Everything expressing richness, fulness, and bounty belong to it. Nature has then yielded her fruits, and man has reaped the harvest, and a time of universal rejoicing follows; of exultation, of returning thanks; of making merry over benefits received. Everything is gathered together at that time, the stores of field and forest; the children and grandchildren of scattered sons and daughters. A cornucopia suggests the bounty of the day. It may be made of cardboard or wire, and covered with leaves. From the mouth of the horn, bunches of grapes, red-cheeked apples, pears, nuts, and oranges fall over the cloth. The colors, when studied, are enchanting. A pumpkin may take the place of the cornucopia. It must be scooped out, and filled with all the fruits and nuts of the season, with grapes especially, those of purple tones blending charmingly with it; some of the bunches falling over the edge, lie on the cloth. The brilliant leaves of the blackberry vine, which are scarlet at that time of the year, are fascinating when made to run from the pumpkin to each plate. I have seen artists spend an hour over the composition, choosing the fruits as they would the colors for a canvas. The effect, when finished, was almost that of a Paul Veronese in color, and like all color, impossible to describe.
When the Thanksgiving dinner is at night, the candle-shades are trimmed with autumn leaves. The light of gas or electricity, unless shaded, will mar the best of compositions.
At Christmas, as the desire should be to express less of exultation in the gifts received than of joy in bestowing, everything should express light and radiance, all the out-going qualities. The windows should express it, the fireside, the halls, the table.
By common consent - that common consent which results from an instinctive recognition of the fact that those things which nature yields at Christmas are those best adapted to the celebration of the day - by common consent, then, evergreens are universally used for Christmas, - the hemlock, the holly, the mistletoe, the pine, and the laurel. Happily they come within reach of the poor.
I have known many beautiful Christmas dinner-tables, some that have seated twenty or more guests, and been set out with family plate representing heirlooms of several generations; tables that have been decorated with a profusion of flowers fresh from country greenhouses and exquisite in their loveliness. And I have been at dinners when merry-making prevailed, and the centre of the table was adorned with a small Nuremberg Christmas-tree lighted with candles, hung with tiny toys, and surrounded by the faces of happy children. I have been at many, as I said; but for charm, and beauty, and radiance, I have never known one to exceed in loveliness a bare mahogany table trimmed with nothing but holly berries and leaves.
The round table, at which seats for ten were laid, was highly polished, so that it shone like the glass and crystal with which it was set. All the lights in the room were turned down except that of the circular drop-light from the chandelier shaded in red and brought to within a few inches of the tops of the candles. The red shades of the candles were decorated with holly. A wreath of red holly was placed in the centre of the table round the fruit. Bunches of holly were scattered about the table and tucked into each napkin. The bon-bons imitated the berry. I am quite sure that a white cloth would have robbed the table of its charm, been distracting, and quite destroyed the impression of a general glitter and sparkle. A long narrow table, seating twenty, would have had to be carefully studied before the cloth was omitted. Any bare table, before all else, would have had to be like this one, - highly polished.
A small Nuremberg Christmas-tree like that of which I have spoken is a household possession. Its branches are made of wire covered with green, and it stands in a wooden pot. For sick children in a nursery, or for old spinsters without children, one of these trees is a delight. I have a friend who for years has carried one about. Once it went across the ocean to be lighted in the Bay of Gibraltar at Christmas. She brings it out year after year, bending its branches into shape, lighting its twenty tiny candles, and gathering young and old about it.
The little tree measures from the bottom of its wooden pot to the top of its highest candle only three feet, and was the gift of a friend, who trimmed it with every kind of tiny toy, with miniature dolls, a Kriss Kringle, and its twenty candles. When lighted it is a blaze of cheerful glory, and it has now gathered to itself the association and traditions of many years, which no real tree, faded with a season's service, could have boasted. Of course, on general principles, live things are best, and when a forest tree is possible it ought to be had. On the other hand, there are people who prefer the tiny trees, and again there are others who, unless they had the little Nuremberg toy, would never know the joy of Christmas.