Your holiday table is, in many ways, a reflection of your style. It is representative of your creativity, your tastes, your sense of tradition, and even your sense of humour. There are many ways to decorate your holiday table, and table trends change over time. In fact, for many of us, scouring Pinterest and Instagram for new ideas is itself a modern holiday tradition.
If you are looking for fresh inspiration for your table this season, may we suggest that you think international? We’ve got some ideas for you that we have adapted from traditions around the world. Not only will they give your table a unique global flair, but we are sure these ideas will spark some unique conversation as well.
Christmas Spider Webs
There is a Ukrainian story that tells the tale of a warm-hearted spider. Upon learning that the family in whose Christmas tree the spider lived was too poor to decorate it, the spider spent all night weaving beautiful, silky webs onto the branches. In the morning, the family awoke to a wonderful surprise—the gentle sun shone through the windows onto the cobwebs, turning the tree into a marvel of glittering silver. In honour of the legend of the Christmas spider, Ukrainian families will often hang handmade spiderweb ornaments as an omen of good fortune for the coming year.
For your holiday table, consider making your own spiderwebs from toothpicks, glitter and a little hot glue. Decorate your guests’ plates with a glitter-sprinkled web, or turn your sparkling creation into a napkin holder. When your friends and family ask why you’ve decorated your table with a Halloween ornament, you can share the tale of the kind-hearted Christmas spider from Ukraine.
Recycled Holiday Bottles
It is a wildly popular trend right now to twirl battery-powered fairy lights inside glass bottles, or to paint them with metallic colours and place them as centre pieces on your holiday table. You can make these creations yourself, or you can purchase them at specialty shops brand new. With these unique decorations, your table will be ultra modern and ultra beautiful.
But did you know that these decorations are not modern at all? In fact, using recycled materials, particularly bottles, for handmade decorations is a beloved tradition in Tanzania. Christmas in this East African country tends not to be as commercial as it is elsewhere, and travelling back from cities to more rural villages is a hallmark of the season for Tanzanians. So, don’t throw away those empty wine bottles and spaghetti sauce jars. Get creative and decorate them in homage to this Tanzanian holiday staple that celebrates both the season and environmental responsibility.
Here in York Durham Headwaters we have a wonderfully diverse demographic, with all cultures participating in the festivities, regardless of what those festivities are or where they come from. Diwali, Chinese New Year, Christmas… it’s everybody in here in YDH. But in China, Christmas has not historically been celebrated as it doesn’t have any direct roots in this area of the world… until recent decades, that is. In Mainland China, young people especially have embraced the Christmas spirit by adopting some Western traditions as well as creating new ones of their own.
Enter the apple. In Mandarin, ‘Christmas Eve’ translates to Ping’anye, which means ‘the evening of peace.’ This also happens to sound a bit like the Chinese word for ‘apple,’ or pingguo. Cleverly, Chinese people have taken this homophonic similarity one step further and have given these special apple gifts a new name: ping’anguo, or ‘peace apples.’ Today, apples are purchased and given in specially decorated boxes in China, and sometimes with small messages printed on their skin, much like a fortune cookie. If you want something different than the same old Christmas cracker for your table, try a hand-printed peace apple in its own little box instead.
Greenery is often a holiday table decoration. While our typical Western choices are of the evergreen variety thanks to the pagan tradition of Yule, Lebanese people who celebrate Christmas favour sprouted legumes or grains—most popularly chickpeas. These small plants then decorate the Lebanese nativity scene and can be found around the house as well.
This tradition is rooted in the celebration of Eid il-Burbara—Saint Barbara’s Day—which begins on December 4th. It is said that in the 3rd century, Saint Barbara was kept locked in a tower by her rich pagan father. She managed to flee, and ran through a freshly-planted grain field… which grew instantly to cover her tracks. This miracle is represented symbolically by soaking grains or legumes on cotton wool a few weeks before Christmas, then planting the sprouted shoots. Then, by Christmas day, the shoots are large enough to become greenery decorations.
This unique and meaningful alternative to holiday greenery is a wonderful way to remind your guests that each culture has its own set of seasonal stories. Little planters at each place setting, or a larger centrepiece that you started a few weeks ahead of your holiday meal, will certainly be a conversation starter.
There is one holiday tradition that is unique to the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. December 23rd is Noche de los Rabanos, or Night of the Radishes. Wild animals, mythical creatures and everyday scenes of Oaxacan life are all represented by carving local radishes grown especially for the occasion, resulting in a comical and whimsical time for all. The tradition dates back to 1897, when Oaxaca City’s mayor decided to make the contest part of that year’s Christmas market as a way to promote local agriculture.
The red and white colour of radishes will fit perfectly with your holiday-coloured table, and carving them can be something you do a day ahead of time with friends, family, or to keep the kids occupied while they’re off from school on Christmas break. Give each of your guests their own little radish carving, or add them to your salad for a cool veggie twist. If this tradition doesn’t get people talking around your table, we don’t know what will!
Honourable Mention: Catalonia’s … er… “Log” of the Non-Yule Variety
Okay, so as the writer of this article, let me put my hand up and admit that I am an odd duck. It’s fine. I know it. I own it. My sense of humour is (to put it nicely) quirky. If you saw my YDH article written last year called Eat Your Pumpkins!, you’ll know what I’m talking about. For many, the holiday meal is a refined, well-mannered event. For me and my family… we’re more like Cousin Eddie from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
With my weird sense of humour in mind, there is one tradition I came across that I just couldn’t help but include… you know, after I caught my breath and wiped the tears from my eyes. It is called the Tió de Nadal from Catalonia. It is a hollow log with legs, a smiley face and a floppy red hat that children decorate and feed nuts, dried fruit and other sweets leading up to Christmas. On the big day, the whole family beats the log with sticks in the hopes that it will excrete its cache of candy. Then they sing the song:
Caga tió, tió de Nadal,
No caguis arengades, que són massa salats,
Caga torrons, que són més bons!
That is all I will say on the subject. May I suggest at this point that you hop on over to Google Translate and set it from Catalan to English. That, combined with the words above which I’ve not-so-subtly bolded… and you’ll get the idea of what the Tió de Nadal is all about.
I don’t know about you, but I am definitely decorating my table this year with tiny Tió de Nadals. In between the dinner frenzy and the pumpkin pie round, I’m going to have my family guess what the story is behind this hilarious Catalonian Christmas tradition!
Story by Katherine Ryalen