Gardening: Feast your eyes on gold, fire and ice: From traditional holly and ivy to candles, glitter and bowls of melting magnificence, Anna Pavord explains a few simple ways to create luxurious Christmas tables
Glitter is the key. This is no time for restraint, for tasteful bows in baby pink and blue. A Christmas centrepiece needs guts. It needs evergreens and things that shine silver and gold. It needs the warmth of red not the chill of blue.
Candles are vital. The ones that are made from rolled sheets of beeswax look pretty and smell hauntingly of honey, but they do not last long, and will probably give up just as the Christmas pudding is served. Fat candles balance better than thin ones and enhance the sense of plenty that should be your aim. Creamy church candles are excellent and will last for several Christmases.
When thinking of a centrepiece, the first consideration is the background. Will the table have a cloth or not? This has a bearing on the materials you use. Ivy looks magnificent silhouetted against a white tablecloth, but can seem over- heavy against dark polished wood.
Either way, the background needs to be simple. Use a plain cloth rather than a patterned one. White makes for maximum flexibility. The shape of the table also makes a difference to the style of decoration. The following idea works best on a long table.
Make a trellis of evergreen down the centre of the table, arranging it to make three big horizontal diamonds. The simplest way to do this is with long trails of ivy. If you are working in miniature, you can make tiny hedges of box but this takes time.
Cut blocks of Oasis into thinner sections, as long as the block but no more than two inches wide and high. Soak them in water, drain and wrap them in silver foil. Stick small sprigs of box along the top and sides, covering the Oasis completely. Arrange these in lines to make the diamond trellis. The silver paper should stop the damp seeping into the tablecloth.
This is the frame for the decoration. Build up two simple flanking pyramids of satsumas or tangerines in the two outer diamonds, interspersing baubles with the fruit and building it as high as you can. This is a good way to use up those baubles that have lost their hanging hooks.
Put a candle inside the corners of each diamond. You can buy small spiked bases that will hold the candles firm and catch the wax at the same time. To save money, you can invent your own and disguise them with silvered leaves of ivy or clusters of walnuts sprayed silver.
A spray can of paint is your most important ally for Christmas transformations. Silvered walnuts become priceless artefacts, each slight wrinkle of the shell looking as if it has been chiselled by a craftsman. If you are ultra fashionable, you can create distressed walnuts. Spray them first with gold, then give them a quick burst of deep red, but not so much that it stops the gold shining through.
The arrangement for the central diamond can take on whatever character you want. If you fancy something ethereal, spray fine twigs of beech silver and stick them all round a block of Oasis. They won't need water, so you can use the grey stuff designed for dried flowers.
Beech twigs ending in fine, pointed buds can be extremely elegant. Build up a framework that looks good from all angles, making it slightly taller than it is wide. It should fill the space comfortably. If there is no beech to hand, the tops of the tall skeletons of crambe do equally well and are even more cobwebby.
When the basic structure is finished, decorate it with fine trails of silver rain, tiny baubles, frosted poppy heads, small clusters of holly berries, gilded almonds (which you can attach with florist's wire) and whatever else seems suitable. Do not use anything lumpen. Think of gossamer.
A round table calls for different treatment, perhaps one magnificent cornucopia of evergreens, fruit and baubles in the centre with trails leading out towards each place setting. Finish every trail with a candle.
For this to work, you need to raise the bulk of the arrangement off the ground in some way, so that the trails fan out like gently sagging guy ropes. An old- fashioned cake stand is useful for this, or something like the thin-stemmed shallow glass bowls made by Dartington.
Balanced on this you need either a big cone of Oasis or some chicken wire rolled roughly into a cone shape. Keep the arrangement roughly conical, too, but not tight-sided. It should drip and flow rather lavishly. Use yew, holly, bay or Portugal laurel as the main base, then lard it liberally with pieces of silvered ivy.
Fix some sort of talisman at the top of the arrangement. I rather fancy the fat gold Italian cherubs that garden centres have sold over the last few years. Fix it with florist's wire to the armature. Then, as before, decorate the centrepiece with baubles.
For the swags, you will need some long trails of ivy and some rich, stiff ribbon in red and gold. Wind the ribbon loosely around the stems of the ivy trails, taking care not to squash the leaves. Bury one end of each trail in the centrepiece and fix it with wire. Anchor the other ends in front of each place with a weighted candle.
Compared with the extravagant complexity of table decorations of Victorian times, this is kindergarten stuff. John Robson, head gardener to the Cornwallises at Linton Park in Kent, designed a table centrepiece that incorporated two fountains, fed by water pumped up from the kitchen below.
The pipes came through the dining- room floor and up into a new, specially made leaf of the dining table. 'There was more trouble than might be expected in arranging everything properly,' wrote Mr Robson coolly in the Journal of Horticulture. If he didn't expect trouble from that little extravaganza, what on earth did keep the man awake at night?
Ice sculptures were also very much in vogue as centrepieces at this time, and I want to try something of that sort myself this Christmas - not as a centrepiece, but as a container for a sorbet, which we offer to anybody unable to face Christmas pudding. I have been thinking about it for some time and love the idea of transubstantiation, the form gradually disappearing in front of your eyes.
A book called Malcolm Hillier's Christmas (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 12.99) adds another element to the idea. He suggests freezing leaves, flowers and berries in the ice when you are making the container.
You need two different-sized bowls and a selection of items that are likely to show up well in the ice. Put the one bowl inside the other and pour water into the gap between. Weight down the inner bowl with a jam jar of water. Poke the leaves, flowers and berries in between the sides of the bowls. You cannot be too particular as to arrangement.
Tape over the top of the bowls and jar to keep them in position, then freeze the whole assembly. Dismantle it slowly by taking out the jam jar and pouring cold water into the inner bowl. When you can lift this out, stand the outer bowl in cold water until you can slip out the ice bowl inside. Fill it with sorbet, or use it as a container for fresh fruit.
Set it on a salver that will catch the drips and put it on the table surrounded by candles, which will reflect its translucence. Ice and fire. Melting bowl, melting candles. Wilting gardening correspondent. Happy Christmas.
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