Holly go lightly: If you want your table to look festive this christmas, just step into your own back garden

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The Independent Online

There are going to be more of them than us at our Christmas feast this year – more children, that is, than proto-grown-ups. Since they outnumber us seven to six it seems fair that the table itself should be organised and decorated in a way that best suits them. No poncy centrepieces of silvered fir cones and red candles. This year, we need something altogether more robust.

I've been thinking we might do a tabletop Christmas bran tub which will cause the kind of mayhem appreciated at least by the five small boys in the party. For this, you need a box without a lid, which you can cover with gold or silver paper. Wrap up enough presents – they shouldn't be too big – for everyone at the table, remembering that the point of this exercise is not the value of the presents, but the way they are delivered. Racing snails in different colours are good. The wind-up kind cost only £1.50 each and can be put to immediate use.

Fix a long piece of thin string to each present. Put them all in the box with the strings hanging – untangled – over the edge. Put something heavy (weights from old-fashioned scales are ideal) in the box as well, which will anchor it in the centre of the table. Cut a piece of silver paper or tissue big enough to stick over the top of the box and pierce as many small holes in the paper as there are presents. Feed the strings through the holes, from the inside out. If presents have to be matched to particular people (it's easier if they are not, given the inevitable last-minute changes in who wants to sit next to whom at the dinner table) fix a name tag on to the end of each string after it is fed through.

When you have pulled through all the strings, fix the paper firmly over the top of the box. Trail each string to the right place setting. Don't let on what the strings are for, or what the box is about. Then at the end of the meal, give the word for everyone to yank on the string next to them. With luck, all will end up with a parcel. On a crowded table, candles and glasses may be a hazard, but if you mind about that, you can clear at least the glasses away before the action starts.

Of course, there are ways of making the whole assembly look more festively decorative and glittering. If there is room, use plastic ties to fix trails of ivy along the strings so that they fan out from the centre like the spokes of a spider's web. An oval table responds very well to this treatment. The best growths to use are the long flat strands of ivy that climb up walls and trees. It lies beautifully on a table. Prise it carefully off its support, using a broad knife and working from the bottom upwards.

The ivy can be left plain, dark green or sprayed silver. I rather favour the green, provided there is plenty of silver elsewhere. If you are using a plain white cloth (we use heavy old French linen sheets for Christmas tablecloths) you can set up the box and lines, attach the ivy in situ, and then scatter the whole table with the small silver stars that you buy in packets. Or if ivy is hard to come by, clip tinsel along the strings to bring glitter to the table.

The box itself can be surrounded by decoration, but any extras should stay low, so they do not get in the way of the strings when they are pulled. Think about this when you are choosing the box. If you want to dress things up, make yourself a kind of matrix by rolling chicken wire into a loose sausage, then bending the two ends to fit round the base of the box.

You've then got something firm to hold whatever you want to use: holly, box, yew, silvered ivy, sprays of rose hips, silvered heads of allium, silvered cow parsley or fennel, silvered seedheads of regale lilies, bright red twigs from dogwoods such as Cornus alba 'Elegantissima'. I like real, living stuff for decoration and once you start roaming round your garden with that in mind, it's astonishing how many things you can gather.

Bay, rosemary, variegated myrtle (Luma apiculata 'Glanleam Gold'), silvered twigs of hazel – their catkins are already an inch long – phillyrea, small sprays of silvered larch cones, all these are good. So are crab apples. Spear them on a skewer or a length of florist's wire to fix them into your chicken wire matrix. The seed pods of the stinking iris or gladwyn (Iris foetidissima) also work well in an arrangement of this sort. The sealing wax berries are at their showiest now.

But if you don't have a garden, or are the kind of gardener that gazes out in winter on the blackening stumps of banana palms swathed in plastic, then buy a big box of oranges, lemons or satsumas and pile those round the box, mixed up with baubles that have lost their strings and can't be used on the Christmas tree. Sprigs of bay stuck in between look very much like the oranges' own foliage. It's best to pick greenery a little while before you want to use it, or the Christmas table will be alive with woodlice and small spiders, making determined assaults on the brandy butter. On the other hand, the children will love that. Our gang spend days making elaborate homes for woodlice in old biscuit tins. They even give them names.

There's always a stage in the countdown to Christmas, usually about now, less than a week before lift-off, when you start to chuck out some of the plans that seemed such a good idea two weeks ago. Perhaps, after all, the downstairs loo does not need to be converted into a Christmas crib. Perhaps it will be cranberry sauce again with the turkey, rather than the chestnut and ginger relish marinated in a soupçon of something unobtainable at Waitrose.

But Christmas must have a centrepiece, a focus and for me it's always the feast: turkey, bacon rolls, sausagemeat, roast potatoes, parsnip purée, Brussels sprouts. Their draconian mothers have ensured that each child will finish its sprouts without fuss. They know now there's no point fighting on that front. All can do a good parody of that raised parental finger and the stern "Just one".

The other essential on the table is lots of candles, so lay in plenty of them, all colours, all dimensions. Night lights are invaluable, as they are enclosed in their own aluminium holders; being so squat, they do not wobble or fall about. Children, natural pyromaniacs, will not be able to resist feeding bits of greenery into the candle flames in the longueurs that occur between helpings. While there are still adults around, it is a harmless enough occupation. If it gets out of hand, just remember that soda siphons work on much the same principle as fire extinguishers.

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