Christmas is the time of year rampant with too much spending and too much wasting. Let’s stop that, for our budget’s sake and the earth’s benefit. Anyone planning a big Christmas brunch, lunch, or dinner will want some kind of centerpiece for the table. But you don’t have to go out and buy yet another item that will wilt in a week or go into storage for 11 months.
Let’s use the ingredients you’re cooking with in the first place. Several herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables can double as décor. Call it repurposing or upcycling.
It’s ideal: No special trips to craft stores, HomeGoods, or department stores. No need to be all Martha Stewart-ish either. Creatively challenged people are welcome. Time-cramped hosts are encouraged to join, as well as people with shallow pockets.
You know what else that decorates your table almost by itself? Your meal. Get ideas from our Christmas recipe page.
Cranberries are a natural first pick. They’re cheap and come in a vibrant, festive pinkish red that goes with the team colors already (ahem, red and green).
Kristin Bergthold, creator of the Yellow Bliss Road blog in Southern California, is a single adoptive mom who has her hands full. Yet she creates enviable holiday décor combining glam, rustic, and classic elements. She also uses easy ingredients, like these jars filled with Epsom salt, cranberries, and sprigs of spruce.
You can use cranberries in many ways, making it even simpler by just dumping some in a glass candle vase, jar, or anything see-through and sticking a little candle on them. This burlap wrap and twine add more rustic charm, but it’s not necessary if that detail makes you tense up.
Rosemary, sage, and thyme are the most popular herbs that Christmas recipes use, so if you often bemoan having to buy a bunch of expensive herbs only to use a tiny bit and let most of it go bad in the fridge — fret not. Use the rest as decoration on your table. You can even use parsley or cilantro if that’s what you have. Lavender, however, seems especially not very Christmassy.
Tie a bunch of rosemary sprigs with twine for that rustic look, or use red ribbon for a more festive holiday vibe. You can place them in Mason jars, soup cans, vases, coffee tins, whatever you have on hand. It doesn’t have to look perfect. That’s part of the appeal.
Sage, one of the must-have herbs for a traditional Christmas meal, can be gathered in a glass vase or jug for a fragrant, beautiful centerpiece. Bonus points if you gather some pretty leaves from outside, spray-paint them gold, and arrange them along your table runner.
If you don’t have vases or those Mason jars that hipster-wanna-be people use too much (guilty), tie your chosen herb directly against a tall, thick candle and place them on small plates or saucers. You might want to place cut-out squares from brown paper bags on the saucers to make cleanup easier. If you use twine as your tie, it will match anyway.
Whether you can use cloth napkins (do, if you can), or paper, tie up each napkin and place a sprig of whatever herb you have in each one. They don’t have to match or be the same herb.
If you’re not already planning on using cinnamon in your cooking, whoa. Right up there with sprigs of Christmas-tree spruce or fir and cranberries, cinnamon is an obvious decorating choice. You may not have planned on full sticks, but do it. One of the simplest ways to use this warming spice is to gather cinnamon sticks around a candle with twine or ribbon. Some DIY decorators advise attaching the sticks to the candle with a glue gun first. If you have a glue gun already, fine. That will help. If you can get away with not doing that, you might be able to use those cinnamon sticks for future recipes.
You can do the same thing you do with cranberries with star anise. (Whole nutmeg too.) Surround your candles with them. The color may be an earthy brown, but the natural star shape is gorgeous, especially for those who celebrate the religious meaning of Christmas.
Cloves with Oranges
Called pomander balls, one of the easiest things to do when you have a few oranges and some cloves is to stick the latter into the former. Preferably in some sort of design. Place them in a bowl, platter, or tray for your table centerpiece. Add some greenery, some candles, and you’re done.
You’ve already got the oranges down, but you can use so much other fruit. Start with what you have or what’s easy to get and work with that. Some of the most common fruit can be repurposed in less-common ways.
Apples and Pears
Even apples and pears can work if you arrange them along your table runner with some greenery. A long, narrow tray is best, but you can work without it.
Pomegranates are a great fall/winter centerpiece fruit. Pair them with pine cones in a big wooden bowl or with pears or artichokes for a bit of green.
Not just for pies, stuffing, and appetizer nibbles, nuts — in their shells, especially — can also be handy for candle accessories. Pecans, walnuts, and hazelnuts are especially festive for the season, but many kinds will look good. Tie twine or a colored ribbon around the vase.
If you bought more than you can use and you have some particularly pretty specimens, toss it on the table. Centerpiece: Done. Well, not exactly. (Unless you say so.)
OK, this long tray of vegetables maybe be a little much, or hard to pull off. It’s almost like the produce section of a grocery store. If you can make artichoke, asparagus, or green bean candles work, then by all means, go for it. You can always plop a couple artichokes down in the middle of the table, on a platter, tray, or basket amid fruit and leaves.
While twigs of spruce and fir aren’t ingredients in your kitchen most likely (unless you’re some kind of avant garde cook), if you have these at home or easily accessible near home, then of course, use them. Christmas tree sprigs and twigs are as obvious as cranberries, if not more. Lay the sprigs lengthwise along the table and dot them with fruit and candles for a simple centerpiece. Or bunch the twigs in a more compact style with your candles or cranberry-filled glasses.
— Head photo: Julie Blanner
Amy Sowder is a NYC-based food and fitness writer as well as the assistant editor for Chowhound. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She’s trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her never-ending ice cream pursuits. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.