The spirit of the holiday season is perhaps best evoked at the dinner or buffet table. Dressed in its finest china, crystal, flatware and cloths, the table beckons guests to celebrate.
But it's not just the good china and the good times that guests will remember. It's the extra-special touch, the jewel that makes the table sparkle, whether it's a fabulous centerpiece, an opulent table runner, distinctive candleholders, or pretty dessert plates that can turn ho-hum to magic. A single table-top accessory can make a stunning statement. So why not indulge yourself with something new for your table? You can share this gift to yourself with your family and friends, not only now, but year-round.
We usually associate holiday shopping with chaos and waiting in long lines to make selections and purchases. But there needn't be any hassle. Unusual, well-designed accessories for the table can be found without bucking the holiday crowds in department stores. It's easy when you shop by mail.
Although there are hundreds of mail-order catalogs, I especially like six whose focus is the home. They are filled with inspiring ideas and objects that are fresh-looking, colorful, amusing and opulent.
*There's the Pottery Barn, whose Manhattan-based shop is a magnet for those who appreciate design and quality.
*Gump's, a San Francisco store that dates to 1861, boasts "the rare, unique and imaginative"; last year Gump's introduced Interior Vignettes, a home-oriented version of its standard catalog.
*NM At Home, Neiman Marcus' specialty mail-order vehicle, often features exclusives.
*The catalog from the Winterthur Museum includes reproductions from the museum's collection of American decorative arts.
*The Hemmeter Collection focuses on handcrafted, one-of-a-kind exclusives from such diverse origins as Burma, Italy, Bali and Zimbabwe.
*Spiegel devotes about half its full-sized mail-order book to products for the home. Its home fashions staff combs international markets especially for unusual accessories.
Here are some suggestions, which range in price from $9.50 to $150.
Supplement your table linens. Table runners are again in vogue. Try a glittering fabric runner, threaded with gold wires and tiny iridescent pearls, for a lavish accent. The 72-inch-long by 14 3/4 -inch-wide runner also is trimmed with cream-colored detachable tassels at each end. It's $140 from Gump's Interior Vignettes.
Tapestry also is a lovely addition to the table top, as it can complement a variety of colors in your room and suits both traditional and modern decor. Many tapestry patterns feature fruit themes, particularly appropriate for our bountiful holiday tables.
One rich example is a woven cotton-blend tapestry runner patterned with bouquets of pomegranates and peaches entwined with grapes, berries and pears. The Italian-made runner, which measures 68 inches long and 12 1/2 inches wide, is lined and edged with golden cord and fringed ends, and is $135
Some welcome bugs
While you're dressing your table, think about "jewelry" for your napkins. Here's an opportunity for a smattering of luxury, folksiness or whimsy -- in short, conversation pieces.
We found some bugs, for example, that we wouldn't shoo from our table. Pottery Barn describes its gold bug napkin rings as "unlifelike." The twisted wire shapes, painted a gleaming gold, include a caterpillar, butterfly, ladybug and dragonfly. The set of four, one each, is $24.
Replace your plain glass water pitcher with something more decorative. Gump's Interior Vignettes features a lovely majolica pitcher ($145) copied from a 19th-century French piece.
Or purchase a new set of dessert or salad plates. Some hand-decorated porcelain dessert plates are so like works of art that you might want to display them year-round. A set of six hand-decorated Limoges porcelain plates from Gump's ($130) has fluted edges and surfaces ablaze with the colors of luscious ripened fruit, each a different still life.
All in candlelight
Add a glow to your room with candles. No matter how sophisticated your lighting is, nothing beats the romance of candles.
One graceful option is a pair of 10-inch ceramic candlesticks whose flared bases and enamel painting in a bold swirl design reflect the influence of art-deco style. The candlesticks are $65 from the Hemmeter Collection.
Focus on the center of your table. Combine candles with fruit or flowers for a smashing centerpiece. The candle epergne, for example, an 18th-century French invention, is a traditional way of presenting fruits and sweets in the halo of candlelight.
One classy and exquisite interpretation of the epergne has a 12-inch-tall, four-footed bronze finished brass base that holds two pairs of candles and cradles an etched crystal bowl to fill with fruit or flowers. It's $195 from Gump's.
However you choose to accessorize your table top, your guests will appreciate the gesture of warmth. Along with your edible creations, they'll savor your artistry at the table. You might even think of each addition as a golden thread embroidered into a rich tapestry that becomes a family tradition.
*Gump's, 1707 Falcon Drive, Suite 102, Desoto, Texas 75115; (800) 284-8677.
*The Hemmeter Collection, 711 E. Gardena Blvd., Gardena, Calif. 90248; (800) 955-4142.
*NM at Home, Neiman Marcus, P.O. Box 2968, Dallas, Texas 75221-2968; (800) 825-8000.
*Pottery Barn, P.O. Box 7044, San Francisco, Calif. 94120-7044; (800) 922-5507.
*Spiegel, P.O. Box 6340, Chicago, Ill. 60680; (800) 345-4500.
*Winterthur Museum & Gardens, Winterthur, Del. 19735; (800) 767-0500.
) Universal Press Syndicate