Holly, like other evergreens, breathes life into a snowy landscape. With its glossy, rich green foliage and ruby berries that dot the shrub like ornaments, its brilliance in the winter garden can't be matched. The red and green palette and the familiar jagged leaf shape have been a popular holiday motif since ancient Roman times.
The plant started out as a pagan symbol sacred to Saturn. At the Saturnalia festival, Romans gave one another holly wreaths. Centuries later, early Christians decorated their homes with holly to avoid being persecuted. Eventually, holly became associated with Christmas. In fact, Christmas trees in pre-Victorian times were holly bushes.
And so it is that holly, as a central design or accent, remains a favorite on seasonal plates.
People love seasonal dinnerware because it captures the spirit of the holidays. Many patterns evoke childhood memories, with simple images such as angels, snowflakes, snowmen, Santa, Christmas trees or holly, and they add instant flourish to the table.
Some patterns, such as Spode's "Christmas Tree," which celebrates its 66th anniversary this year, are collectibles. The image has the look of an old-fashioned etching. Another pattern that has become a classic is Lenox's "Holiday," elegant ivory china with a slender gold border framing a band of holly and berries.
From dressy to casual, there's plenty from which to choose, and each year there are new interpretations of familiar themes.
Just as a new ornament or two may be an irresistible addition to family favorites on the tree, occasional au courant serving pieces may refresh the holiday table. Festive new bowls, platters and soup tureens may blend with what you already have and lend a fashionable accent.
How you integrate seasonal dinnerware can be influenced by the table's backdrop. A crisp white tablecloth offers the most engaging possibilities, regardless of whether the dinnerware is a solid color or has a pattern. Linen, a tone-on-tone damask or fabric with a sheen or texture -- even gold or silver threads woven in -- set off most pieces beautifully and quietly, without distracting from dinnerware or the meal. For a bolder look, try drawing out a solid color from patterned plates.
Red on white has the same arresting effect as a cardinal in the snow. Simple red dishes can be used alone or teamed with white plates for great effect.
One of the most attractive new designs from manufacturer Arthur Court is vivid red stoneware embellished with pewter rope trim and garnished with holly leaves. It's a knockout because of its simplicity and unorthodox teaming of materials. Echoing the silvery trim with candlesticks or ornaments in a centerpiece is just the right dress-up touch.
Red glass is another option, integrated as plates, glassware, candlesticks or hurricane lamps. Glass-bead accessories such as napkin rings or garlands that can be woven into chandeliers punctuate the red on the table.
Patterned glass is all the more intriguing because of its translucent quality. This year, the manufacturer Vietri used vibrant red glass as a canvas for painted motifs that include lush pine, holly and berry trees. Salad-dessert plates, serving bowls and platters add punch to the table.
The beauty of hand-painted plates underscores just how artistic some in the genre have become. Some designs have the appeal of paintings and often are hung on the wall as holiday decor.
Gien, a French manufacturer, is known for such artistry, varying designs so that each of the pieces in a five-piece place setting is a little different. One of its patterns, "Le Houx (Holly)," features an asymmetrical arrangement of holly hugging one side of the saucer; the cup is cradled in the design. The salad-dessert and bread-and-butter plates are entirely blanketed in holly.
Although red and green still dominate the holiday palette, the greens now cover a much broader range, from deep to light tones, some more a shade of apple or sage. Villeroy and Boch's "Joy Noel," for example, is soft, as are the reds on its holly design.
If purchased as a place setting, the holly-bordered scalloped plate, which has red trim, is teamed with a salad plate that features tone-on-tone green stripes, broken up with a few reds, and a saucer whose holly sprigs frame the nicely shaped cup. There's also a plaid mug whose handle is decorated with a sprig of raised holly, which lends texture.
And the borders that punctuate "Christopher's Tree," a design for the table by Christopher Radko, who is known for his exuberant, sparkling keepsake ornaments and nutcrackers, are a pale green. Among the pieces in the collection, manufactured by the Zrike Co., there's an oval platter, covered casserole, cookie jar, cake plate with server and a large square platter with four square coasterlike holders for pillar candles.
Square shapes also update the table's look. So does unexpected color. An unusual take on tradition is Waverly's "Holiday Bouquet," also by Zrike. A black border sets off the holly that circles the plate, and the companion salad-dessert plate has a garland of holly as a border on white. Placed on an ebony table, it's a strong setting.
Whatever your signature for entertaining -- perhaps an eclectic approach to setting the holiday table, with no two patterns alike, or a theme with alternating patterns or distinctive serving pieces -- your attention to detail will make family and friends feel welcome as they toast the season and enjoy the repast.
Gien, available through www.tableideas.com.
Arthur Court, through Horchow: 800-456-7000 or www.horchow.com.
Lenox: 800-635-3669 or www.lenox.com.
Spode, through Royal China and Porcelain Inc.: 800-257-7189 or www.spode.co.uk.
Vietri: 800-277-5933 or www.vietri.com.
Villeroy and Boch: 800-845-5376 or www.villeroyboch.com.
The Zrike Co.: 201-651-5158 or www.zrike.com.