Why Southern Grandmothers Don't Need an Occasion to Set the Table

Nothing brightens the everyday quite like opening up the china cabinet.

I can't remember ever arriving at my grandmother Hazel's home in Ringgold, Virginia, and not seeing a beautifully dressed table in her dining room. After our initial hugs and hellos, she'd lead my sister and me in to see her latest entertaining masterpiece. And in true Southern fashion, every detail had a story. The linens were often embroidered by a dear friend or family member, that month's china pattern would inspire her to share a memory of my great grandmother, and the glasses might be on loan from her sister who lives next door. Her tables were usually centered around a theme and no holiday was too small to take center stage.

Like many Southerners with a little experience under their belts, she didn't shudder at the unexpected ring of her door bell. Friends, family, and neighbors were always welcome to sit down for a chat, and usually invited to stay for dinner, too. Whether or not you plan to keep your china out seven days a week, here are a few lessons I think we can all learn from my family's white-haired matriarch:

White and Gold China on Teal and Rose Table Cloth for Thanksgiving
If your special occasion china is simple like the one here, that means you have an unlimited amount of choices when it comes to setting the table. We decided to go with bold teal and rose accent colors instead of the traditional autumn-themed accents. Break Out the Jewel TonesWhile there's no changing the formality of these two heirlooms—Haviland's Silver Anniversary fine china and Gorham's Strasbourg silver (both available from replacements.com)— you can infuse modern energy onto the table with colorful linens. The bright block-printed tablecloth (made of Schuyler Samperton's Woodley in Poppy) pushes the palette toward teal, deep rose, and straw rather than browns and golds. Balance Fine and FunThe trick to keeping fancy tables from feeling fussy is compromise. The napkins may be starched, but we chose dusty blue from Sferra Fine Linens rather than pure white. Low, amber-colored water glasses from Hawkins New York counter the dressiness of bell-shaped goblets (Blanco Wine Glass; cb2.com). Perforated votive holders from ABC Carpet & Home and the Sunday Shop's Rope Taper Candles in Terrain brass candlesticks create flickering light in an offbeat way.  Mixing high tapers and low votives provides the optimal candle glow. Calligraphed place cards rest in rattan holders that could easily appear on a casual spring table. Arrange Flowers a Little MessierStart out with two similar—but not identical—vases to help create an effortless, pulled-straight-from-the-cabinet effect. Fill each of the vessels with a combination of white roses and dried hydrangeas to set a calm, neutral tone that won't compete with the vibrant patterned tablecloth. Then give a little extra texture to the two arrangements with a few scabiosas and berry clippings. Make sure the berries are long enough to drape loosely over the sides to achieve a more dramatic effect. Hector Manuel Sanchez; Produced: Page Mullins

In the South, you never know who might stop by for a visit

Drop-in visits are a common occurrence in the South, especially around the holiday season. Rather than driving up your heart-rate with last-minute preparations, find little ways that make you feel ready for guests. A styled dining room gave my grandmother's entire home a festive glow, but keeping a two-ingredient appetizer or house cocktail on hand might be more your style. When Susan from bible study brings a surcie to your front door, you'll be prepared to welcome her with open (relaxed!) arms.

From the linens to the crystal, our homewares are often sentimental

In this region, we start collecting entertaining staples at a young age. Whether you received a single piece of silver for every birthday since you've been born or a great aunt gifted you a beloved family tureen as a graduation present, our most precious heirlooms have stories worth more than their price tags. No matter the size or the value, these treasures are often the best conversation starters for any meal. Small talk isn't necessary when a passed-down china pattern inspires fits of laughter over party mishaps from years gone by.

Grandmothers' wisdom dictates that you don't wait for a special occasion to use your finest

Life's too short to leave your crystal in the cabinet collecting dust. Yes, these heirlooms are special and the potential for chips and cracks might prevent you from pulling them out on a weekly basis. But isn't the thought of a lifetime locked away even worse? Whether it's every family birthday, monthly anniversaries, or Friday night suppers, choose regular occasions to pull out your best tableware. Enlist a loved one to help with proper cleaning and storage techniques at the end of the night (dishes were always my grandfather's responsibility) and take off some of the pressure of keeping these sets in pristine condition. The more you use your punch bowl, the more stories you'll have to share as you use it in the years ahead.

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