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What You Need to Entertain During the Holidays

By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008

The day and time are set, and the menu is planned. Now it's time to focus on the basics. We asked local experts for their thoughts on household essentials for holiday entertaining. If your supply is low, after-season sales are great for stocking up.

Our experts

Sue Bluford, floral designer and party organizer; Susan Gage, caterer; Aimee Dominick, event planner

Folding Chairs

Have at least six on hand, our experts say, but only if you have a place to keep them. "If you have room to store them without creating clutter, then it always pays," Bluford says. Renting is another option.

Where to shop: Ballard Designs, Ikea, Target.

All-Purpose Wineglasses

In addition to crystal glasses, Dominick stocks cases of all-purpose, dishwasher-safe stemmed glasses from Bed, Bath and Beyond. They're less expensive and provide less worry. "I don't feel badly if someone breaks one, and I can just throw them in the dishwasher at the end of the night."

You'll want at least two glasses per person, one for cocktails and one for setting the table. And don't worry about having a matched set. "Using mixed glassware is just charming," Gage says. "And breaking one isn't going to ruin your set."

Where to shop: CB2, Crate and Barrel outlet, Ikea, Pier 1 Imports.

Cocktail Napkins

The choice was unanimous: white hemstitched linen. "It's a nice, crisp, fresh look, which you can dress up with a monogram," Bluford says. "The more you use them and wash them, the better they get." (For dinner napkins, Gage suggests 20-inch square white cotton napkins that can be bleached.)

Where to shop: Bloomingdale's, Crate and Barrel, Neiman Marcus, specialty linen shops.

Place Mats And Runners

Our panel prefers these in place of full tablecloths. The look is "lighter, airier, homier and gives a good reflection," Gage says. They are a younger, less traditional look, Dominick says, "and you're not covering the table that you probably just spent a fortune on."

Where to shop: Crate and Barrel, department stores, specialty linen shops.

Candles

Our experts prefer to mix and match shapes and sizes to keep things interesting (round, square, tapers, pillars, votives). Bluford prefers thick candles, Gage likes filling a hurricane lamp with acorns, cranberries or kumquats and a pillar candle, and Dominick likes tapers for "the height and because they put a nice light on people's faces." And all agree: Keep them unscented.

Where to shop: CB2, Ikea, Michaels, Pier 1 Imports, Target.

Flowers

Simple is better. "Get loads of one type of flower," Bluford recommends. "Don't try to mix and match and arrange. The more of one type, the greater the impact." But you don't always have to use flowers, Gage says, especially during the holidays. "You can fill a pedestal bowl with pomegranates, apples, pears, cranberries or nuts in their shells, and all of that stuff lasts a really long time." Another option: Dress your table with pine cones, stones or leaves.

Where to shop: Costco, nurseries, grocery stores, your back yard.

Cake Plates And Plate Stands

"Everyone should have one really fabulous cake plate," Bluford says. They provide height on a table and make room for more food. Gage loves three-tiered plate stands. "You can put desserts on them, cupcakes, charcuterie. There's no end to what you can do. And you can change the plates for a different look, from elegant to country."

Where to shop: Crate and Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, flea markets.

Platters

Stock up on platters after the season when they typically go on sale, Dominick says. "An interesting serving piece can make even a frozen dessert look really special." Gage recommends having at least one platter to serve cheese on. "There are so many great cheeses around, and it's not something that requires a lot of work."

Where to shop: Department and chain store clearance sales, flea markets.

Bar Basics

A glass water pitcher is a nice basic for serving anything from water to premixed cocktails, Bluford says. Also a good idea: "a large container that you can use to make a self-service bar out of," Dominick says. This can be a monogrammed silver tub or a galvanized metal bucket. Lastly, she says, always have a few bottles of red and white wine around, as well as chilled champagne. "You never know when there's going to be something to celebrate."

Where to shop: Target, Williams-Sonoma, flea markets.

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