7 Rules for Thanksgiving Entertaining

Marc Eliot of event design company Swoop shares his tips and tricks for creating memorable Thanksgiving events.

By Claire Hoffman November 16, 2017, 7:15 AM EST

Photo: Kevin Sturman

Marc Eliot is the founder and chief creative officer of Swoop, a full-service agency in New York that provides design and event production for weddings, nonprofit galas, and private social events. Swoop serves as the in-house design company for Cipriani; other clients include the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the American Heart Association, and celebrities Leonardo DiCaprio and Sheryl Crow. Here are his ideas for making warm, memorable, and engaging Thanksgiving events, whether for an in-office gathering or a dinner with family and friends.

1. Let everyone know who’s who.
Non-traditional seating cards are festive and fun. Consider turkey-shaped cookies with the guests’ names, or chocolate turkeys with name collars. If you have several new guests joining you this year, create tent cards with double-sided printing, so people can see the names of those sitting across the table.

2. Create a table arrangement that promotes mingling and the occasional relocation between courses.
If you are hosting a large gathering, it’s important to create a sense of community and intimacy with guests. Try a horseshoe-shape dinner table, so that every guest has a great sight line with ample space to play musical chairs. It’s fun to switch up dinner companions during an extended meal.

3. Don’t let the decor overwhelm the food.
It’s important that decor does not intrude, so lush, fall-theme arrangements with seasonal blooms and produce including gourds, berries, and foliage are ideal. Keep your vessels low so as not to intrude with conversation or passing of food.

4. Use seasonally appropriate color palettes.
Autumn brings an abundance of seasonal pleasures, and I love the vibrant colors and textures in foliage and florals. For my Thanksgiving table, I begin designing in the traditional saturated color spectrum of the season, including deep-orange roses, burgundy calla lilies, and scarlet or rust-red amaranthus, then add in texture with round star scabiosa, antique hydrangea, a (bright) pop of green and purple hellebore, and variegated vanda orchids. Include some beautiful greens, such as seeded eucalyptus, natural foliage branches, or fuzzy foxtail grass. For a finishing touch, tuck long sprigs of rosemary into the display, which will lend an aromatic note.

For a base container, I like to obscure stems in glass squares or rounds by filling them with fresh (raw) cranberries or kumquats to act as a natural oasis and bring bright pops of color.

Then ground the design with a beautiful linen or runner in crushed burnt-orange velvet or chocolate-brown taffeta. As always, include lots and lots of candlelight on your tabletop.

Keep your vessels low so as not to intrude with conversation or passing of food. 

5. Save the taller floral arrangements for the entrance.
For taller arrangements on a sideboard or entryway, go seasonal with chrysanthemums, which on their own can look stiff, but come to life with an element of drama surrounded by cheerful boughs of fall foliage, such as orange winterberry or burning bush. If you have a great local nursery, cornstalks and hay bales set the mood as guests enter, with large full-blossomed potted mums framing these elements. Find a carpet remnant or mat in a bright orange to greet your guests in a cheerful manner.

6. Ask guests to bring their favorite dish.
Thanksgiving dinner should feel personal, and many people have a favorite or traditional dish they love. Encourage guests to bring a dish or two if they like, whether it's Campbell's string bean and onion casserole or a less typical dish such as stuffing fried rice. A potluck meal is a wonderful opportunity for everyone to try new things and feel at home.

7. Make a “thankful tree.”
Remember and share why we’re around the table. It begins with a tree branch taken from a tree with fall leaves. Each guest has a small pencil and a slip of paper at their seat that is looped with a ribbon. Ask everyone to write what they are thankful for, and place the papers in a small vessel that you then pass around the table. The “thanksgivings” are then hung one by one on the branches of the tree, to be shared before dessert. It’s a joy, and often very funny, to read everyone’s thoughts and musings.

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