There’s something special about gathering around the table during the holiday season. The mood feels lighter, warmer, as we come together with the promise of good food and even better spirits. We pass the time with laughs and laden dishes—some of which are staples, and others bearing witness to someone trying a new recipe for the first time.
In the middle of it all, at the heart of our tables is the centerpiece, whether it’s eye-catching glass bulbs that reflect the light, crystal pieces passed down through the generations, or decorative family heirlooms which would be innocuous to anyone else. Our centerpieces are special, if not always recognized as such. Each tells a story in its own way of the house around them and the families who make it a home.
Home is where the heart is—it isn’t just a cliché. Home is where we gather, making four walls ours. Interior designer Sarabeth McElhaney helps encapsulate that. The mother of two (Fox, 6, and Charlie, 2) works closely with her clients to highlight and promote functionality in their homes, putting a creative twist on décor we may often overlook or on the usuals to which we default.
“At the holidays, the food is almost always the same,” McElhaney says of the dishes she had growing up. Reflecting back on family photos, it’s easy to think about how people have changed over the years, but it’s the backgrounds that stand out to her. “I think about the houses at the time: colors, wallpaper, even the carpet.” The designs stand out in holiday memories, too. While the family may grow and a new recipe might be introduced, she notes the gentle way the styles of homes change through the years.
At Christmas, we often think of red, green, and gold. McElhaney? This year she’s opting to blend together gray, mustard, olive, and clay, a play on the traditional scheme with hues that are removed just enough to make it unique. Is it traditional? No, but it works for her home, and she is enamored by the colors.
McElhaney says of decorating and crafting centerpieces. “Conventional color schemes don’t always feel like you, so it’s best to choose ones that fit in your home and that you find yourself drawn to.”
When it comes to offering her clients and audience advice, McElhaney often defers to personal preference. “Decorate for yourself. I was decorating based on what I thought my followers wanted to see. Once I started doing it in different styles and what I liked, I found myself more comfortable.”
McElhaney has always dabbled in design and decoration, first in her native Western New York, then in Southern California for a few years before moving back home. It was in 2020 when she was asked if her Buffalo home had been staged during the selling process that the gears truly began whirring. She’s been in the business of interior design ever since.
For those looking to put together their own centerpieces for the holidays (or year-round), McElhaney recommends starting with meaningful pieces, whether they’re items at home or spotted walking down the aisle that feel right or speak to you. Keep in mind a color scheme, too: “Use two to three colors so that it’s not overwhelming, but keep it true to you,” McElhaney says. “Mix textures, patterns, metals and woods!”
McElhaney also recommends starting with a couple items for inspiration, including family pieces, something thrifted, or a few pieces from the store. You might have an idea but no real plan; let things happen organically with whatever you find more appealing and let it snowball from there.
And don’t limit the centerpiece to only the main dining table, either. A few articles can add a pop of festivities and a focal point on a coffee table, a console, or entryway table, to name a few.
“I usually mix a variety of items instead of a pulled together piece,” McElhaney says, reflecting on her last house that was more farmhouse style and included a table runner. For Thanksgiving one year her son, Fox, helped set the table—even when that meant moving around some things mom had already set into place—and later earned her approval. “Fox likes being part of things and the ideas. He actually re-envisioned one centerpiece by taking things off and put them back in different spots.”
Incorporating different heights is something she says truly helped get her out of a slump one year when a centerpiece just didn’t feel right. She elevated the piece by turning a bread bowl upside down. A few taller items kept the set interesting, and she suggests trying out different platforms and adding in a few tall flowers or votive candles for some extra flair.
While piecing together store-bought or thrifted items, a family heirloom can serve as the focal point of the centerpiece, as well. A few special or nostalgic pieces passed down through the years or something that holds a significant value to you personally may help bring together a more meaningful piece. For McElhaney in particular, it was a toolbox that belonged to her grandfather, a table of her grandmother’s made by her father, and smaller pieces like her grandparents’ serve ware and dinnerware that exemplified her own unique signature style.
We all have our own items that have special occasions tied to them, whether it’s the crystal we toast one another with or the rocking chair from our great-grandparents we read holiday stories from. The holidays are for us, just as they are for one another. “Use items that mean something to you,” McElhaney says. Better get decorating. Dinner is almost done.
Sarabeth McElhaney is a WNY native and an interior designer for an entire network of clients as far away as Dublin, Ireland. She and her two boys, Fox and Charlie, reside in Rochester, NY. IG: @thefebruaryfox