It’s one thing to set the table. It’s another to set the scene for a sumptuous feast to remember. Of course, the food is key. But so is the décor, which creates the backdrop and ambiance—and makes the difference between everyday nice and over-the-top fabulous. Colorful and playful? Whimsical and magical? Yes and yes!

We consulted top tastemakers about how to put together the most stunning, festive holiday dinner table.

Here are the top tips:

Know your audience.

Are you hosting the relatives and their children? Or a group of sophisticated adult foodies? Couples or singles? Will you have a grown-ups-only and a kids’ seating area, or one long table for everybody? Fragile crystal isn’t the best idea, for example, if you’re catering to the under-10 crowd, though pewter goblets would work beautifully. Remember whom you are serving and plan accordingly.

Start with the centerpiece.

The table’s central decoration sets the mood. Pick something show-stopping and seasonal, and go on from there. First, choose a color scheme: reds and silver, Zen-green neutrals, or a rich maroon. One unexpected color—white—feels bold and modern. If you’re dining area is rustic, match it with a rustic arrangement. What about a rectangular galvanized tray filled with floating candles or a homemade wooden box planter? For a sophisticated look, create four or five matching arrangements of varied sizes and place them on the table. Let your imagination run wild.

Add candles and lots of them.

Shimmery, inviting, and festive—you want candles to set the tone—lots of candles. Select candles that enhance your design theme (tapers, votives, bark-wrapped, scented, white, colored…), then the holders: gold-tinged votives, for instance, or mason jars, silver candlesticks or large, clear hurricane lanterns.

Draw inspiration from outdoor materials.

Mix flowers with seasonal berries, citrus, and pinecones, evergreen boughs with pomegranates, or set dried fall leaves on moss tucked around candles. Add decorative ornaments for a whimsical feel. Whatever you do, keep the centerpiece low enough so guests can see each other across the table. (Save tall, bold flower arrangements for side tables or as entrance hall pieces.)

Choose China that jibes.

Once you’ve got the centerpiece, select China that complements the décor theme. The holidays are a time to have fun, so feel free to use those candy cane-lined plates. Or use a simple gold-rimmed dinner plate and save the Tannenbaum motifs for the dessert course.

Make the tablecloth work for you.

Use a decorative runner with an interesting pattern or luscious accent color either over a plain tablecloth or on its own extending across the table from end to end. Or, use a tablecloth to either set the color/design tone, such as plaid, or as a neutral backdrop. Consider tapestries, wrapping paper or even a vintage blanket as a tablecloth or runner, or use lace doilies as accents.

Use only fresh.

Go grand! Use fresh flowers, fruit, and foliage—it just feels more elegant, not to mention the enticing aromas that fresh-cut blooms and herbs add. And be generous, too. You want it all to feel decadent and lavish.

Add lovely accents.

Consider ornamental napkin rings, hand-written or creative place cards, mini wreaths or tiny hostess gifts wrapped in shiny gold paper. Flowers or aromatic herbs, such as rosemary or sage, make pretty napkin rings, as do ribbons—or herbs tied on with ribbons.

Mix ‘n match.

Feel free to combine fancy with casual, traditional with modern, wooden bowls with bone china. Let your personality shine through. Choose a few special antique objects to juxtapose your look. Mixing everyday ware with Grandma’s hand-painted dishes sets a celebratory tone that’s not too stuffy.