How to style Christmas lunch in the garden

After 25 years of celebrating sweltering Christmas Days in their Gold Coast pool or inside in the air conditioning, this holiday season Sandy and Tim Palmer are planning an al fresco lunch in their new home in Tenterfield, NSW.

The historic town sits on the New England Tableland, 850m above sea level, so the weather is likely to be cooler and the heat dry rather than humid at Christmas. Sandy said they’ve already made plans to ensure they don’t miss out on a favourite tradition – seafood.

“Tenterfield actually has a seafood truck that comes in once a week so we’re pretty lucky, but it’s only 300km to the Gold Coast so we could do a quick trip with the esky or ask the family to bring it. We do like our prawns!” Sandy said.

The Palmers decided on a tree change to experience the four seasons of the year and ended up on a three-acre former apple orchard, complete with cottage garden and glasshouse, as well as a large packing shed which they’ve renovated.

“We’re hoping to set the table out under a big tree but we’re in a windy part of town so lunch may be in the apple shed or even the glasshouse if it’s cool, and I’ll style it in a rustic theme,” Sandy, a furniture restorer and antiques dealer, said.

“I’m thinking lots of white china, a beautiful big paper lantern, mini Christmas trees and lots of organic fabrics like jute and hessian. I had a collection of really cool table legs and asked Tim to cut them to different lengths to make unique candle holders – with tea lights on them, they look amazing.

“I also made a beautiful wreath out of a monkey vine, so I’ll put some blossoms in that and hang it on a tree or wall. The idea is to keep it simple and no fuss.”

How to style Christmas lunch in the garden:

Two men and two women enjoy lunch at an outdoor table
Tip 1: Choose your dining space

Does your outdoor area have enough space for your guests? Ideally you should be entertaining in a covered space where the food can be kept relatively cool and your guests can stay out of direct sunlight. Think about a trellised area or the verandah, or if shade is lacking, consider installing a sail or putting up a few canvas umbrellas. If the table is under a tree, look up – nobody wants berry stains from a lillipilli tree or a deposit from a passing bird on the tablecloth. And take the hassle out of serving drinks by setting up a drinks cart next to the dining table, so that the guests can serve themselves and all you need to do is top up the ice.

Christmas food and drinks set up on an outdoor table
Tip 2: Keep decorations simple

If you’re entertaining outdoors, let the charm of your summer garden speak for itself and keep table decorations simple with a classic linen tablecloth, a native flower arrangement or some pretty blooms in a bowl, and a few baubles or a garland hung nearby. Use tablecloth weights if it’s a breezy day. Hang a string of lights around the garden for later in the evening and use large candles as centrepieces (keeping them well out of the way of children and anything flammable). Use real linens and table settings to make it a special meal. Feel free to pair your crisp white plates with vintage florals or even modern stripes for a relaxed vibe.

Baked ham and side dishes set up on an outdoor table
Tip 3: Simplify the menu and prep beforehand

Christmas dishes tend to be quick to cook (like barbecued seafood) or served cold (like turkey, ham, salads). Aim for a menu that can be pre-prepared and doesn’t require too much time in the kitchen, and you can always ask guests to bring a contribution. If you want to cook, do it on a barbecue so that you’re not perspiring over a hot oven while your guests are chilling outside. Prepare as much as you can ahead of time to minimise tasks on the day, for example, make dressings and sauces, clean and chop veggies and salads, and bake the pavlova shell or chill the trifle.

Two couples saying goodbye to each other goodbye outside a brown
                                    brick house
Tip 4: Keep it comfortable

Take your guests for a stroll around the garden between courses, to avoid that overstuffed feeling after lunch. Providing pillows or extra cushioning to make the outdoor furniture even more comfortable will encourage guests to linger around the table post-meal. Draping a shawl or light blanket over the back of each chair will also ensure that your guests stay comfortable throughout the evening. Another option is a portable outdoor fire pit that everyone can sit around late into the night. If it stays warm, make sure you have a few pedestal fans on extension leads to blow a cooling breeze, or be prepared to move everyone inside to an air conditioned lounge room to continue the celebration.

Christmas set up on an outdoor table
Tip 5: Don’t forget about the bugs

Make sure you keep the bugs at bay during your Christmas lunch by having a personal insect repellent spray handy for your guests, and strategically placing a few citronella candles on the table. If you want a more organic approach, consider using insect-repelling herbs like lavender and mint in your table design.