Thanksgiving began as an expression of gratitude for the harvest -- so what better decorations for your feast table than fruits, autumn vegetables and other natural elements of the season?Squash candles

Candles make holiday meals feel warm and festive. For Thanksgiving, make your own squash-shaped candles formed inside real squashes. You'll need several acorn squashes, a sharp knife, a melon baller, a spoon, wax or old candles (to melt down), metal wick tabs and wicking (available at crafts stores).

Start by slicing off the stem and enough of the top of a squash to make a flat opening large enough to fit your hand inside. Remove the seeds and pulp, then scoop out remaining pulp using a melon baller. Work from top to bottom, following the contours of the squash, to form hollowed-out grooves. Smooth the lines between the grooves with the back of a spoon.

Next, melt wax in a double boiler or a metal bowl that is set over but not touching a pot of boiling water, until a candy thermometer registers 180 degrees Fahrenheit. As the wax is heating, cut a piece of wicking 3 inches longer than the height of the squash, and attach a metal wick tab to one end of it.

Carefully pour the hot wax into the squash. (If necessary, steady the squash in a wide-mouthed glass.) Then, holding the top of the wick, drop the metal tab into the squash; it will sink to the bottom. Trim the wick 2 to 3 inches above the surface of the wax. Hold it upright until the wax is firm enough to keep it in place, or wrap it around a pencil and set the pencil across the top of the squash.

Let the wax sit until it is solid and the squash is cool to the touch, four to five hours. (If the center sinks during cooling, fill with more hot wax.)

When cool, the squash skin should peel away easily, leaving a matte finish on the candle. To even out the bottom of the candle, carve it with a knife, or heat a knife and rub it along the bottom.

Fruit centerpieces

To make a dramatic decoration for a table, mantel or sideboard, fill urns or footed compotes with pyramids of fresh fruit. To make a fruit pyramid, trim the top off a Styrofoam cone (available at craft stores), then attach small,, firm fruits such as apples, pears, lemons and limes, to the Styrofoam with toothpicks, starting at the base and working your way to the top in a circular or spiral pattern. (To prevent any hint of white background from showing through, you can spray-paint the Styrofoam cone dark green before you attach the fruits.)

Fill in gaps between the fruits with moss, pine sprigs, leaves or flowers, then set the finished pyramid into the vessel of your choice.

Pressed-leaf place mats

Real autumn leaves make beautiful embellishments for place mats, and kids will love to help out with this project by picking out the leaves and arranging them in patterns. You'll need to press the leaves in advance by placing them in a telephone book and weighing it down with other heavy books; let the leaves dry for at least a week. (Or you can buy preserved leaves, which you'll find at crafts stores.)

For each place mat, cut a 12-by-15-inch rectangle of medium-weight fabric, then cut two pieces of clear iron-on flexible vinyl (available at fabric stores) slightly larger than the fabric. Arrange the leaves on the fabric, avoiding leaves with thick stems, which can poke through.

Peel the backing from a vinyl sheet, place it sticky-side down over the leaves on the fabric, and smooth it out with your hand. Place a sheet of protective paper (usually included with the iron-on vinyl; if not, use kraft paper) shiny-side down on top of the vinyl, and iron it for 6 to 8 seconds. Turn the mat over, and iron for 4 more seconds. Repeat the iron-on process with the second side, and trim the edges.

Autumnal place cards

Place cards are useful not just for directing guests to their seats; they help set the tone for the feast to come.

Write the names of your guests on pretty paper tags, and use cord or narrow ribbon to attach each tag to the stem of a pinecone, acorn, sweet-gum-tree spur, gourd, miniature pumpkin, small apple or pear.

Or write names in icing on cookies shaped like leaves or pumpkins. Try writing directly on real autumn leaves with a metallic pen. You can also tuck a small bundle of wheat cinched with a cord and name tag into folded napkins.

Cranberry accents

The deep-red color of cranberries makes any table display more festive.

Try cranberries instead of pebbles or marbles to anchor flower stems in a glass vase filled with water; the berries will hold stems in place for about a week. (Pale-colored flowers provide the most striking contrast to the berries.)

Place a pillar candle in a glass hurricane lantern, and sprinkle cranberries around the base of the candle.

Or make a simple cranberry wreath: You'll need two to three bags of fresh cranberries, two boxes of round toothpicks and a 14-inch circular Styrofoam wreath form. Round off the edges of the form with a utility knife. Sort through the cranberries, choosing the largest and firmest ones. Break the toothpicks in half. Stick the broken end of a toothpick into a berry; then push the pointed end, with the berry attached, into the form. Repeat, placing the berries close together, until the front and sides of the wreath form are covered.

Cranberries can stain, so protect your wall or door by pinning red felt backing, cut to size, onto the back of the form.

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