Centerpieces - from simple bowls of apples and lemons to elaborate epergnes loaded with delicacies - can add immeasurably to the pleasures of dining, especially at holiday time.
Most households have some dishes, containers, and antique pieces that can become charming centerpieces. A knowledge of centerpieces that have graced tables throughout the centuries can provide some innovative ideas for using these ''raw materials.''
During the 17th century, Louis XIV dazzled his court and the French populace with the magnificence of the meals he served against a background of orange trees, trellises, and a seeming infinity of tall candles.
At one of his festive gatherings, the centerpiece was a building composed of small porcelain dishes filled with fruits. Within the arcades of this building, which were garnished with flowers and candles, small vases offered guests a variety of ices.
Few of us would wish to duplicate such a centerpiece. But a vase filled with flowers and mounted on a footed cake plate piled with fruit would provide a most impressive centerpiece - and one that is easy to assemble.
For many years, royalty insisted on a system of table seating that followed social rank. Certain delicacies were only within the reach of higher-ranking guests. To repeatedly ask to have food passed that was out of reach was bad manners indeed. So it is small wonder that the French innovation of the epergne found favor during the 18th century.
This lovely table ornament with a central column from which silver branches held small silver trays, or ''waiters,'' allowed sweetmeats to be passed to those who were not seated within easy reach of the offerings of the ''waiters.''
If you don't own an epergne but find the concept fascinating, you can achieve the effect of one by placing a pedestaled silver, crystal, or ceramic compote filled with fruit in the middle of a table. Then encircle the base of the compote with smaller silver, crystal, or ceramic compotes filled with figs, stuffed dates, or perhaps nuts.
From an early French engraving entitled ''The Exquisite Supper'' by J.B. Moreau, we note that 200 years ago the small, romantic meal it portrays was served with panache. The round table, suffused in candlelight, is dominated by a sculpture of the Three Graces.
Here, too, we can borrow from the past by using a favorite figurine or piece of sculpture and encircling its base with sprigs of holly or other greenery. Or, if the figure permits, a sprig of holly can be placed in an extended hand.
If you have a mirror plateau that has been in your family since the early 1900s when they were popular, this is the time to use it festively - perhaps with a compote filled with lemon squares dusted with powdered sugar or some other favorite holiday finger food.
Tureens have also long served as centerpieces. In a room featuring country-living furnishings, an old handed-down ironstone tureen, or a pottery one shaped like a duck and filled with greenery, has appealing charm in the middle of a table.
A Christmas wreath has mellow grace when it surrounds a pedestaled, pressed-glass cake plate holding a holiday cake dusted with sugar and decorated with holly.
My friend Adele Doty serves a delicious cake with a plum-pudding flavor that is just right to place on a wreath-encircled cake plate as a holiday-centerpiece treat. Adele's Holiday Cake 1/2 cup margarine 1 cup sugar 1 egg (beaten) 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 cups flour 2 teaspoons baking soda 1/4 teaspoon cloves 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 1/2 cups applesauce 1 cup dates, cut in two 1 cup dark raisins 1 cup nuts, optional
Thoroughly blend margarine and sugar. Add egg and vanilla; mix well. Add flour, soda, cloves, and cinnamon. Gradually stir in applesauce, dates, raisins, and nuts.
Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees F. in greased and floured 9-inch tube pan. Cool. Before serving, dust with confectioners' sugar - or frost with butter icing, if desired.