The holidays look different this year. And with the pandemic putting an end to parties and limiting the number of familiar faces around the dining table, cutting down on the seasonal decor can be tempting.
But in a year where it feels like so much has been taken away, many designers are doing the opposite.
“I think I’m not alone when it comes to making it feel special and even creating more traditions than before just so there is something to look forward to every day,” said Emily Henderson, designer and stylist in Lake Arrowhead, Calif.
John Derian, a designer who turns his Manhattan store into a wonderland of quirky ornaments every year, had similar thoughts. “It’s just nice to take care of ourselves and appreciate things and not forget them,” he said. “I think we all deserve a little extra care.”
How do I decorate this unusual Christmas season? Ms. Henderson, Mr. Derian, and other designers offered some ideas.
Do it personally
Many people decorate Christmas trees with color-coordinated ornaments, which together result in a display that is beautiful, but can appear a little impersonal in its perfection. If ever there was a year to loosen up and add a personal touch, this is it.
Ms. Henderson, once a fan of rigorously crafted, color-coordinated trees, has now subscribed to the best practice of using mismatched ornaments to commemorate memorable events. “I’m a big memory hunter and didn’t know your tree could really be a scrapbook for your year,” she said.
Before decorating the tree in her family room, she made a list of events that were most important to her, including her son, who was learning to read, and the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Then she found or made ornaments to remind them of these things and labeled the bottom each with the year it happened. For example, after she sold her house in Los Angeles, she had an artist paint a glass ball with a picture of the house. In the years to come, she said, unpacking the ornaments will be an opportunity to reconsider any memory.
Mr. Derian also likes decorations with a story and collects and sells glass ornaments that represent things you might not expect to hang on a Christmas tree: cats and dogs, cucumbers, avocado toast. “It’s just amazing the things people come up with,” he said. “I really get into the craftsmanship and beauty of all of these things and think, ‘Why can’t people just have them all year round because they’re so cool and fun to look at?'”
He is also a fan of traditional home improvement decorations. “I like a good popcorn and cranberry garland,” he said. “There are so many fun crafts to do.”
Use existing containers
One of the easiest ways to add joy to a room is to stack special items in decorative bowls.
“There are certain things I do every year,” said Aerin Lauder, the taste-maker and granddaughter of Estée Lauder, who celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. “I love giving out lots of red flowers and bowls of Christmas candy,” she said, an idea she got from her grandmother.
Ms. Lauder, whose Christmas decorations are described in detail in her recently published book “Entertaining Beautifully”, also shows glass decorations in bowls.
“Even if you’re not making a tree, there is something really beautiful about a pretty bowl of some of your favorite ornaments,” she said. “It gets festive right away and makes an entire room feel very vacation-like.”
Cards from friends and family go in a different bowl, she said, so it’s easy to admire all month.
Marie Flanigan, an interior designer in Houston, turns Christmas candy into decorative displays and fills jars with cookies, chocolates, and candy. Then she adds bows of red and white thread and groups the glasses in a tray with bells and pine cones.
Add green everywhere
Weaving and draping greenery all over your home is another easy way to make it feel festive.
“I always start with the base, which is green,” said Ms. Flanigan, who uses ribbon to hang several wreaths (she buys in bulk from Trader Joe’s) on doors and windows. She also likes to drape garlands over mantels, railings, and chandeliers, and sprinkle twigs over tables. For added decorative appeal, she said, “You can add beautiful details like bows and ribbons.”
Different types of greens offer different looks. Mr. Derian prefers Princess Pine, for “a really thin, thin garland” to create loot over doors. Ms. Flanigan prefers slightly fuller options like fine fir trees. Ms. Henderson uses artificial green but combines it with scented candles that mimic the smell of the real thing.
Michael Putnam, founder of New York-based floral design company Putnam & Putnam, said he looks for “silvery greens” like juniper or cypress when making garlands. “Juniper branches are one of my favorites when they have that silver berry,” he said. “It adds an overlay of texture to everything.”
Store-bought garlands make decorating easier, but you can make your own too. “What I love about garlands is that there is so much freedom to be creative,” Putnam said.
Cut the branches six to 18 inches long, he advised, “depending on how wild and insane you want your garland to be.” Then tie the pieces together with a piece of thick floral wire. “You start the wire at the end of a piece and just work your way down slowly, continuously wiring the branches and layering one branch on top of the other,” he said.
The advantage of making your own garland is that you can add whatever you want. Whether it’s extra branches with berries or ornaments, said Mr. Putnam, it’s hard to go wrong: “I love it when it’s not perfect and a little wild and crazy.”
Make the most of fruit
Try mixing in fruit to add color to your greens. Dried fruit can be bought in the store or you can do it in your oven if you don’t have a dehydrator.
Mr Putnam likes to use dried lemon and blood orange slices, which he makes by placing fresh slices on a parchment-lined baking sheet and baking them in the oven for a few hours at around 200 degrees.
Fresh fruit that you might want to eat can be just as useful. “Sometimes I bring pears and apples,” said Mrs. Flanigan, “and that can be nice, especially for a table landscape.”
You could mix pears, apples, and figs with fresh greens, she said, to decorate a dining table for a special meal.
It is still easier to stack fruit high in bowls. Mr Derian loves to create a festive presentation by loading fresh clementines into an oversized paper mache bowl and adding a couple of candles and a 19th century silver ball ornament for sparkle.
Light it up
The Christmas decorations aren’t complete until you add sparkling lights. “Lots of people decorate during the day and it feels dead at night,” Ms. Henderson said. “Lighting is just a very easy way to beautify it.”
Wrapping fairy lights around wreaths and garlands is one way to add a little holiday magic. In the past, people tried to hide unsightly extension cables. Today, battery operated LED fairy lights make it a lot easier.
It is similar with candles. “Candles are everything – nothing beats candlelight,” said Mr Putnam, who likes to add tapered candles in mismatched brass chandeliers or pillar candles to Christmas coats and table landscapes in hurricanes. While there is no substitute for the appeal of real flickering candles, realistic LED alternatives are safer and more affordable than ever. For convenience, try LED candles with timers.
You can also look for creative ways to put up fairy lights all over the house – even where you have no greenery. “I’ve added icicle and curtain lights in different areas of our home,” said Ms. Henderson, who draped icicle lights over the railing. “It took so much vacation, so fast, for $ 15 and a couple of zip ties.”
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