Sunday, January 29, 2023

Rethinking holiday decor

by Melissa Rayworth
| December 26, 2010 8:00 PM

Silver bells. Mistletoe. A miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer. Familiar cliches surround us at the holidays, and many have found their way into our seasonal decorating.

When December arrives, even the most elegant homes can easily get infiltrated by tacky tree ornaments and plastic snowmen.

“Everybody has a lot more Christmas stuff than they want,” says interior designer Brian Patrick Flynn, founder of We tend to keep all the items we’ve gotten as gifts or inherited as hand-me-downs, because only Scrooge would toss a tree-topper in the trash.

Besides, we tend to unpack all those decorations tucked away in closets and attics quickly, and set them out with little time to rethink the way we decorate for the holidays.

Don’t have time to brainstorm a new look this year? We’ve asked Flynn and two other designers how to create holiday glamour at home without the cliches.

Be a tough editor

“Less is more,” says Betsy Burnham of Burnham Design, in Los Angeles. Use just some of your decorations each year, just as an art curator might display only part of a collection at one time. If you put out fewer items, she says, “each thing you use to decorate will mean more.”

And don’t feel obligated to decorate every room.

“One of my rules is there really should only be one ‘holiday room’ in the house,” Flynn says.

Put a few decorations in your entryway, where they are visible from the street and to arriving guests. Then concentrate on the room where you spend the most time.

“We get caught up in who’s coming over for Christmas, but that one day everybody comes over is a small fraction of the time these decorations will be up,” Flynn says. So decorate where you will most enjoy it.

Play with your


Your holiday decorating stash is probably heavy on traditional red and green. For a different look, try altering the palette by using only your red and cream pieces, or only the green and gold. Or try “doing it all ivory and white, with some plaid,” says Burnham.

You also can inject fresh style by bringing in new shades. Ornaments can be inexpensive, so try using all the silver and white pieces you have, then adding new ones in violet or hot pink. Those shades look sophisticated and festive, Flynn says.

He also suggests adding shades of brown with purple or deep red to balance “the femininity of garlands and bows.” blogger Erinn Valencich loves using retro-inspired ornaments in “lime green, burnt oranges, turquoise and even a bit of fuchsia.” These colors look great against a white artificial Christmas tree. Another option is “using spray-on snow” to create a whiter background on a green tree, Valencich says.

If the holidays without lots of red and green seems like heresy, try using those colors in unexpected shades ? say, a holiday table in lime green and deep cranberry. Burnham likes using “a really dark, British racing green, with a brick red or a warm brown-red.”

“With all the glitter that comes with holiday decorating,” Valencich promises, “it’s going to feel like Christmas” even if you don’t use the standard red and green.

Focus on winter

Holiday decor takes on a fresh look when it’s focused on celebrating the season, so think snowflakes rather than Santa.

“I like a nod to the holidays,” Burnham says, but “then have a couple of elements that really stand for winter,” such as pine branches, birch logs and chestnuts.

A holiday table set with white dishes and white linens evokes snowy winters. In California, Burnham says, holiday decorating is “all about pretending we live somewhere cold.”

Use presents and cards as decor

Let the wrapping you choose this year bring a new look to your decorating. Assuming you can get the gift wrapping done early, Valencich suggests buying three different papers that you love, then “using the gifts to decorate the house.”

“Pile them on an entryway table with some hurricane candles next to it,” she says, “or on a side table in the corner of the living room.”

Pretty wrapping can be inexpensive (try plain brown paper with luxurious plaid ribbons) and “you get to unwrap your decorating” as you give gifts.

Another idea: Repurpose last year’s holiday cards as new ornaments by cutting them into circles and triangles with crafting scissors that give a beveled edge. Hang them on the tree with ribbon.

For this year’s cards, string a length of twine just a few feet below the ceiling “like a Z from one wall to the other,” Flynn says, “then take clothespins to attach the cards onto the line.”

Using “old clothespins, maybe with paint on them,” he says, gives “more of a ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’ look” that can bring a bit of irony to a room that’s otherwise traditionally decorated.

Unexpected shapes

“Think about the classic shapes and do something different,” Burnham says, such as skipping the wreath in favor of a cluster of pine branches on the front door.

Rather than using a lot of round ornaments on your tree, try hanging small wooden animals or other trinkets found around your home. “Fill in with the shiny balls,” she says, “rather than starting with them.”

And “with the tree toppers, I usually don’t put a star or angel,” Valencich says. Last year, when decorating a tree for actress Jaime Pressly, she used “huge feathers, tied to the top of tree,” to create a dramatic topping. It’s simple, she says: You can “wire them up there or use some ribbon to tie them.”

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