I had the sweetest note from a reader a couple of weeks ago and am ashamed to admit I am just getting around to answering it now — maybe it took me until I found myself listening to the Charlie Brown Christmas album yesterday owing to the dip in temperature to really get in the holiday mood? — but here goes:
I have a post request for you regarding holiday decor. I know it is an early request, but Home Depot and Costco both had faux Christmas trees out today!
My husband and I have been married for three years and recently bought a condo in Alexandria. Now that we are homeowners, I feel drawn to the idea of decorating for the holidays and creating traditions. In previous years, we have not done much in our home, relying on my parents for Christmas cheer when we went back to their house to celebrate. I’d like to change that!
My request is three parts, but I would be delighted if you answered any part of it for a post.
1. Beyond a tree + ornaments, what holiday decor are you drawn to? (Our dog is allergic to pine and I don’t want to store a faux tree quite yet). Is there anything that has caught your eye in recent years? Certain looks you love?
2. What traditions do you and your husband have around the holidays?
3. Are there any traditions in your family that you are particularly sentimental about? Any decor items that hold a lot of meaning to you? I love the way your write about your family.
I love this note and how eager you are to start family traditions. I’m sharing scattershot observations and thoughts on holiday decorating for those of us in our 20s and 30s in a similar headspace:
+My top piece of advice is to buy a little bit each year. That’s been our philosophy when it comes to decorating more generally, and I think it’s paid off. Of course there are times where you-just-need-to-buy-a-bedroom-set-and-matching-rug-and-art-work-all-at-once-to-feel-like-a-human, but to the extent possible, we have had far better luck when we have taken our time in outfitting our homes, buying one-off pieces of art and furniture as they catch our eye. I feel the same way about Christmas gear: buy it in phases, as things appeal to you. For example, I give Mr. Magpie a new ornament each year in his stocking, and I usually try to pick something reflective of the year — last year’s was this taxi cab ornament, a small and slight garish homage to our move to the Big Apple.
+For more sources for specialty ornaments: Etsy is a treasure trove. These hand-beaded ones are precious. My mother-in-law collects beautiful blown glass “Inge-Glas” ornaments from Germany and you can track down some true beauties on Etsy if you are patient, like this elegant set. And if you’re a dog lover, specialty ornaments abound! I’m buying this one this year, but I also like this. Probably my most cherished ornament is a Jonathan Adler ceramic piece Mr. Magpie gave me. Keep your eyes peeled for the novelties brands have on offer around the holidays…
+Speaking of ornaments, while adding a few special newbies a year has been our M.O. thus far, we also supplement our specialty ornaments with a couple of inexpensive “filler” sets we bought from Target and Martha Stewart from Home Depot the first few years we were married because we realized our tree would look insanely sparse without them. I don’t like the designs on offer by Martha this year, but you can find sets on eBay that might be worth considering. And everyone needs a set of cheerful red cardinals perched on her branches! Generally, though, I like the look of oversized ball ornaments as the “filler” pieces. We got ours principally in shades of metallic red, silver, and gold and have more or less stuck with those colors over time, but I’ve also seen really pretty trees done up almost entirely in shades of white and silver (these are elegant) to grand effect.
+All of this ornament advice of course depends on whether you like a themed/monochromatic look or not. We generally stick to a few colors but don’t mind the mish-mash. That said, we are adamant about white tree lights — I know there are others who are diehard color strand people, but not us! If you’re into a more streamlined look, your job is easier since you can limit your ornament hunting to a specific shape or color. I love the idea of a tree with ONLY bird ornaments, for example, or ONLY bows, or ONLY white/silver balls, or ONLY angels, or ONLY bells. Could be interesting to consider if you’re a minimalista.
+Consider buying stockings from a retailer that is likely to carry the same style for some time in case you have any future, ahem, additions. Ours are these channel velvet ones in ivory from Pottery Barn, and they’ve carried them for a long, long time, which has enabled us to add one for Tilly and one for mini over the years without a mismatched look. Alternately, commit to a mismatch-y but coordinated style, i.e., buy a few fair isle ones in different prints because it’s likely you’ll be able to find some variation on a fair-isle stocking even if it’s not from the same retailer. The same goes for stocking holders! I wish I’d had the foresight on this one; I only bought two of these darling reindeer stocking holders and now can’t find anything similar, so might need to buy a whole new set. I love these and these (in the antique white!) — but buy them in multiples just so you’re prepared! You never know; you may have family living with you or more kids or dogs than you anticipate!
+Don’t worry if you’re not ready for a tree (faux or real). There are lots of ways to spruce up your home (hehe, puns). If you have a mantle or staircase with a railing, garlands are perfect. I love this preserved cyprus one, but you could go even more abstract with something like this, especially if you incorporate white “trees” and decor elsewhere, like these. I bought two mini tabletop “trees” covered in moss two years ago and I adore them as the centerpiece to our holiday dining table. Other options: garlands or mini trees made of boxwood, cyprus, eucalyptus, or — especially trendy recently — bottle brush trees like this set or these. (If you like the look, scour Etsy — they have lots of great finds, like these or these, which could be converted into ornaments for cheap!)
+If you are considering faux, all I can say is I would love to one day own a flocked tree. I just love the look — they can look so grand and dramatic! In love.
+Something I have ALWAYS wanted: candles in each window of our home. My mother-in-law does this and her house just feels like it’s glowing from the inside out all holiday season. I had a really tough time finding a good set for our home in Chicago; the set I wound up with were super light and wouldn’t stay put in the window! The cord was too heavy to keep them upright! I’d consider these or look in a specialty gift shop in your hometown.
+My mom has a stunning nativity set from Lladro and it’s just not Christmas until she puts it out. It’s gorgeous. She always retained Jesus until Christmas morning, when one of us would have the honor of stowing him in his creche. I would love to one day own something similar, but in the meantime, am considering buying a peg doll nativity set that is more appropriate to my daughter’s age.
+My mom also has a beautiful Christmas china set adorned with nutcrackers, complete with glasses and table linens and oversized tabletop nutcrackers. I am in love with it. Am considering adding a nutcracker to my home this year, or maybe making Swedish dala horses my thing instead. (Etsy has gorgeous vintage ones!)
+In terms of traditions, one of my absolute favorites was opening a flap of the advent calendar each day of Advent. I loved the sense of anticipation, the crossing off of days. My mom always purchased cardboard ones from Hallmark, but Mr. Magpie had a big wooden one and his mother would place a toy in each cubby hole every single day of Advent. Sometimes it was something small — a hershey kiss or a dollar store toy — but sometimes he’d find a scroll with instructions on where to track down something bigger. EPIC! Living in New York, a huge wooden Advent calendar is unlikely, but I did come across this darling fabric style, which could be folded up…pretty cute!
+Mr. Magpie and I usually celebrate our own little Christmas a few days before or after the actual day. Mr. Magpie goes crazy making something like duck a l’orange or osso bucco, we buy an extravagantly nice bottle of champagne, and we watch “A Christmas Story” (Mr. Magpie’s favorite). It’s simple but splurge-y and it doesn’t feel like Christmas until we’ve enjoyed our quiet little Christmas for two.
+We are also SERIOUS about stockings in our family. Sometimes half of our Christmas load is in them! My mom always gifts us incredible cosmetics, gadgets (like my sweater defuzzer, which has saved my life many times), gift cards, Hanky Panky (such an extravagance because those things are EXPENSIVE), and kitchen tools. Mr. Magpie will occasionally tuck my main present into my stocking, too, which is fun. Who doesn’t love expecting candy canes and finding Tiffany instead?!
+If you take nothing else away from this meandering post on all things holiday, please do take this: buy this tree stand. Without this stand, the likelihood that Mr. Magpie and I would get into a snippy tiff while installing our tree was close to 100% each year. (“Wait, it’s a little to the left –” “Move that damn netting out of the way!” “Lift lift lift –” “No turn!”) This is legitimately 239089808 times better than the dinky metal ones we all seem to own with those damned screws you churn into your tree trunk. This is an elegant, easy to use solution and I guarantee it will pre-empt a squabble around the holidays. You’re welcome.
+If we had more space, I would die for a few of these to prevent the inevitable shattery, tangled shamble I face every year in a smashed cardboard box.
P.P.S. Some good ideas for gifts if you’re already in the buying mood.