Decorating for the Holidays in a Gloomy Year

The holidays look different this year. And with the pandemic putting an end to parties and limiting the number of familiar faces around the dinner table, it may be tempting to scale back on seasonal décor.

But in a year when it feels as if so much has been taken away, many designers are doing the opposite.

“I think I’m not alone in trying to make it feel more special, and even create more traditions than we had before, just so there’s something to look forward to every day,” said Emily Henderson, a designer and stylist in Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

John Derian, a designer who transforms 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,” he said. “I think we all deserve a little special care.”

So how to decorate for this unusual holiday season? Ms. Henderson, Mr. Derian and other designers offered some ideas.

Many people decorate Christmas trees with color-coordinated ornaments that combine to create a display that is beautiful but can seem slightly impersonal in its perfection. If ever there were a year for loosening up and adding a personal touch, this is it.

Ms. Henderson, once a fan of tightly edited, color-coordinated trees, has now embraced the time-tested practice of using mismatched ornaments that recall memorable events. “I’m a big memory hoarder and didn’t realize that your tree can really be a scrapbook for your year,” she said.

Credit…Sara Ligorria-Tramp

Before decorating the tree in her family room, she made a list of events that mattered to her most, including her son learning to read and the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Then she found or made ornaments to remind her of those things, labeling the bottom of each with the year it happened. After she sold her home in Los Angeles, for instance, she had an artist paint a glass ball with a picture of the house. In future years, she said, unpacking the ornaments will be an opportunity to revisit each memory.

Mr. Derian also likes decorations with a story, and collects and sells glass ornaments depicting things you might not expect to see hanging on a Christmas tree: cats and dogs, pickles, avocado toast. “It’s just amazing, the things that people come up with,” he said. “I get really into the craftsmanship and beauty of all these things and think, ‘Why can’t people just have them year-round, because they’re so cool and fun to look at?’”

He is also a fan of traditional do-it-yourself decorations. “I do like a good popcorn-cranberry garland,” he said. “There are so many fun craft things you can do.”

One of the easiest ways to add cheer to a room is to pile special items in decorative bowls.

“There are certain things I do every year,” said Aerin Lauder, the tastemaker and granddaughter of Estée Lauder, who celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. “I do love to put out lots of red flowers and bowls of Christmas candy,” she said, an idea she got from her grandmother.

Ms. Lauder, whose holiday decorating is detailed in her recent book, “Entertaining Beautifully,” also displays glass ornaments in bowls.

“Even if you don’t do a tree, there’s something really beautiful about a pretty bowl of some of your favorite ornaments,” she said. “It becomes immediately festive and makes a whole room feel very holiday.”

Cards from friends and family go in another bowl, she said, so it’s easy to admire them all month.

Marie Flanigan, an interior designer in Houston, turns holiday sweets into decorative displays, filling jars with cookies, chocolates and candies. Then she adds bows of red-and-white twine and groups the jars together in a tray with bells and pine cones.

Credit…Francesco Lagnese

Weaving and draping greenery throughout your home is another easy way to make it feel festive.

“I always start with the base, which is greens,” said Ms. Flanigan, who hangs multiple wreaths (she buys in bulk, from Trader Joe’s) on doors and in windows, with the help of ribbons. She also likes to drape garlands over mantels, banisters and chandeliers, and to scatter sprigs across tables. For extra decorative appeal, she said, “you can add beautiful touches like bows and ribbons.”

Different varieties of greenery offer different looks. Mr. Derian prefers princess pine, for “a really thin, skinny garland,” to create swags over doorways. Ms. Flanigan like slightly fuller options, like noble fir. Ms. Henderson uses faux greenery, but pairs it with scented candles that mimic the smell of the real thing.

Michael Putnam, a founder of the New York-based floral design company Putnam & Putnam, said he looks for “silvery greens,” like juniper or cypress, when he’s 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 easy, but you can also make your own. “What I love about garlands, specifically, is that there’s so much freedom to be creative,” Mr. Putnam said.

Cut the branches from six to 18 inches long, he advised, “depending on how wild and crazy you want your garland to be.” Then bind the pieces together with a length of thick-gauge floral wire. “You start the wire at the end of one piece and just slowly work your way down, wiring the branches together continuously 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 like. Whether that’s additional branches with berries or ornaments, Mr. Putnam said, it’s hard to go wrong: “I love when it’s not perfect, and it’s a little wild and crazy.”

To add color to your greenery, try mixing in fruit. Dried fruit can be bought at the store, or you can make it in your oven if you don’t have a dehydrator.

Mr. Putnam likes using dried slices of lemon and blood orange, which he makes by placing fresh slices on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and baking them in the oven at about 200 degrees for a couple of hours.

Fresh fruit you eventually plan to eat can be just as useful. “Sometimes I bring in pears and apples,” Ms. Flanigan said, “and that can be beautiful, especially for a tablescape.”

She might mix pears, apples and figs with fresh greenery, she said, to decorate a dining table for a special meal.

Simpler still is piling fruit high in bowls. Mr. Derian likes to create a festive display by loading fresh clementines into an oversized papier-mâché bowl and adding a few candles and a silvery 19th-century kugel ornament for sparkle.

Holiday decorating isn’t complete until you add twinkling light. “A lot of people decorate during the day, and then at night it feels dead,” Ms. Henderson said. “Lighting is just a really easy way to dress it up.”

Wrapping string lights around wreaths and garlands is one way to add a little holiday magic. In the past, this often involved trying to hide unsightly extension cords; today, battery-powered LED string lights make it much easier.

It’s a similar story with candles. “Candles are everything — nothing beats candlelight,” said Mr. Putnam, who likes adding taper candles in mismatched brass candlesticks or pillar candles in hurricanes to holiday mantels and tablescapes. 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 add string lights throughout the house — even where you don’t have greenery. “I added icicle and curtain lights in different areas of our house,” said Ms. Henderson, who draped icicle lights down the banister. “It added so much holiday, so fast, for $15 and some zip ties.”

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