Ah, putting up the Christmas tree and untangling knotted strings of lights. This is the time of year that reminds me of my father on a ladder on the driveway, a cloud of breath shrouding his head, cursing as he rooted out dead bulbs.
More than any other, one holiday project occupied our team this season: decorating a client's home for the Kid's Help Phone "Home for the Holidays" Tour in Vancouver. The event takes place annually in several Canadian cities, but this year was my first. I was a bit nervous. Many of the participating homes are on posh properties in the city's most desirable precincts, and there is definite pressure to impress.
With the tour home, our team decided to worry less about impressing than inspiring, however. In addition to giving people as many takeaway Christmas decorating ideas as possible, we wanted engage the passers-through in a simple idea: that decorating a home is really just an excuse to spend time with loved ones.
We had three major components to our strategy.
The goal was to give the home a bright and creative air while avoiding the pitfalls of Christmas kitsch. Our approach? To create a consistent look for the tree while combining the homeowners' older decorations with new ones.
As we set to decorating, the old Disney cartoon Pluto's Christmas Tree came to mind. You know the one – the two chipmunks stow away in a tree Mickey has cut down and drug home. As Mickey dresses the tree, the chipmunks scamper about inside it.
The cartoon brings home to me an often-overlooked idea: a Christmas tree's crucial dimension exists between its core and periphery. Don't linger too long on the surface; the interior is where you find depth and complexity.
The tree-dressing kicked off with the lights. I prefer all-white twinklers: quiet and tasteful, they don't muddy a room's light the way coloured lights can. In our home, we used bulbs aplenty: at least 100 per foot of tree height.
Hanging them, we started at the top and worked down, not simply winding strands around the tree – this creates a husk of light – but weaving strands to the core and then back to the outer branches. We lay on the zigzagging rings around and around the tree, taking care not to skimp at the bottom.
Next: dividing our decorations into groups. We started with what we had tons of: inexpensive silver balls. We spread them around, remembering to tuck some into the inside branches to create some shimmer from within. After that we put the prized ornaments – the most decorative, expensive and sentimental – on the outer branches. Last, we hung the crystal and glass, giving the tree a final layer of depth and sparkle. A smart DIY tip: Place shiny ornaments in the recesses of a tree's boughs, where their ability to reflect light is needed most.
The tour home was traditional and stately, with a magnificent fireplace, and we wanted the mantel to match. We used classic holiday elements to create an elegant but handmade look: a wreath, greens, metallic accents and stockings.
My friend and colleague Cristina Herring made us a wreath. She took fresh, silver-dipped eucalyptus, wired it in bunches, and attached it to the mirror with a ribbon of silver satin. I think that wreaths, whether store-bought or handmade, look better made from one material: that way, you can decorate around them while avoiding a fight for visual attention.
On the mantel itself, we placed boughs of spruce and cedar, thick in the centre and thinning at the edges. Through them we wove more twinkle lights, then placed bejewelled reindeer and mercury glass candlesticks for added glimmer.
And the finishing touch: Christmas stockings. For weeks we looked high and low for ones that didn't look too mass-produced or "country." Then, three days before the install, eureka: Simone found a pattern on marthastewart.com and we used fabric remnants from around the studio to sew new stockings for the whole family. They were a hit.
The family touches
With the signature pieces of tree and mantel done, we wanted to dial up the coziness of the kitchen and family room while keeping the décor playful and interactive. For the kitchen table we made a centrepiece by spraying some bare branches gold, lodging them in floral foam at the bottom of a vase, then filling the vessel with white aquarium pebbles. On each of the branches hung mini-ornaments we picked up at the local crafts store – exactly the sort of thing kids love messing about with.
My favourite crafty piece was the Advent calendar we made for the kids. (Google "Advent calendar" and you'll never want for ideas.) We picked up 25 baby mittens, cut out felt numerals, and filled each mitten with candy, stickers, temporary tattoos, and a Christmas joke. We attached them to grosgrain ribbon with tiny clothespins.
And if the calendar wasn't "Suzy" enough, we also made cookies and wrapped them so the kids could distribute them at school as gifts. The sugar cookies took me forever to pipe, but I loved the ritual of making them at this time of year. They looked like little jewels.
The home was received well. I spent an afternoon there, chatting with the visitors and explaining our approach to this decorating vignette or that.
The best part of the experience for me wasn't the finished design, however. It was sitting around the office with my team, stitching and gluing, recalling memories of our Christmases past and laughing through the afternoon. In the end, Christmas decorating isn't about effecting a look. It's about creating memories with the people you hold dear.
And with that, I'm signing off until the new year. From my heart to yours, I wish you and your family the very happiest of holidays.