Decorating Your Home for the Holidays

Maybe you’re no Clark Griswold, but that’s no reason not to have a bright and festive home for the holidays. Learn from the experts how to bring some Christmas cheer to your home.

The holidays are magic and memories, and we want our homes to reflect the festive season. Whether you favor Victorian, modern or rustic, these decorating tips will inspire you to create your own perfect holiday setting.

Make a List, Check it Twice

The perfectly decorated home begins with a quick assessment of your existing decor.
“The style of the home and its furnishings – contemporary, traditional, transitional – and the color schemes – muted, bold, neutral – all come into play when decorating for the holidays,” says Linda Andrews, an accredited staging professional in Edgerton, Wis., who’s spent 20 years decorating and designing interiors.
“Take your cues from the colors in your home,” Andrews adds. “I use reds because I have reds in my home. But if your color scheme is soft greens and muted blues, then whites and silvers would be really attractive, rather than bold red.”
Home design trends change each year, and so do holiday decor trends. For example, color schemes can involve more than the traditional bright reds and forest greens.
“It’s a time to be creative, to reflect your own personal taste,” says George Lerret, decorator at Ambrose Christmas Store, 6715 N. Second St., Loves Park. “It’s OK to use other colors. Don’t be afraid to change what you’ve always done.”
With so many options, it’s sometimes hard to select the right items. Before decor shopping, homeowners should make a quick inventory of what works and what needs to be replaced.
“Some people think they need to start over each year,” says Michelle Cox, Master Gardener and owner of Landscapes by Michelle, 4472 S. Mulford Road, Rockford. “Others never buy anything new, because they think they have to do exactly what they did last year. They all need to realize that it’s OK to use a few existing pieces and add some new ones, and build on those over a few years.”
Cox’s services include landscape illumination, and she and her crew often string Christmas lights and holiday lighting effects for residential settings. When it comes to outdoor illumination, Cox suggests keeping it simple. “Put a string of lights under the seat of a bench, to add another touch of illumination,” she says. “Point a spotlight up at the big evergreen in your yard, even if you don’t decorate it – uplighting is dramatic. Put colored filters or use colored bulbs on other outdoor lights.”

O Christmas Tree

One of the best starting points is to decorate the Christmas tree. No matter where you put it, allow plenty of room, and make sure it’s visible.
“You want the tree out of main traffic patterns, but you want it in a prominent enough spot so that it can be enjoyed,” says Andrews. “Narrower is better. Grand, full trees are lovely, but your interior space will be more accommodating to one that’s narrower. The tree always looks smaller on the lot than it does in your home.”
This is also a good time to make decisions about removing or rearranging furniture. “Some items can be repurposed to other rooms,” Andrews points out. “It depends on the item and its use, but at least be open to options.”
Once the tree is set in place, it’s time to decorate. If setting up an artificial tree, first spread out the stems of the branches, ensuring that the tips point up, like a fresh tree.
Lighting comes next. Lerrett, of Ambrose, suggests using 35-light strings, with lights placed every six to eight inches. Look for strings with stackable plugs, rather than end-to-end plugs.
“The end-to-end are OK, if you make sure you don’t overload the circuit,” Lerret says. “But most people set things up so that all of the strings end up in one plug. In this case, the lights work fine to begin with, but then you notice that one or two strings are completely out. That’s because their wires are aren’t big enough to transfer the wattage needed. With stacked plugs, each string is connected directly to the power source.”
Begin stringing lights from the bottom branches and work your way up, laying each string along two or three levels. Twist the cord around the branch, so that the light points up.
“Use more lights if the tree is flocked,” Lerret suggests. “Have them plugged in and lit as you place them. That way, you know they all work, and you can see them better as you place them.”
Next comes the topper, which is actually easier to add at this stage. “You don’t have to worry about knocking off ornaments, and since it’s usually lit, you have room to deal with cords,” Lerrett says. “Don’t plug it into the rest of the lights, however.”
Also beware its location. “The topper shouldn’t be placed over the tip of the tree – you want to see the entire outline of the tree,” he says. “So, if using a bow, place it just below the top of the tree. If the topper is heavier, I get a dowel and tape it to the trunk of the tree, and attach the topper to the dowel.”
Now add garland, ribbon or beads. “Start at the bottom, but don’t let them hang below the last row of branches,” Lerret says. “Make the swoops and points alternate – swoop below the last point, and take the next point above the swoop.”
Next, place ornaments from largest to smallest, grouping them by color, three at a time, in a triangular pattern. “You put them on by color to avoid bunching colors, and you put them on in a triangle to make sure the color shows in three prominent spots,” Lerret explains.
Never let anything hang below the bottom of the tree. “You want to maintain the tree’s outline,” says Lerret. “Also, that’s where the presents go – you want room for those!”
When decorating the tree, don’t forget about the background. “Many focus on the decorations, without thinking of the effect it will have on the existing room,” designer Andrews says. “Look at it as a whole. It should feel like it’s part of the surroundings.”
For homeowners uncertain about a particular look, Lerret suggests visiting a professional. “Many people have trouble envisioning how things will look in their homes,” he says. “Some bring in photos, and I give them tips. We can replicate any tree in the store for customers to take home, or sell them all of the components to do it themselves. We also custom design trees, arrangements and outdoor containers.”

Deck the Halls

The tree is up. Now, what about other holiday decor? The fireplace is a prime location for adding some holiday splash.
“Mantels can be a challenge,” says Cindy Molosz, ASID, owner of Interiors, 5950 E. State St. in Rockford. “Resist the temptation to line things up. Try to make groupings, drapings, layers, add different heights and textures. Place some pine boughs and branches along the length, and add different sizes of candles. Or use different heights of candlesticks, but top them with ornaments or pine cones, rather than candles. Drape a swag of greens or garland with lights along the shelf and down along the sides of the firebox.”
Draw attention to significant, but overlooked, architectural features. “I swag a green garland entwined with a string of white lights up my staircase, with a large red bow at the top of each swag,” says Andrews. “To repeat the theme, I put another swag around an archway in another room. Be careful not to overdo the theme, though. Also, don’t be afraid of artificial – my garlands are artificial.”
Collections of angels, snowmen or little ceramic houses should be displayed together. “People spread things out too much – one on a bookshelf and another on a table across the room,” says Lerret. “Create scenes. Set up your carolers next to the tree, for example.”
Or, find a more visible location. “Group the pieces together on a tabletop,” Molosz says. “Drape and layer pretty fabric, and find objects to put under and on top of them, to get them on different levels. Add garland or ribbon for texture and contrast.”
At Interiors, Molosz also suggests that customers bring in photos of a space they want to decorate. “We’ll sometimes clear off a table or mantel for working out displays in the store, for people to recreate at home,” she says.
A growing trend is bringing nature indoors, as part of a broader arrangement. “Glitz and bling are still big, but nature items are coming into the holidays more and more,” says Molosz. “Some of our most popular pieces this year are rustic birch bark Christmas trees, grouped with deer made of natural grasses and tree bark.”
Of course, bringing nature in can be done quite literally. “Get branches from your yard, spray paint them white and put them in a simple glass vase,” Andrews suggests. “Gather pine cones to fill a basket. Aroma is a big part of the holidays, so even if you have an artificial tree, you can bring in fresh pine boughs for that nostalgic pine scent.”
Even better, these winter arrangements don’t have to be strictly for the holidays.
“A piece of white birch in a stemmed vase is simple and striking, and you can build around it,” says Molosz.
It’s also an ideal time to spruce up your home’s interior. “Change out paintings, throws and pillows with those that have winter scenes,” says Andrews. “That way, once the Christmas decorations are put away, your decor still reflects the season.”

Dressed in Holiday Style

Make the outside of your home as ready for the holidays as the inside. Just as with interior decoration, outdoor decoration should match your home’s aesthetics.
For homeowners in doubt, experts such as Cox, the landscape illuminator, can use software programs to devise an overall scheme. All she needs is a photo of the exterior.
Outdoor illumination is also catching on to energy efficiency, especially with the newest LED light strands.
“The initial changeover requires an outlay of cash, but the LEDs are more economical in the long run,” Cox says. “They allow more watts to pass through the transformer without loss of power, which means you can have more lights and use less electricity.”
If hanging the lights yourself, first make sure your house is equipped with enough outdoor plugs, which should be properly grounded. “You don’t want lights that require more watts than your outlets provide,” says Cox. “And in this case, it’s not the length of the string of lights, but the size of the bulbs that’s important. If the plug itself gets hot to the touch, you’ve overloaded the circuit. Also, use only extension cords that are approved for outdoor use.”
Next, inventory your current stock. “There are so many types of lights – blinkers, twinklers, flashers,” Cox says. “What existing lights will you use again? How high are you going to go? Are you using plastic hooks or suction cups, and how many will you need? Measure, draw out a plan, see what you have that you can still use, and determine what else you need to achieve the look you want.”
Color choice is equally as important. “Many people like multicolor strings, but use them everywhere, not just a few here and there,” Cox says. “A one-color theme is popular, but consider the effect. Blue softens everything. All white is more elegant. Red and green are traditional. If you go with one color, pick an accent color for a porch railing or small tree.”
Make your front door the focal point, not only with lights but greens, wreath or even a bow. Consider integrating your outdoor planters, as well. “Empty them and use them for conifers, ornamental grasses, branches and bows for the holidays,” Cox says.
Decorative planters are a specialty at Village Green, with two locations in Rockford. Jessica Salisbury, general manager at the East Riverside location, puts together more than 50 outdoor containers for the holidays. “It’s my pet project, and each one is over-the-top,” she says. “A bench in front of each has every item that was used in that container. Customers can choose which design they like and easily pick up everything they need to build their own containers at home.”
Do-it-yourselfers can find most everything needed to create a container at Village Green, but its stores offer container garden workshops for basic techniques. “Some people don’t know how to get the plant to do this or that, so the classes are more for how-to than aesthetics,” Salisbury says. “All of the pieces for each design are for sale individually, in front of the display, and we even put packages together for smaller containers. We make it very easy and user-friendly.”
When creating your own display, don’t shy away from fresh and live elements. “If you use a product like Wilt-Pruf or Wilt Stop, if the winter isn’t too severe, they should look good until February,” says Salisbury.
Include different heights and textures in your arrangement. “The biggest mistake people make on their own is not adding enough height,” Salisbury points out. “We sell spruce tops from 2.5 to 4 feet tall – mini pine trees that are inexpensive. For more texture, choose shore or princess pine. Our most popular fresh-cut item is cedar, because it hangs down nicely and has the largest variety, like the variegated with bright green and yellow. We have outdoor floral, Japanese pods with glitter, bamboo covered with flax, Douglas firs, winterberry, feathers – the sky’s the limit.”
Whether you go all-out with your holiday decorations this year, or opt for a few small displays, the experts all agree on one thing: Do what makes you happy.