It’s not enough that we have to do all the holiday shopping, go to all the school concerts and pick up Starbucks gift cards for all the overworked teachers in our lives—we have to turn the house into a red and green winter wonderland, too?
There are lots of reasons a person might not have the mental or physical energy to go Full Christmas: Chronic illness, grief, ubiquitous parenting fatigue. I haven’t decorated for the holidays since becoming a mom six years ago because I was too overwhelmed. Too busy, too anxious, too everything that was incompatible with celebration.
This year, however, I decided to let the holidays back into my home so the kids don’t start wondering why we never have one of those “Christmas trees” and “stockings” they hear about at school.
Here are some tips for low-key holiday decoration that are family-friendly, will cheer up your space, and don’t take a lot of time or money.
It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas!
First, assemble a bouquet garni to simmer on the stove with orange rinds and… just kidding!
Fill a basket with those cinnamon-scented pine cones or evergreen clippings and your nose will know it’s the holidays every time you walk in the door. Also, the makers of candles and electric air fresheners have stocked your local Target with pumpkin spice, frosted pine, cinnamon apple, gingerbread and peppermint schnapps-scented products. You can revel in the sensual pleasure of a holiday “scent story” without actually baking apple pies.
Focus your efforts
Don’t try to decorate the whole house if that’s not your speed. Pick one spot, or one thing that you and your kids will see and enjoy every day—the front door, the mantle, the dining room table or a cozy reading spot. You are the ruler of the holiday domain, but your kingdom doesn’t have to be vast.
Maybe this year, you just rule the sofa with a couple of Christmas-y pillows and a throw blanket. A wreath on the front door will give your mail carrier and neighbors the impression you went all out. Reindeer antlers on your minivan will make your kids (and all the kids you drive past) laugh with glee! Your pride will have plenty of time to recover in the new year.
Keep the tree low-key
People who live in magazines decorate their 12-foot Douglas firs with hand-blown-glass partridges and turtle doves. People who live in magazines apparently don’t have kids or kittens. The pressure to decorate a gigantic Christmas tree is just too much for some of us. Forget Rockefeller Center and think small.
Christmas trees can be like altars for decades of family memories, with lumpy ornaments made by preschool hands and Santas cross-stitched by grandmas. They can be monochromatic, minimalist, or *gasp* themed. Whatever your style, a tree can be simple and small.
Tiny trees are cute and fit on a side table. Felt trees hang on the wall and kids can wreck and redecorate them multiple times a day. A bare branch in a pot gives off a comforting Charlie Brown vibe. I plan to gather all the stacks of books in our living room and assemble them in a vaguely triangular shape. Ta-da!
Let there be lights!
To a kid, twinkly lights are fairies, magic, dreams. They are the visions of sugar plums that dance in their heads. Strip away all the excess and picture a holiday scene at night. Squint your inner eye so the details blur. What’s left but our tiny modern electric candles glowing in the darkness?
If you can only picture Christmas lights on a tree, let’s open your mind now. This year, I am hanging lights around the perimeter of our living room so when we dim the overhead lights at night, we are in a festive glowing cave. Adding Christmas magic with lights is easy and impactful.
Let your friends and family decorate for you
I don’t mean letting everyone come over and muck around your house while you stress about what to feed them. That sounds terrible. No, just take advantage of all the hope, peace and well-wishes in the festive holiday cards everyone sends you. Give the kids a roll of washi tape to create a mural of holiday cheer with all those cards.
Maybe you didn’t have time to send out your own cards this year. If the influx of cards makes you feel guilty for not staging the perfect family photo in June and sending it to every person you’ve ever met, let the kids cut them up and make a collage. (Just clip the return addresses and stick them in an envelope in the back of your junk drawer in case one year you do feel inspired to send out cards. Because ultimately, the holidays should be driven by inspiration, not obligation.)
Finally, the absolute least you can do
(If holiday music makes you want to rupture your own eardrums, please skip the next paragraph.)
Stream holiday music through the house. There is so much Christmas music, you could create a different mood for every day in December: classical, country, metal, hip hop, Bublé, Bieber, Bing, Mariah, Sinatra, Muppets—there are at least a trillion Christmas playlists on Spotify alone. I’ll be listening to A Very Special Christmas because Gen X for life. Your favorite holiday movies can also provide a comforting soundtrack throughout the season.
Boil all the holiday flair down to its essential elements and pick one or two things that have the most impact for you and your family. When you are done decking the halls, you should survey your work and say, “Aw, that’s fun!” not “Damn, I’m glad that’s done.”
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