Sunday, December 8, 2013

Decking the Halls

When I was growing up, my favorite holiday decorations were the ones in Princeton's Palmer Square. That was the site of the town Christmas tree, with its multicolored lights, but my real favorite was the storefronts. Each door was topped with a big swag of greenery, trimmed with white lights and red ribbons. To my eye, it always looked so festive, yet so tasteful at the same time. So when I finally had a house of my own, I decided to decorate the same way, but on a smaller scale. Every year, as soon as Thanksgiving was past (and not until then, dagnabbit), I'd visit one of the Christmas tree vendors who set up shop in nearby parking lots and pick up a bunch of evergreen trimmings, which were usually available for free (though I'd generally tip the vendor a buck or two). I found some nice twisted red-and-silver ribbon on sale at Michael's, and I'd use that to bind the evergreens onto the front porch railings. Then I'd twine a single strand of warm-white LED lights—special-ordered off the Web back when you couldn't find them in stores—all the way up one railing, across the top of the door, and down the other railing, where they'd plug into an extension cord that snaked in under the door where the door sweep was just loose enough to allow it through. I reused the same strand of lights and the same ribbon each year, so it only cost me a couple of bucks to deck the house out every Yuletide.

Over the years, I came up with a few added twists on this basic idea. First, I got some extra ribbon and started tying greenery on to the side porch railing as well, although I couldn't run lights over there because there was no way to fit the cord through the door.

Then I decided the string of lights looped over the top of the door looked a bit bare without any greenery, so I started pulling strands of the English ivy that grows in abundance alongside the railings and twining it through the strand of lights to give it a bit of color during the day.

This year, however, I decided I'd actually like to do a bit more. I was happy enough with the decorations outside the house, but I wanted some inside as well. And since we'd just recently taken down those two big bushes in the front yard, I had a huge amount of free material to work with. So I challenged myself to use our recycled greenery for the bulk of my new indoor decorations, buying as little additional material as possible. To supplement our evergreen boughs, I went out with a basket gathering natural materials from around our neighborhood. The two large pine trees down the block provided dozens of big pine cones, a couple of Winter King hawthorns had dropped a large collection of red berries, and I even found a couple of trimmed-off holly branches, complete with berries. Then I took the whole lot home and started experimenting.

I had already identified several possible spots in the house that looked like good candidates for a touch of greenery, including the tops of the bookcases and the TV cabinet in the living room, the table in the little back room where we keep our house plants, and the top of the fridge (the only surface in the kitchen that we don't need for a workspace). My original thought was just to arrange some evergreen boughs across these surfaces, but as I thought about it, I realized that the branches would gradually dry out and start shedding their needles, leaving a mess that could be difficult to clean up after New Year's. So I decided instead to arrange the greens in containers that would keep them tidy. And looking at the top of the TV cabinet, I realized that I had some perfectly good containers there already: the collection of ceramic ware that we keep there year round included a nice blue water jug, a matching colander, and a smaller cream jug that's part of a tea set. So I just plunked some juniper sprigs into the two jugs, added a little water to keep them fresh, and arranged some pine cones in the colander.

The tops of the bookcases proved a bit trickier. Together, they make a large surface, and I didn't have any really large baskets or bowls to arrange my greenery in. So I thought perhaps I could use a whole assortment of small containers instead. My original thought was drinking glasses, but I figured we'd need at least six of them, and I couldn't spare that many from their dinnertime duties. So I cast my mind around thinking of other small containers we might have in large quantities, and the answer came to me: flowerpots. Every time we buy plants for our garden, we end up with more of these, and being pack rats, we never throw any away. So we now have dozens of little 4-inch plastic pots, more or less identical, out in the shed. I quickly dug out several that were reasonably clean and started arranging my greenery in them. After some experimentation, I ended up with a pair of pine cones in each pot; a clump of the softer, darker green twigs in back of that; a clump of the pricklier juniper twigs in front, with the white berries for decoration; and a sprinkling of red hawthorn berries to add a touch of color. The finished pots were pretty, but a bit dark, so I decided to brighten them up with some red and silver holiday ribbon that I bought at our local dollar store. I couldn't get the ribbon to stick to the pots or to itself with tape, but since it was wired ribbon, I was able to secure the ends by just twisting them together in the back. Result: a row of cheerful little pots, alternating between red and silver.

The reason I originally bought the ribbon was to try out another decorating idea that struck my fancy: little jingle-bell ornaments, which I discovered in packs of six at the dollar store. Realizing that there are exactly six doors leading off our house's main hallway (office, linen closet, bedroom, back room, bathroom, coat closet), I decided to buy a pack of these, along with some some wide ribbon, and hang a single bell from the top of each door. I originally wanted red-and-silver ribbon, but they didn't have any, so I ended up going with a translucent red ribbon decorated with glitter stars. Each spool had three yards of ribbon on it, so I just divided them into thirds, giving me three feet of ribbon per bell. I ran a length of ribbon through the loop on the end of each bell, twisted the wired ends to secure it in place, and then folded the other end over at the top and secured it to the top of the door with a thumb tack, which holds it in place while still allowing the door to close. Here they are, jingling all the way down the hall.

I ended up using only two spools of the red ribbon for the bells, but I bought a fourth, along with one spool of silver ribbon, for further embellishment—which turned out to be a good idea, since the pots look much nicer with red and silver alternating. And since I had three more pots and quite a bit of ribbon left over, I made a few more for the window sills of our big downstairs room.

Some of the lengths of ribbon I trimmed off ended up being not quite long enough for the pots, so on the principle of "waste not, want not," I wrapped them around a vase we had stashed away, filled it with some more juniper branches, and put it in the downstairs bath in the obvious place.

And I also arranged some of the greenery, plus pine cones and berries, in one of the baskets we picked up at last September's yard sales. This makes a nice complement to the potted plants in our back room.

The only place I ended up using the greenery without any sort of a container, as I originally planned, was on top of the fridge. We have a cute pair of ceramic salt and pepper shakers that look like little snowmen, but we don't generally use them for salt and pepper because they don't work as well as our existing salt shaker and pepper grinder. So rather than leave them cooped up in a box, I decided to make them part of our holiday display, with a big juniper branch for background. (The fence behind them is a little wire shelf that normally lives in our freezer, where it helps keep the contents organized. Since our freezer is stuffed to the gills right now, Brian removed it to eke out a little more room and stuck it on top of the fridge, so I just worked it into the arrangement.)

When I first started work on these decorations, I brought in a large assortment (though by no means all) of the greenery we saved when we took down the two shrubs. After I'd finished doing all the arrangements, I went to tidy up what was left by piling it into a big basket to carry it back out to the shed. But as I started heaping the greens in the basket, I decided they actually looked nice enough to be a decoration by themselves. So I adorned the basket with a few more pine cones, trimmed the handle with what was left of the red and silver ribbon, and stuck in the two holly sprigs I found on my gathering expedition. Then, to set it off better, I stripped off the Indian bedspread that normally serves as a tablecloth on our dining table, bundled it into the hamper for a long-overdue wash, and spread the table with our "good" white tablecloth, which makes a nice wintry backdrop for all the red and green.

By the time I was done with all this decorating, I was feeling just like Martha Stewart. But I felt even more pleased when I calculated the budget for a whole house full of decorations:

Evergreens: $0 (leftover from shrubs in front yard)
Pine cones, holly, berries: $0 (gathered around neighborhood)
Baskets: $1 (50 cents each at yard sales)
Pots: $0 (already owned)
Snow men ornaments: $0 (already owned)
Jingle bell ornaments: $1.07 from dollar store
Ribbon: $4.28 from dollar store (3 spools red, 1 silver)
Total: $6.35

The beauty part of it is that most of these decorations can be reused next year. I just need to find a way to wrap up the ribbon so it doesn't lose all its glitter, and I can stow it away in January to be brought back out when the holidays roll round again. I'll have to gather fresh pine cones and berries, but there's plenty where this year's supply came from. The only part of this year's decorations I won't have next year is all the greenery we got from those two shrubs—but since the Christmas tree vendors always have plenty, I'd say there's no problem there. And since I've already done all the work of figuring out how to put my arrangements together, next year's decorations should not only be cheaper but also a lot quicker to assemble.

Now all we need is a little hot cider and Percy Faith's "Music of Christmas," and I'd say we'll have all the Yuletide spirit we can handle.
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