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Christmas Decorating Tips: More Lights! More Balls! More of Everything!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The holidays, for me, are not just an opportunity to spend ample amounts of quality time with family and close friends but to do it, largely, within the comfort of my own home. Entertaining always entails some degree of setting a mood. Christmas and New Year’s gatherings are no exception; the scale’s just much larger.

As far as Christmas decorating tips go, I try to capture some of the brilliance and whimsy of the season—the stuff that still brings out the kids in us all—but, ultimately, I want to create a warm environment, the kind of setting that encourages long, overdue conversations, unrestrained playfulness, a place that says, “I love you.” These are a few of the ways that I go about that.

Expand your palette
Don’t be afraid of unconventional colors. We have some beautiful turquoise French glassware from the 1920s that was given to my parents as a wedding gift. It’s not a particularly large set, but the color’s so unusual that it seems to catch your eye from everywhere in the room. So it seemed only natural to carry it over to our Christmas tree. I load it up with lots of balls of that color, or close to it, and complement them with a range of metallic. I even throw in a cheery yellow at the top of the tree for striking accent. None of it looks all that Christmas-y in the traditional sense—until I begin incorporating the red. And that’s the key. Red = Christmas. So, be as bold as you like, just be sure to bring it all together with red, lots and lots of red.

Play to all of the senses
It’s easy to get hung up on making your home visually appealing, but, creating a deep, rich mood requires playing to all of the senses. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, there are scented candles burning almost every waking hour in our home. And if we’re hosting a dinner party, or even just a cocktail hour with some hors d’oeuvres, and the aroma’s downright mouthwatering, I’ll shut the oven and stovetop off an hour or so before our guests arrive so that the scent has the chance to fill the house and linger faintly.

I used to be a strict real-tree advocate. Our first Christmas at Eight Bells, we erected a massive, 15-foot-tall tree. Which turned out to be a lot easier than pulling it down and hauling it out. That was a winter with a lot of snow, so it sat, basically, just outside our sliding glass doors until the spring thaw. Our tree now stands just as tall, but it conveniently goes up (and comes down) in four parts. I miss that unmistakably clean scent of evergreen, but I try to introduce fresh elements in other ways. In November, I start potting a bunch of different bulbs, like paperwhites and tulips, and, once they bloom, sticking them all around the downstairs. They’re a nice contrast to the tree and an even better reminder that December isn’t just cold air and gray slush.

Also, the power of a roaring fire can never be overstated. Cozy to sidle up to and entrancing.

Pick your spots
Before we moved to Eight Bells, we lived in a much smaller home, and I had many (many) more Christmas decorations. I felt compelled to decorate every nook, inside and out. Here, it’s just not possible. And, in fact, it’s become the cardinal rule among my Christmas decorating tips: Focus your attention on the high-traffic areas.

The living room is where our tree stands, and it’s a natural gathering spot, so I swap out all of the pillows with batches of others in reds and metallic. I was never much for stockings until my parents gifted us some. Now, they hang from the mantle. But I leave it at that. The tree commands so much attention, to try to compete with a mantelpiece display would be too much. Instead, I decorate (very modestly) the tops of armoires and a Bombay chest.

The downstairs is basically one large, open floorplan, so a pair of tables in the foyer, between the kitchen, dining room, and living room, double as serving stations during parties. Accordingly, I decorate each in its own theme. But, because they need to be functional, too, I try to keep the decorations fairly spare. On one, I encircle a couple of three-foot iron trees with smaller, fresh plants.

And, I treat the outside as an extension of the inside. After all, your guests begin forming an impression the moment they pull up. And with a winding driveway, I have the opportunity to nurture their expectation. A couple of trees are lit up, one right at the entrance, another at the bend, pulling them toward a more spectacular display: The fountain in front of the house filled with oversize ornaments, a huge wreath hanging on the side of the barn and the allée leading up to the fountain, all lit up, the barn doors propped open, exposing a wall of glass and all of the warm light coming from inside. It’s a thrilling sight and one that, hopefully, foreshadows a festive night.

It may seem like a lot, but think of it this way: Every ornament, every light is a personal touch meant to show just how much you care. Pick and choose what you like from these Christmas decorating tips, but make that your motivation. If it was just the two of us, Robert and I would probably be happy with the fire and a small tree. (OK, a big tree.) Everything beyond that is part of a concerted effort to create a memorable night for those with us. The fire and tree, they may remember. The overstuffed fountain, the cinnamon-y aroma, the fresh flowers, they’re not likely to forget.

Happy Holidays to you and yours.