It’s the most wonderful time of the year. And the most stressful for many of us. Not because we don’t love the season, but because we want to make each part of it memorable for our families and friends.
We want our homes to look good, smell good and feel welcoming. They’ll be home for Christmas, and we want to be ready. The Currier & Ives images that many of us grew up with are part of the season’s magic. When the host feels it, the guests do, too.
Here are 12 “hacks” to help you navigate some of the stresses of the season by giving you some less expensive, easier and more practical ways to get that special holiday magic for your home.
Just remember — it’s not about making it perfect; it’s about making it special and collecting moments.
1. Make an entrance
In each place I’ve lived, I’ve worked to make the entryway welcoming. I change it several times a year, adding items I’ve collected, or moving pieces from other areas of the house to make them more visible. The most special items are those passed down from my parents and grandparents, and ones that my children have made.
Estate sales and auctions are also great places to find items and give them new purpose, especially entry tables. I got my table for half-price at a retail store because of a flaw (now strategically hidden) that happened during shipping.
Be on the lookout for great deals. Again, don’t rule out discount stores for some of the basics — candles, baskets and mirrors. Statement pieces are great, but it’s the details that will round out your vignette.
Tip: Place potpourri, candles or sachets in this area to keep it smelling nice.
2. Wrap outside the box
If you save jars, then you know they’re handy for more than just collecting pennies. Mason jars, spaghetti sauce jars and pickle jars work well as packages for holiday gifts from the kitchen. Fill them with nuts, trail mix, cocoa mix and mini marshmallows, favorite candies, dried fruits, peppermints or cinnamon sticks. Cover the lid with a square of fabric or scrapbook paper, trim and fold under the lid and secure with tape.
I add another circle of fabric or paper to cover the part that’s folded under. Tie a pretty ribbon around the neck of the jar, and you’re done. Other useful containers are chip cans and waxed paper or foil boxes. Be sure to rinse out the chip can and let it dry completely before using. These are great for stacking cookies.
Tip: Keep a basket of these by the front door to share with friends and neighbors.
3. Light the way
A topiary dressed in white lights sets the scene, but you don’t have to shell out $65 a pop to achieve the look. Pick up a couple of inexpensive plastic planters (I chose dark ones because they look like pottery), two tomato cages (one-stop shopping), two 6-foot strands of garland and two strings of 100-count white lights.
With a pair of strong wire cutters, snip off the largest ring of the tomato cages, leaving the vertical wires so they can be tucked into the planter. Wrap the garland and lights along the tomato cage. Embellish if you like, although the greenery and lights alone can be pretty stunning.
Tip: Place a brick or two in the planter to keep it steady.
4. Presents that pop
Gift bags are wonderful for quick gifting emergencies, and there are still a few stores that offer free gift-wrapping, but the holidays are the perfect opportunity to show off your own wrapping skills and make the gift recipient feel extra special, courtesy of a beautifully wrapped present.
Options are plentiful. There are hundreds of gift-wrap patterns. And scrapbook paper is a good option for smaller gifts. I love the natural look of plain brown kraft paper (often $1 at discount stores) adorned with ribbons in holiday plaids. Embellishments like rhinestones, twigs and greenery, silk poinsettias and various swag will also boost the wow factor. Personalize gifts with the recipient’s name, a special message or a line from a favorite holiday song in silver or gold ink.
Tips: Use double-sided tape for a professional look. Flatten wrinkled ribbons with an iron set on medium heat.
5. Scents of the season
It hits you when you walk in — that wonderful pine and citrus smell of Christmas, for which certain retail stores have become known. Fragrances like these can elicit fond memories, and you can create them in your home all season long — without the expensive price tag of store-bought potpourri. Stir your guests’ senses when you keep a pot of this holiday potpourri simmering on your stove.
• 2 cups water
• One lemon, sliced
• One orange, sliced
• 4 cinnamon sticks, broken in half right before cooking
• 1 teaspoon whole cloves
• 4 sprigs fresh rosemary (rubbed with your hands to release the oils)
• 1/2 cup fresh cranberries
Tips: Don’t let the pot boil dry. Add more water as needed. Before slicing, press and roll the fruit several times to release the juices. Add a couple of drops of your favorite essential oil for an even stronger scent.
6. Gather ye cones
Neighborhoods and parks are full of pine cones this time of year, so keep a bucket or bag in your vehicle, and fill it up. We make a family outing of it. No time? Pick up a bag of scented pine cones at craft stores for about $5.
Pine cones add texture and a sense of the outdoors to holiday displays. It’s an easy way to bring nature inside. Try them in centerpieces and garlands, as ornaments, even fire starters.
A fun craft for the kids is to make an outdoor bird feeder by covering a cone with peanut butter and rolling it in birdseed. Hang using a piece of twine, and watch the happy results.
Tip: If you gather pine cones outdoors, bake them on a foil-lined baking sheet at 200 degrees for about 30 minutes to rid them of any pests.
7. Ice like the pros
I tried, in vain, for years to make my holiday cookies look like the beautifully decorated examples in glossy food magazines. But I could never control the lines. The answer? Condiment bottles. They allow you to ice cookies with more ease and control.
Use one bottle (less than $1 at discount stores) for each icing color. After a while, you won’t want to limit your new skill to cookies. You can drizzle chocolate, caramel and other flavorings and sauces on fruits and desserts, even pretzels. The kids will enjoy making designs on their cookies, too. If you’re really pressed for time, decorate store-bought cookies.
Tips: After you fill condiment bottles with icing, set them in a pan of warm water to keep the icing fluid. Let each color dry on the cookie or dessert before adding the next color.
8. Photographic memories
No one ever knows what to do with all those lovely holiday cards. Really like that family photo? Take a pic. Make it the contact photo for that person in your phone. You’ll always have the image. And your family will be charmed by the idea — if they ever get their hands on your phone.
Tip: Crop the photo to show each person if you have more than one family member in your contact list.
9. Don’t sweat the wreath
Make unique holiday wreaths without spending a fortune by using old kid-sized sweaters that you don’t mind recycling for this project. Or head to the resale shops.
The base of the wreath can be the traditional foam ring ($5 to $10, depending on size) or a pool noodle ($1). (I used a pool noodle for the larger wreath and two foam rings for the others.) I cut through the foam rings using sharp scissors, spread them enough to slide on sleeves cut off an old sweater, then taped the ends together with duct tape. Do the same with the pool noodle.
Position the sleeves the way you want them, then pin in place with T-pins. Decorate with ribbons, ornaments or beads. If you’re using your child’s old sweater, consider using a couple of his or her favorite toys. This is a fun way to personalize a holiday wreath.
Tip: Keep pins on the side of the wreath that will face the wall or door.
10. Hung with care
Decorating with foliage goes back to early civilizations. We’ve taken it up a few notches since then, but fresh garlands are still a holiday staple. Stringing cranberries and popcorn to hang on the tree is a fun, old-fashioned tradition. .
I made kid-friendly garlands using gumdrops for one and pompoms for another. These were discount-store purchases strung on sturdy dental floss. I used pine cones on natural twine ($1 from the discount store) and draped them across the mantel. The most labor-intensive was a felt garland similar to one sold by a popular retail store, using felt squares bought at the craft store (39 cents each), which were cut into strips and strung on embroidery floss.
Tip: Buy inexpensive greenery, and enhance it with your own custom-made garlands.
11. Fireside beauty
If you have a fireplace, it’s a natural centerpiece for holiday decorating. My mother used to lay out a snow scene with Santa, his reindeer and little trees poised above our carefully hung stockings. We hung them there every year by the warm, crackling fire.
It’s a scene that’s burned into my memory.
I love to mix vintage and new decorations. I add a few new things each year, mixing them with traditional decorations (my mom’s pieces). Don’t shy away from the discount stores. You’ll be surprised what you can find — an unexpected piece might fit right in with your carefully decorated vignette. Some of my finds: flower picks for sprucing up arrangements, interesting items to tie on gifts, a reindeer covered in gold sparkles, vintage-looking trays, candles, ribbon and a fleece throw in Christmas plaids. A cozy corner near the fire will beckon visitors when you add a comfy chair with plush throws for snuggling.
Tip: The traditional Christmas palette of red and green has grown to include many shades of both. Enjoy mixing in barn and cranberry reds, forest greens and woodsy browns — plus plaids that feature combinations of colors.
12. Smarter storage
It’s over, and you survived. Memories were made. Make the whole process easier on yourself next year by storing your ornaments a new way. Egg cartons can handle smaller, delicate ornaments. Paper or plastic cups protect larger ornaments.
Take it a step further and glue plastic cups to a large piece of cardboard, then stack those in a large crate. And what about all of that wrapping paper you’re going to buy at the post-holiday sales? Hit the discount stores again, and snag a couple of tall, plastic garbage cans to keep your rolls of paper neat and organized. Then tuck them away in a closet until they’re needed again.
Tip: To keep wrapping paper rolls neat, hold them in place using the cardboard cylinders found inside rolls of paper towels. Just cut open one side of the cylinder, then wrap it around the paper roll. No more mess.