That second type is why we have holiday decorations. Who decided we had to redo our houses temporarily for the season? I don’t imagine that back in ancient times, as the winter solstice descended upon the world, someone said, “The weather is fearsome. Go get the buckets from storage so we can string garlands and tulle through the house for a couple of weeks.”
No, I’m sure it was some mom somewhere who said, “Let me put up a wreath to show how much we love the holidays,” and from there the dam was broken. Now we all have to decorate ourselves into a frenzy.
Of course, for some people, it’s a deeply personal tradition no matter their age or their children’s ages. For them, decorating makes it really feel like the holidays.
Decorating our houses for the holidays is also big business. There’s even a whole store — open all year round, for some reason — called the Christmas Tree Shop.
Each year, as my neighbors start hanging their lights and decorating their Christmas trees, I feel a pang of decorating envy. We are Jewish and celebrate Hanukah. While others may choose to decorate their homes with a Christmas tree no matter their religion, I’ve always heard my mother in the back of my head saying, “Don’t.”
Oddly enough, when I was growing up, we did have a Christmas tree in our house. Only it wasn’t ours. It belonged to Stella, our housekeeper, who celebrated Christmas. Stella, along with her son, had lived with my grandparents for years as their housekeeper. When my grandfather died and my grandmother moved to Florida, Stella came to live with our family (two parents with full-time careers for four kids) and was an important part of it for years. She didn’t retire until I, the youngest, had moved out of the house and gotten married.
As the youngest, I loved hanging out with Stella any time of year. But the real bonus came when she’d deck out her room for Christmas with a small, white artificial tree and tons of lights strung about. As a little girl, I’d spend hours helping her decorate, playing with the Christmas toys and ornaments she’d collected, wondering as I stepped over the threshold why the rest of our house couldn’t have the same decorations.
Thus began my holiday-decorating envy. It’s not like my mother didn’t appreciate holiday decorations. Every year we’d make the annual trek into New York City to see the enormous tree all lit up at Rockefeller Center. It was a big deal to get all dressed up in my velvet dress and new winter coat (and muff — I always had a muff). We would stand in line to see the holiday windows on Fifth Avenue and eat in a beautiful restaurant decorated for the holidays.
For those of us with decorating envy, thank goodness that retailers have figured out a way to satisfy everyone’s holiday needs. There is now a whole blue-and-white category of holiday décor for Hanukah. We even have our own Mensch on a Bench as an answer to The Elf on the Shelf.
My own bucket of holiday decorations is filled with blue-and-white glitter that has flaked off all the Hanukah decorations I’ve collected over the years. Yet I know the rules of motherhood: The things I’m required to display are the decorations my kids made when they were in pre-school, even though my kids are now 18 and 21.
There’s the blue snowflake my daughter made, which some very smart teacher laminated so it would last forever. And I saved all their hand-decorated dreidels collected in a Hanukah basket. There’s even the handmade menorah that I made as a kid, that’s so decrepit it doesn’t hold candles any more. But it’s the law for me to put it on the mantle.
As newly empty-nesters this year, I did start to wonder who I’m decorating for this year: the dogs? But I also realized that it won’t feel officially like the holiday season until my buckets come up from the basement.
I still feel a pang of envy when I enter my friends’ houses all bedecked for the season. One friend had an entire tree made of feathers. Another friend loves to decorate so much she has a different Christmas decorating bucket for every room. Even her kids have their own trees in each of their rooms.
That’s hard work. I’m told it takes at least two or three days on average to decorate inside a house — and that doesn’t even count all the external lights and decorations.
That’s why some people prefer to outsource their Christmas decorating, hiring experts to make their houses look like a Saks Fifth Avenue window display. Designer Rachel Clark of Pittsford says if her clients ask for holiday-decorating help, she advises that they use fresh greens for their color and fragrance. And she says to focus on a few key areas of the house for the greatest impact.
Stacy Ecran of Stacy K Floral says she and her team are hired each year to design and decorate clients’ homes for the holidays. They often work with their clients’ own decorations and also include both fresh and what she calls “everlasting” (silk) greens and flowers. Some clients prefer she change it up each year; others have her take pictures so she can create the exact same look year after year.
Even the experts acknowledge how much work it is — in part because they have homes, too. With a 6-year-old child, Ecran says she’s not allowed to skip out on Christmas. She decorates her house in mid-November, before she starts work on her client’s homes. Joe Nardone, who decorates homes all over the country, also loves to decorate his own home for Christmas. He says as a decorator he has to decorate for the holidays: “What kind of example would I be if I didn’t!”
When we first moved to Rochester, I got a call from a photographer who was shooting a holiday decorating spread for a magazine and was looking for a house to stage the shoot. It was August when they were doing the shoot, but I was thrilled. I’d finally get to play Christmas house, even if only for a day.
I kept waiting for them to finalize the date, anticipating wreaths, evergreens and sugar plums (what is a sugar plum, anyway?). A few weeks later, they told me that they’d decided to go with another house in a neighborhood where the houses were closer together so they could decorate two or three houses at one time.
I was so disappointed. But it reminded me that holiday decorating isn’t about how perfectly beautiful your house is for the holidays. It’s about the real memories you create during the holiday season in that house.
A holiday-happy home includes the smell of great food cooking in the oven and frying in the pan. And the glow of the firelight of candles of any kind, religious or decorative.
Most important, my favorite decoration of all can’t be bought in a big box store: It’s the friends and family who come together to celebrate the season and hold each other close. Now that’s a beautiful house.
— Pam Sherman
Pam Sherman, our Humor Writer of the Month for December, is a nationally syndicated columnist (The Suburban Outlaw), actor, recovering lawyer and leadership consultant who was profiled in People Magazine about her career transition from attorney to actor. She will portray Erma in Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York, Jan. 25-Feb. 11, 2018. She’s the author of The Suburban Outlaw: Tales from the EDGE, an ironic look at life in suburbia.