Last-Minute, Stress-Free Holiday Decorating

Holidays are inevitably stressful, between work, travel, family, and shopping at packed malls for presents that you feel obligted to buy. Getting your home ready for the holidays shouldn't add unnecessary stress to everything else that you are dealing with. Of course, you shouldn't feel obligated to decorate for the holidays if it isn't something you enjoy doing, but what if you really want to?

If you've never decorated for the holidays before, or want some tips on how to decorate without spending a ton of cash or going crazy, this article is for you!

What to Decorate With

Some people like to go a little nuts with their holiday decorations, and that's fine. But if you want to decorate with minimal fuss, you can simply choose two or three decoration types and stick with them. It will keep the holiday decorations from getting too cluttered, and set-up and take-down will be easier.


For the life of me, I can't think of a single decorative object that spruces up a room more than a garland. Garlands can be made from pretty much anything, and they are one of the easiest holiday decorations to DIY. Be they made of popcorn or marshmallows, pinecones or ornaments, bows or Christmas cards, pretty much anything can be strung on a ribbon and hung over the fireplace, around doorways, across windows, around the Christmas tree, or along the dinner table.

Garlands made of evergreen boughs or other plant materials can be expensive to purchase, but if you have trees in your yard, you can make your own garlands. They can be as ornate or as simple as your time and energy dictate, and you can use pine, fir, cedar, or even bare deciduous branches to put together lovely strands of garlandy goodness. Do try to collect your greenery on your own property rather than robbing the national parks. Sometimes neighbors are also happy to donate fallen branches to your decoration cause, so ask around if you don't have any appropriate trees or shrubberies in your own yard.

Bunting (strands of flags or fabric banners) is a huge hipster trend these days, and it decorates everything from weddings to baby showers to garden parties. This is actually a good thing, because bunting is cheap to buy and easy to make. Bunting and gardlands aren't limited by shape or materials. You can use felt or craft foam, fabric or paper. You don't need sewing skills — this no-sew bunting project will make any home look charmingly vintage for the holidays. Paper-chain garlands are so old school that they have to be hip. Snowmen, stockings, birds, bells, holiday cards clothes-pinned to some twine — you can string anything across a bit of ribbon or string and you've got a festive look.

On a side note, cheerful bunting also makes an excellent gift for a hostess. You don't have to make it Christmas-themed, because brightly colored circles of felt are also a great way to decorate a kid's room or an Easter brunch.

Photo by inger maaike


Candles are romantic and lend an old-fashioned glow to your home. Grouping candles together on protected surfaces makes for unique displays (also, they are easier to light when they are all in one area). You can use tapers, votives, columns, or themed candles. Sticking to a single color or a color theme helps shape the holiday look of your home.

Holiday Candles by Athena

Buying candles that are specifically designed for holiday consumption is more expensive than collecting them on sale year-round. IKEA has cheap candles available at any time of year, so if you have an IKEA in your area, you can stock up on candles (and smoked fish).

As always, take extreme care with open flame, especially around pets, children, and tipsy guests who act like children.

Glass Bulbs and Ornaments

Those cheap glass bulbs that you use to fill in much of your Christmas tree are a valuable asset. For one thing, they are incredibly cheap. For another, they are available in an amazing array of colors and no matter what, just look like holiday decorations. A few years ago, my mom went crazy buying up silver glass bulbs at a Boxing Day sale when they were $1 a box at Target. She stuck to mostly silver and gold, and as a result, we have many dozens of metallic bulbs in different sizes that are used in a variety of ways to deck the halls.

One year, my mom filled jars with tinsel and bulbs and stuck them all over the house in little groups. It looked great, and they reflected the light from small votives beautifully. Actually, you can throw pretty much anything in a jar or vase, including burned-out bulbs from strands of Christmas lights (picture 11), and create a festive look.

Cheap ornaments of a general holiday theme work well in a variety of locations — placed in groups on the mantel, hanging from fishing wire in the windows, decorating garlands, tucked around the base of pillar candles, hanging from chandeliers, or dangling from the banister. I have a bunch of plastic snowflakes covered in glitter that are ugly by themselves, but hang 40 of them in front of the fireplace, and you've got a beautiful Christmas display.

Just remember to take care when packing up your ornaments after the holidays so that they last for years.

Items from Christmases Past

Vintage Christmas stuff is a hugely popular now — from collectible tin Santas (picture 79 in the slideshow) to Victorian-era Christmas cards. If you have access to some good secondhand stores, check out their Christmas sections to see what kind of bargains you can find.

If you're the kind of person who saves old Christmas cards, you have a goldmine of decorative possibilities in your attic right now.

Natural Elements

It's funny how bare tree limbs and snow-covered lawns make us so much more aware of our outdoor world than we might be in the summer. Leafless trees mean some good birdwatching, which is probably why birds seem to make a common appearance in Christmas decor.

My neighborhood has a plethora of pine trees, and they drop a variety of pretty fir cones that I pick up from the sidewalk and my backyard and use in my home and garden decorating. Pine cones can be dried in the oven and then painted any color you want (white looks particularly Christmas-y, but so do blue, silver, and gold). Or you can just leave pine cones and seed pods their natural colors. Hang some pine cones with silk ribbon, and you've got yourself a pretty holiday display.

Evergreen boughs and deciduous branches can be used in vases for Christmas bouquets or made into affordable homemade wreaths. Acorns, chili peppers, rosehips, thistles, dried grass — all of these things can be strategically arranged in glass bowls or antique cake stands with a red candle or two. And best of all, scrounged seed pods are free!


Stockings hung by the chimney with care is a Christmas classic, but you can hang stockings pretty much everywhere, and you don't have to stuff all of them. Cheap stockings can be purchased at any craft store or big-box store during the holiday season, or you could do what Martha Stewart recommends and make some stockings out of old sweaters. It's not a bad up-cycling idea and is a great way to get further mileage out of something like an outdated sweater. Assuming you're handy with a sewing machine, stockings also make great gift-wrapping for hostess gifts.

Anything Handmade

I don't have kids, but I have to admit — I love the stuff that kids make for the holidays. Lord help me, I am charmed to death by pipe cleaner reindeer and Christmas ornaments made of pasta and glitter.

Are these ornaments particularly elegant or refined? Goodness, no. But I can't help myself; my sister's handmade glittery snowflakes circa 1985 glow more warmly in the lights of a Christmas tree than any hand-blown recycled glass artisan ornament ever could. I love going through the ornaments that my sister and I made in school as children — egg carton Santas or baked clay wreaths with our goofy smiling Polaroid pictures in the middle.

I'm also still smitten with windows full of hand-cut paper snowflakes. You can use paper doilies for a head-start on more intricate shapes.

For me, holidays are full of wonderful memories, and each ornament is a testament to our fun times as a family. Do they fit with an overall decorative theme? Sure, as long as that theme is "joy."


The holidays are very often a time for over-indulgence, and candy is usually in ready supply. Holiday colors of red, white, green, and blue make decorating with candy an easy task. Whether you've got a supply of candy canes or M&Ms, simple glass jars and vases filled with brightly striped candy always send holiday vibes.


Are you good at tying bows? I'm not, which is why I only wear shoes with velcro straps. But if I were a bow-tying prodigy, I would probably string them all over our house during the holidays. You can choose one color, like offwhite or cream, or go with a traditional holiday palette of red and green. Big, festive bows on doors, the tops of windows, banisters, and wreaths add a pop of color that can be as subtle or as festive as you want.

Lace Doilies

Lace doilies have long been a punchline in the world of home decorating, much like fruitcake is the laughingstock of Christmas gifts. But lace doilies are an affordable purchase as most secondhand stores and look a great deal like snowflakes. My grandmother is a prolific crocheter, and I have several star-shaped doilies that she made years ago for Christmas. I've added my own twist; I've dyed them pale blue, strung them on thick silk ribbon, and hung them from my windows. A little starch keeps their shape intact and they add an instant dash of holiday spirit to my otherwise rather un-Christmasy kitchen windows.

Where and When To Shop

I personally want to weep at the sight of a car-filled mall parking lot around the holidays. I can't deal with the crowds and the lines, the canned Christmas music, and the random flash mobs singing "Hallelujah" in the food court.

As Mikey Rox pointed out in his recent article on classy holiday decorating, purging your holiday decorations is even more important than collecting new ones. Rather than steadily accumulating more holiday-related junk every year, spend some time at the beginning of your decorating spree simply removing items from your collection.

When stocking up on new holiday decorations, it will behoove you to buy secondhand. Vintage stuff is so in right now that you can't go wrong looking for ornaments or tree skirts at stores like Value Village, The Salvation Army, or Goodwill. In my state of Washington, Goodwill has actually opened Christmas Shoppes in Tacoma and Spanaway. Secondhand stores and dollar stores are also the smartest places to stock up on other holiday supplies, like wrapping paper and ribbon.

The sad truth is that the best Christmas shopping is to be had in the days and weeks after Christmas, when stores want to dump their leftover inventory and refresh their stock with bright red boxes of Valentine's candy. Shopping on Boxing Day is kind of an exercise in navigating chaos, but if you really want to snatch up leftover Christmas stuff at 75% off, it's your best bet. Remember, even if you don't get around to decorating this year, biding your time until you can buy 30 packs of tinsel for $5 can be worth it for next year.

Additional photo credits: inger maaike, Athena's Pix, Amy Loves Yah
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