Making Christmas the Smart Way

By Sarah Winfrey on 8 December 2008 18 comments
Photo: krisdecurtis

When I was growing up, I looked forward to the mysterious day, sometime in the month before Christmas, when my mom would call us and everyone in the family would drop everything and "make Christmas." That's what we called putting up the decorations around the house, choosing the Christmas tree, and decorating it. That day started a whole sub-season for us, where the house would be filled with the most amazing smells and there were always cookies and candy canes and enough hot apple cider for as many cold, snowy kids as walked through the front door.

Now that I'm the adult in my house, I'm finding that making Christmas is suddenly my job. And it's expensive. ARGH! Let me tell you, it's almost been enough to send me running down the street barefooted, calling for anyone available to please (PLEASE!) make Christmas for me. But I persevered (aren't you all relieved?) and here is what I've learned.

Consider a fake tree

Until this year, even the thought of a Christmas tree that didn't waft potential allergens into my nasal passages was sacrilege. A plastic Christmas tree seemed to connote everything that's wrong with the Christmas season, like rampant consumerism and the hairy-scary hectic pace that we all seem to keep up to the holiday. Exactly how it connoted those things is still a mystery to me. What isn't a mystery is that fake trees are cheaper than real ones, especially in the long run, and ESPECIALLY when you consider the time spent dragging the tree inside, setting it up, watering it, cleaning up after those pesky needles, and then taking it all down again. Sheesh! Additionally, fake trees are better for the earth, surprisingly real-looking, and they can end up looking nicer, too, when you bend all of the branches in the right direction.

Start an ornament collection for your kids

When I just a wee little writer-ling, my mom had a fabulous idea. She informed the friends and relatives that I collected angel ornaments. Lo and behold, angel ornaments started pouring in. Seriously, I'm almsot 30 and they still show up, 1 or 2 every year. While some of them have gotten trampled/crushed/melted over the years, I have a goodly stack of ornaments that are tree-ready, and it's wonderful. Because those colored ball-things that break if you cross your eyes at them? They're expensive when you have to buy enough for a tree all at once, beside the fact that then all your ornaments are the same.

Use ribbon...for everything

Until yesterday, I was one of those girls who walked through Costco, got to the ginormous stack of every possible color of ribbon, and wondered who in the world bought it all. Now I know...I do. Ribbon is surprisingly versatile and it's especially inexpensive this time of year. You can use it as a garland for the tree, ornament hanger, something pretty to hang over the curtains, or weave it in and out of your Teddy Town houses instead of that weird snow. For the price, you can't beat it. Also, if you use it in more than one place, it ties your decorating together.

Keep your normal decor, with a twist

It's tempting to want to pull whatever you have in your house into the back rooms and put out the Christmas stuff. Resist this impulse. Your everyday stuff can be "Christmas'd up" so it fits right in. Case in point: my husband and I have a small wooden turtle carved out of wood that usually sits on one of the end tables in our living room. Most days, he's a pretty Hawaiian turtle. But when Christmas comes, he gets a ribbon (RIBBON!) around his neck and he fits right in, AND we don't have to buy something else to sit on the table and look Christmassy. It's also easy to Christmas up plants. Hang light-weight decorations from them, or wrap pots in wrapping paper or (gasp!) ribbon. The possibilities here are only limited by your imagination, and the more stuff you can make work for Christmas, the less you have to buy.

Whatever you do for Christmas, the most important thing I learned this year is that, no matter what I do, Christmas will never be in my house if it isn't in me first. Cheesy? Rather. But that doesn't mean it isn't true!

Share your ideas with me below! I'm sure there are things I haven't figured out yet, and I'd love to hear them.


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Guest's picture

Fake trees are NOT better for the environment. They are made from chemicals (and guess what plastic is made out of). Real Xmas trees come from tree farms, which are a renewable resource. The fact that they are real doesn't mean we destroying the planet. It's not like we are clearing forests of evergreens in the wild to use for Xmas trees.

Guest's picture

What Erik said.

When you think about it, each Christmas tree has to grow for years before it's large enough to be an acceptable decoration. If a tree farmer sells 100 trees each year, and it takes 10 years for the tree to grow, he's got to have a field of 1000 trees at any point in time.

And when you're done with the tree, you can chip it up and use it for mulch!

So much more functional than a fake tree.

Sarah Winfrey's picture

Erik--You know, I've heard so many different things about where Christmas trees come from that I don't know what to believe. When I was looking into buying a plastic one, I found articles about how much damage that much growing/cutting/regrowing does to the ground, so maybe there's things to be said both ways. But the fake tree is still cheaper in the long run...and it doesn't cause allergy attacks ;)

Alaina--What I said to Erik, plus the fact that many of us can't chip it (I live in an apartment in the middle of the city--I can't work on my car on the property, let alone chip a Christmas tree!). I think there are good reasons to buy a real tree and good reasons to buy a fake one, and you have to weigh it all and decide. But don't discount a fake tree just because it's fake.

Guest's picture

There are pros and cons for both. I used to have live trees, until my daughter ended up being sick every holiday. Found out the spores exacerbated her asthma, and since then, have had the same artificial tree. I wish I could go back, but can't. Too cold here to open windows in the PHL area!!!

Andrea Karim's picture

Yeah, I'd go with a fake tree, too. Much as I love a real tree, I break out in rashes if I touch them (no sneezing, though). And I'm not convinced that tree farms are particularly good for the environment, either, especially if they aren't orgnic.

My parents buy a tree every year, but my mom also decorates this large ficus that has been in our house since before I was born. If I had it my way, we'd just decorate that tree every year. It seems to like the Christmas lights.

Guest's picture

We have pared down as we have gotten older, the kids are grown and the grandkids are far awy and growing. I made Christmas today with one box...ONE BOX, and it took less than an hour. Husband was delighted when he got home to see Christmas done and I am happy to have such an easy time of it. Small tree, manger scene, candles and lights. Enough!

Guest's picture
Mom of 6

Yeah, daughter's allergic to pine. But hubby's got multiple chemical sensitivity, especially to petroleum products! One scratch on the arm of the artificial tree and he's on steroids until Valentine's day to combat the allergy! I love my ficus Christmas tree.

Guest's picture

my parents had the same fake tree for decades, i thought it was completely normal to first assemble one's tree before decorating it. i was quite an old kid before i realized that not everyone does that.

it's true that fake trees are made with plastic, etc, but the intention is that you buy one good tree and use it for 20 years. you don't buy a new fake tree every couple years and throw yours out. it's like anything else that's made with plastic -- lawn furniture, whatever. if we were in the mindset that you buy one and use it for ages, it wouldn't so much matter that things are made with plastic, the problem comes when we think of plastic things as disposable.

that said, i mainly go with fake because when i moved into this house, there was a fake christmas tree in the basement. free tree! how could i say no? :)

Guest's picture

hey, you were wondering why fake trees were associated with consumerism and hectic pace in your mind? I suspect it's because of the "Charlie Brown Christmas" special!

Myscha Theriault's picture

Very timely piece, and LOVE the ribbon tip. The stuff that has the wire in the sides so you can form stuff with it is great. But I don't think I've done as many different things with it as you have, though. We are trying to downsize and stay downsized, and since some of my Christmas decorations didn't survive two years in storage, I'm going to be seriously brainstorming ribbon possibilities now that you've shown me the light.

Guest's picture

If you want some pine atmosphere but don't have the budget or space for a tree - collect pine boughs (branches to you) that are trimmed from the Xmas trees at your garden center or Xmas tree lot. Then put them in vases/containers. The shape is bushy - but you can even put ornaments on it and have several around the room - Satisfieds my tree urge - and for the rest, I have several little artficial trees which I put up in the apartment - none of which were costly - and which I have had for years....

Guest's picture

The family tree is one my mom sent me in 1991 or so, which she got at a yard sale. It's a bit ratty, but it's no more ratty than it was when I got it. :P We bought one last year for my son, who is now 11. One day he'll go away and have his own Christmas, and he'll have his own tree with its own memories.

There are always questions about which is better - live or fake. Transportation to and from the tree farm and if the city can use all the mulch from chipping the trees, the ecological impact of having a swath of genetically identical trees, reduction of diversity by clearing out forests to farm Christmas trees, problems of storing the big bulky tree which sees use for 1/12 of the year, using plastics and horrible work conditions to make trees in China and ship the leaden, melamine-tainted products around the world... I think we have to just do our best. Make sure there's no stray weird stuff on the dead trees clustered on the curb so they *can* be chipped, and reuse the fake trees a million times so we don't have to consume more than the once.

Guest's picture

Sarah - try finging a small santa hat to put on your turtle, I bet that would look adorable (and I'd love to see a picture of that, by the way, either with or without the hat)

One thing that I do to Christmas up my regular things is to put fake poinsettia flowers in my houseplants. I got several of these by cutting apart on old wreath or centerpiece thing. It looks great and makes my whole houseplant table look christmassy, and also adds some color since none of my plants bloom in the winter. My favorite is the flowers in my spiderplant and aloe vera.

I also put some of the same flowers in my window pine garland (fake) to add continuity to my decorations.

I can also fit all of my christmas decorations into one large box. The largest item is my small tree, about 1.5 to 2 feet tall, and made of tinsel garland and lights wrapped around a wire frame. I have had that tree since I was about 10-12, and I think my mom bought it at a garage sale or thrift store for a couple dollars.

Guest's picture

I got into this manic crafty mode one year and sewed stockings for each family member from my stash of scrap fabrics (they chose the colors they wanted). Every year the stockings go up on the mantle. This week I had ankle surgery and can't do a tree for the family. The gang has still not decided how they want to handle it. Use their aunt's very small plastic tree or buy a very small live one.

Growing up, we didn't have a green tree but a small beautifully shaped deciduous tree that had been bulldozed down at a construction site. My dad (an artist) dragged it home, put it in a stand, and we decorated it with clear twinkley lights, my mom's homemade popcorn balls (wrapped in orange celophane), and oddball ornaments. Around February, Dad suspended it up side down in the front window where it stayed for years (and which we decorated every Christmas). When Dad died, one of his students asked if she could have it.

Guest's picture

i don't have an opinion on the fake tree like most do.

but i think the Christmas ribbon idea is wonderful!
i like the idea of being able to make your everyday decorations and knick knacks look ready for the holidays.
i used to shove all of my "everyday" pieces into big plastic totes and then pull out all of my holiday themed items.
that's gonna change, NOW!
i just recently transformed a clear candle holder (a giant hurricane vase) into a holiday potpourri/pine cone holder with a bit of red ribbon tied around the top of it.
it looks ready for the holidays without much effort.

Maggie Wells's picture

Well in some places like where I live we have this long an arduous season called 'FIRE SEASON' which used to be a month and now seems to be four months. When I moved to the forest I was all touchy-feely with the whole tree thing. But you know what? Up here residents get permits to go into sections of the forest that need to be thinned for fire. 

(Basically, if you have three trees growing in the same space the two tallest ones will take all the light and nutrients and the third will eventually dry and become kindling for the next fire).

I feel no guilt whatsoever in my husband and mother going on their annual tree hunt. For $10 we get a tree that fits us (this one is seven feet +) and that's one less match stick come fire season.

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

I think that the fake/real tree dilemma should be approached from a regional perspective. In some places in the country fake trees are appropriate, in some real trees are appropriate.

Where I live, in the Rocky Mountain West, you are rightfully ridiculed if you have a fake Christmas tree (aside from legitimate allergy concerns). The West faces huge costs associated with forest fires each year, which thinning goes to alleviate. Christmas trees are a renewable resource that goes to support local jobs. The carbon footprint in transportation costs is far less than if a fake tree were shipped from China. Furthermore, trees are a carbon sink, and by removing thousands of trees from the forest each year, and using them in a way that does not release their carbon into the atmosphere (aka not burning them), more trees will grow up in their place, going to help abate the effects of global warming.

So for me, a real Christmas tree it is. But the reasons why I choose a real tree might not necessarily hold in New York City or Los Angeles.

Guest's picture
Nancy Rocks

My mother started labeling each ornament given by her or received in our family with a to/from gift tag with the year marked. I have continued her tagging tradition. My husband and I have given each of our children one or more ornaments each year. They each have dozens of ornaments to start their own Christmas trees when they move out and they know from whom and when each was received. Whenever I give a tagged ornament as a gift, I always get a comment about what a great idea it is to identify it.