Ways to change up your holiday for the better

The Washington PostDecember 12, 2013 

The holidays are all about tradition, and that’s part of the reason we love them. But sometimes it seems as if we go through December on autopilot, doing everything like we did for years before.

Why not get out of the holiday rut this year and add one or two new festive features?

You don’t have to replace the cherished rituals your clan looks forward to. (We always loved bringing out the basket of holiday cards the family received and having a pick-the-best-and-worst-holiday-card contest.) Think of something to add a fresh perspective to one of December’s practices, such as decorating, gifting, entertaining or just sharing the spirit of the season.

Here are six holiday change-up ideas:

1. Simplify. You don’t have to produce a multi-course, formal holiday dinner every year. Why not go out for a midday meal and invite friends and family for a dessert party later? You’ll save time shopping, cooking and scouring pans, yet you can still pull out your best china and crystal. Kerra Michele Huerta, a designer who specializes in small-space living and writes the blog Apartment Envy, hosted what she calls a “bite-size” Thanksgiving this year. She served cranberry turkey sliders, butternut squash turnovers and other mini-treats. “Appetizers and cocktail hours are almost always the best part of any event,” she wrote. “So why not have an entire night of that?” Huerta began at 4 p.m. and kept popping things out of the oven. “It’s hard to sit down in a small space for a long time; this way you can move around and be informal,” Huerta says.

2. Nurture generosity. Let your children experience the joy of giving, not just the joy of getting. Make a plan to help kids create their own individual gifts for you. Annabel Wrigley, owner of Little Pincushion Studio in Warrenton, Va., holds seasonal workshops so children can sew their own creations. This year, she’s featuring lavender sachets in fun fabrics for moms; for dads, it’s fabric bow ties and cotton canvas travel kits lined in waterproof fabric. “Kids love stamping their own fabric designs and putting personal touches on everything. We live in such a matchy-matchy world that kids love the opportunity to mix or make their own prints,” Wrigley says. “It’s all about asserting creativity without us telling them what to do.”

3. Upgrade your outdoor look. Washington flower designer Allan Woods says that this time of year, plenty of people hang up a standard-issue front-door wreath and figure they’re done with their outdoor decorating. But a little bit more attention goes a long way. Woods often rejuvenates empty flower urns and window boxes that are looking sad and frozen. “We clip off whatever plants are left in the pots down to the dirt. Then we add in magnolia branches, pine branches and some ilex berries for color. You can also put in some giant sugar pine cones,” says Woods, who owns Allan Woods Flowers. “We stuff it all in and make a beautiful, abundant arrangement.” Woods says that if you want to dress up your plain green wreath, use wire to attach some real fruit such as pomegranates, green apples or lemons.

4. Color-code. Instead of reusing old wrapping paper or refilling worn gift bags from Christmases past, a commendable recycling option we’ve all tried, do something unexpected under the tree just this once. Try wrapping the gifts of every family member in a different color or pattern. Don’t tell them their colors until Christmas morning. Then there’s no need for gift tags. Or try this: If you own a lot of ornaments or want to start a new collection, choose a color theme for this year’s tree. Stick to all red or all white ornaments; or hang only metallic, shimmery decorations or only clear glass balls on the tree. Next year, change it up again.

5. Reconnect. Put aside an hour sometime during the holiday season to reconnect with a long-lost friend or relative or two. Think of someone with whom you’ve lost touch but who might be in need of some attention. Families can have a conversation about who would be a good person to reach out to. Ask children to recall former neighbors or faraway cousins they would like to chat with. Instead of just sending an e-mail, call the person or do a video chat on FaceTime or Skype to make the experience more meaningful.

6. Share. Think of three people who make a difference in your life in small ways, and add them to your gift list. Give them a little something for the holidays, whether a loaf of cranberry bread, a Starbucks gift card or a bottle of wine. Some of the unsung heroes in your life might include your mechanic, neighbor, trash collector, parking attendant, school crossing guard, bank teller, barista or grocery store checker. Put a note with your gift saying, “Thanks for all you do.” My mom always used to give her doctor’s office receptionist a plate of homemade European butter cookies or a holiday plant such as an amaryllis. The receptionist remembered that small gesture throughout the year.

More idea: Not the same old Christmas tree

Substitutes for real Christmas trees have been around longer than you might think: no sooner had hauling a conifer into the house become commonplace than people started looking for ways to simplify the process. Early fakes were made of dyed goose feathers, while later iterations – the silver aluminum trees of the 1960s, the white trees of the 1970s – reveled in their artificiality. Today, high-end fakes come pre-lighted and are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing (except for the smell, which remains the single strongest argument out there for real trees).

It’s no wonder that evergreens were synonymous with the winter solstice celebrations long before the popularization of the Christmas tree in the 1800s. After all, there’s virtually no other greenery with which to decorate in December. Even today, the mere silhouette of a conifer has strong connotations – and for many of these postmodern trees, that’s enough.

These are not your risibly unconvincing mid-century bottle-brush trees – these are elegant abstracts made of glass or paper or vinyl or light.

GLASS: At the abstract end of the spectrum, the Glass Rod Tree tree from CB2 is made of green borosilicate glass, and, like most things, it looks even more festive when illuminated from within ($15, www.cb2.com).

WOOD: The Wooden Wall Tree from West Elm – its hooks standing in for branches – is infinitely personalizable. Hang it with holiday baubles now; in the off-season, it can be used for jewelry or other tiny treasures ($19, www.westelm.com).

VINYL: With Decorate the Tree peel-and-stick wall decals, you can still trim the tree – after a fashion. Choose your own color combination and do it up however you please. To round out the effect, this company also makes a cozy-fireplace decal ($48-$98, www.dezignwithaz.com).

PAPER: The Tree for Life (Not Just for Christmas) by British wallpaper designer Deborah Bowness is silkscreened by hand onto paper that can be hung like a scroll, mounted on a board or framed. There are two lush evergreen designs to choose from. ($295, www.deborahbowness.com).

LIGHT: The Lumen LED shadow projector by installation artist Adam Frank casts a flickering shadow of a tree on your wall; the size is dependent on its distance from the wall. Also available with an oil-lamp light source called Lumen Flame. ($68 for LED option, $48 for oil option, www.adamfrank.com).

FABRIC: The snow-dusted Christmas Tree Wall Hanging from Betsy Benn Designs is digitally printed on cotton fabric and features a dowel-pocket at the top for hanging. For thriftier revelers, it’s also available as a poster ($123 for wall hanging, $16 for poster, www.betsybenn.co.uk).

CHALK: The Christmas Tree Chalkboard from the Lovely Wall Co. is just what it sounds like: an infinitely erasable surface for draw-your-own ornaments. Decorate with algebra problems and diagrammed sentences for old time’s sake – chalk included ($32.50)

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