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How to Decorate Your Home for the Holidays Like a Pro


It’s that time of year again. The Thanksgiving leftovers are gone, and the December holidays beckon.

Yes, it’s time to decorate.

Whether that means running wild with ribbon and lights, breaking out the family heirlooms or bringing in greenery and flowering bulbs, there are few firm dos and don’ts. But the goal is always the same: creating a festive environment that makes you happy, whichever holidays traditions you observe.

To see how the professionals do it, we followed a few — Jung Lee, an event designer; Elizabeth Roberts, an architect; and Peter Pennoyer, an architect, and his wife, Katie Ridder, an interior designer — as they prepared for a month of celebration.

When Jung Lee, the founder of the event-design firm Fête and the Manhattan home and gift shop Jung Lee New York, decorates her TriBeCa apartment for the holidays, she lets herself get a little carried away.

“I love the holidays because I love to spoil people, and it’s a good excuse to really do that,” said Ms. Lee, 51, who was born in South Korea. “It’s the time I can slow down and focus on being with my family and friends. That’s the most important thing.”

By the time she has finished decorating the apartment she shares with her 16-year-old daughter, Azure (and during the holidays, her 18-year-old son, Jude, who will be home from college), few walls or surfaces are left untouched. There are expanses of bushy garlands, numerous wreaths, vases stuffed with branches and a voluminous, twinkling Christmas tree.

Some elements remain consistent year after year, but Ms. Lee likes to do something different every holiday season. There will always be a tree, for instance, which she purposely buys too large and lops off to a ceiling-scraping height, but it will rarely look the same.

“I feel like a chameleon in that way, because I enjoy so many different things,” Ms. Lee said. “It’s like food. I don’t like just one cuisine — I like so many.”

Some years, she has chosen one or two colors for most of the tree decorations — deep reds paired with vibrant pinks or orange with bronze. In 2019, her daughter requested an ombré tree, and Ms. Lee obliged with decorations that transitioned from chartreuse and lime green at the top to royal and marine blues at the bottom.

This year, she wanted to channel the feeling of a wintry wonderland, so she ignored the tinsel she used last year and flocked her natural tree with spray-on artificial snow to make the branches look frosty. Then she added silvery pine cones and berries, bird ornaments and cut-crystal pieces salvaged from vintage chandeliers.

“I just wanted something a little softer, and serene,” she said. “The tree reflects how I’m feeling each year.”

Across the built-in media unit in her living room, she hung a monumental garland with similar decorations.

Ms. Lee divulged the secret to creating a custom wreath that looks impressive but costs very little: Start with one of those basic, store-bought wreaths with plasticky red bows. Then cut the bows off and weave in sprigs of juniper, holly and eucalyptus to make the garland look fuller and more varied.

Now you can add ornaments. “The trick with ornaments is to cluster them” like bunches of grapes, Ms. Lee said, rather than spreading them out evenly. “It becomes much more impactful.”

She creates clusters of ornaments that she binds with floral wire before attaching them to the greenery — along with glitter-covered reindeer. “You can just weave in whatever you like,” she said. “It’s like a salad bar.”

Any extra green sprigs that fall off or are cut from the tree, garlands or wreaths can be reused in vases or as table decorations. Whatever you do, don’t throw them out, Ms. Lee instructed: “I just hate waste.”

To decorate her kitchen island, for instance, she mixed leftover greenery with holly and white roses, adding a few whimsical ornaments — some bearing pictures of kimchi, which she mounted on foam board as an expression of her Korean heritage; others in the shape of elves with her children’s faces; and some shaped like flying pigs and monkeys, her children’s Korean zodiac animals.

Ms. Lee’s final piece of advice: Don’t second-guess yourself.

“You should have fun and play with it — there is no wrong,” she said of holiday decorating. “If it brings you joy, it’s right.”

Elizabeth Roberts enjoys decorating for the holidays, but you won’t find much in the way of traditional Christmas decorations at this architect’s brownstone in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

“I don’t typically go all out,” said Ms. Roberts, 54, who shares the home with her husband, Michael McKnight, 55, their son, Dean, 14, and a rescue dog, Ace. “We typically don’t have a tree here. Or, if we’re hosting Christmas, we’ll often get a tree just the day before, and it comes down right after that.”

Instead, she brings in more of the plants and flowers she loves and marks the occasion in other, personal ways. This year, she hung magnolia wreaths on the front doors and planted hellebore and evergreen shrubs in containers to soften the look of her stoop.

“We planted live plants instead of using cut tree parts,” Ms. Roberts said. “They’re all beautiful, and they’ll live through the winter when it freezes.” In the spring, she added, “they can be transplanted into the garden.”

Indoors, she continued her approach of decorating with live plants, setting juniper and asparagus ferns in vases and bowls to spread the greenery around the living room. And she couldn’t resist adding a few tall magnolia branches to a big glass vase on the floor — a vertical statement that isn’t a Christmas tree.

“I love magnolia leaves for the holidays,” Ms. Roberts said. “They’re dramatic, and I love how they look against the white wall.”

Her favorite holiday tradition, though, is forcing paperwhite and amaryllis bulbs. “I love the process of starting bulbs,” she said. “I do an amaryllis every year in a vase my mother-in-law gave me. Every day it’s on the table, and you can see the progress.” It’s almost like a grown-up advent calendar, she observed.

Ms. Roberts also forces paperwhite bulbs in water with a germination plate, a small ceramic disc with a hole in the center that can be placed above a glass vase, tumbler or jar to hold a bulb. (Spoiler alert: If you think you’re on Ms. Roberts’s holiday gift list this year, keep an eye on your mailbox.) “You start it at the beginning of December,” she said, “and by the end of December, it’s usually blooming.”

Beyond all those plants, she has a few additional tricks for making her home feel celebratory in December. One is pouring silver-wrapped Hershey’s Kisses by the hundreds into big glass vases. “I think they’re cute and festive, and everybody always loves one, so I put those in huge vessels,” she said. “It’s about abundance.”

She also piles fresh lemons on tabletops, a tip from a friend who suggested it as a way of adding color. “My interiors are often fairly white, but that adds a pop of color everywhere,” Ms. Roberts said. After the holidays, she uses the fruit to make lemon marmalade and chocolate-dipped lemon candies.

Her holiday decorations may not be conventional, but that suits Ms. Roberts just fine.

When it comes to the holidays, she said, “mostly I love the free time and the family time.” Filling her home with more of the things she loves feels natural.

For years, Peter Pennoyer and Katie Ridder used the holidays as an opportunity to travel with their children, Jane, now 30, Tony, 28, and Gigi, 23.

That meant “we often wouldn’t have as beautiful a Christmas tree,” Mr. Pennoyer, 66, said. “I remember one year in Hawaii when we ended up with something from Home Depot that was pink and about 19 inches tall.”

In 2013, the couple, who are based in New York, built themselves a grand, neo-Classical country house in Millbrook — an ideal home for celebrating the holidays. Yet they always found themselves somewhere else instead. That ended this year.

“We’re peripatetic celebrators, but this is going to be our first full Christmas in Millbrook,” Mr. Pennoyer said.

To mark the occasion, they decorated their home with a focus on family. After setting up a Christmas tree in their entrance hall, they dusted off boxes of ornaments kept in storage — “decorations we haven’t seen in 10 years,” Ms. Ridder, 62, said. “They’re things that were given to us, we collected or that our kids made over the years.”

Those ornaments include hollowed-out eggshells the children embellished with glitter and filled with diorama-like scenes depicting Santa Claus and other figures; paper ornaments with juvenile paintings and photos of their children when they were young; mercury-glass balls collected over time; silver ornaments Ms. Ridder’s sisters would give her every year; and quirky ornaments from friends, one shaped like a power boat.

“It’s just a big hodgepodge,” Ms. Ridder said. “It’s a very personal tree, not one that looks like a decorator did it.”

Mr. Pennoyer ordered garlands on Amazon to hang over doors and windows and run up the banister. “I thought they were real — it said the wreaths had something like 200 balsam tips,” he said. Much to his dismay, when they arrived he discovered they were plastic.

Unwilling to waste the artificial ones, he hung them anyway, supplementing them with natural wreaths he bought from nearby Adams Fairacre Farms.

Knowing that their family would gather around the living room fireplace, Mr. Pennoyer and Ms. Ridder revived another family tradition, as well: transforming the mantel into a winter scene with miniatures.

First, they cleared away the art and decorations they normally display, creating a blank slate. Then they added bottlebrush trees, animal figurines and little log cabins. The final touch: replicating a snowy landscape by stretching out cotton balls.

“We used to do it on mirror and put little skaters on top,” Mr. Pennoyer said, for the look of a frozen pond.

Whether skaters are superior to animals is a matter of opinion, he conceded. Regardless, he and Ms. Ridder are happy to finally be home for the holidays.

“It’s especially wonderful,” Mr. Pennoyer said, “because you can really pull out all the stops and decorate.”

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