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How to decorate for Christmas

Liz Holt Protell ’64 has decorated Santa Catalina’s Hacienda Christmas tree for the past seven years. As families start to decorate their trees and homes for the holidays, we asked her advice on lighting, color schemes, and whether to go real or artificial. “As long as you put a little thought and a lot of love into your decorations,” she says, “they will be fantastic and bring joy to you and yours.”

I’m short on time. What are some easy ways to decorate my home?

The easiest way to decorate your home for the holidays is to group three trees of varying heights together and string them with white lights. Then, add pots of red or white poinsettias around the base. Carry the theme throughout your home with centerpieces of greens illuminated by battery-operated lights and adorned with gold, red, or white Christmas balls. Candles grouped together with pine boughs and Christmas balls are very effective on a table or mantel.

The trick is to look at your existing home décor and add greens, lights, and flowers that complement what you have. If red poinsettias clash, for example, use another color or flower. White orchids with gold or chartreuse balls tucked in the leaves are a good alternative.

What are your favorite go-to items for the holidays?

My basic items are good, prewired artificial trees, swags, and wreaths. They are an investment, but in the long run they actually save you money and time. They look good the entire holiday season, and fragile or heavy ornaments won’t slide off the branches. Also, the shape is always consistent. If you miss the pine or cedar smell, add real wreaths inside.

How do I go about creating a beautiful Christmas tree?

Take some time to think about the space and the audience. In my own home, I have a “grown-up tree” filled with fragile ornaments collected for generations, I have purely decorative trees, and I have a kid-themed tree.

When adding lights, start from the top down and string the lights from the trunk to the end of the branches and back. That way, the lights are dropping down to the lower level of branches at the trunk of the tree. The goal is to not show any wires; green pipe cleaners help secure any uncooperative strands, and are also useful for securing ornaments to branches or for making bunches of three ornaments.

One technique to create a full tree is to use solid-colored glass balls on the interior of the tree. Then, use your other ornaments toward the ends of the branches. This technique is for noble firs or trees with spacing between the branches, and particularly with artificial trees. Art mesh can have the same effect. For dense, conical shaped trees, there is no need to fill in the center.

Which do you prefer: colored lights or white lights?

I prefer white lights because they go with any decorating color scheme, but I love colored lights on the kids’ tree, as do the children. It’s really special to sit with a small child on your lap in the dark with the colored lights on and talk with them about Christmas past and present. It’s even more special if they have helped create that tree with strands of popcorn, gingerbread men, candy canes, and paper chains. By the way, you can store those strands of popcorn in a plastic bag for the following year.

Do you have any pet-friendly or child-friendly tips for decorating?

Poinsettias are poisonous to pets, so be careful with those. I always put soft and non-breakable ornaments near the bottom of the tree and add fake packages or pots of flowers around the bottom to slow down inquisitive hands or paws. Elevating the tree on a plywood box or table makes a smaller tree look more impressive and keeps babies at bay. Just be sure you secure the tree with fishing line to a window or doorframe for stability. One year, I spray-painted a wooden playpen red and put the tree inside to keep the baby out. This year I will have a puppy in the house and five grandchildren and their dog, so I’m essentially holding my breath.

Are there any non-visual items, such as scents or sounds, which you incorporate into your holiday decorating plans?

I really don’t care for artificial scents, so I clip fresh greens from the yard and stick them in arrangements or tuck them into fireplace logs. I also have hours of holiday music that I can play.

Where do you turn for decorating ideas and supplies?

Locally, the very best store is Carrigg’s of Carmel. They have wonderful displays for inspiration. Go to Beverly’s, Costco, Target, Walmart, and Orchard to pick and choose decorations. Frontgate and Grandin Road catalogues have the best artificial trees and swags. Griggs Nursery in Carmel Valley has wonderful topiaries. Martha Stewart is a great resource for DIY tips if you are really handy. During the summer or fall, I collect sugar pine cones at Tahoe; wholesale resources are Winward Silks and the San Francisco Flower Mart.

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