While every person has a unique idea of how the holidays should be, my fondest holiday memories generally involved a house full of people and lively energy. Although arguably, the best part would have to be all the special perks for kids—to a child in the old days before smart phones and tablets, very few things could possibly top the excitement of staying up late, stuffing yourself with sweets and binging on holiday movies.
Among many holiday activities, dressing the tree was always the highlight. Every year when that long-anticipated special day finally arrived, my sisters and I would take out a big box of ornaments and ecstatically go through every single piece together before putting them on the tree—because clearly these guys all had a story of their own that needs to be retold.
Afterwards, we would ditch our beds for a whole week and camp out in the living room under the tree. Each night, the three of us would chat and giggle next to one another in our sleeping bags until we fell asleep under those twinkling lights. And you can bet those were some of the sweetest dreams.
Now, having been living away from our families for many years, my husband and I have gotten somewhat used to spending the holidays on our own and with friends who are unable to make it back home for whatever reason that year. How to fill our adult apartment with holiday vibes that makes everyone feel at home thus has become a quest turned tradition that we both hold dear.
Here are the 5 steps that we have gleaned over the years:
Start with the music. Set a playlist of holiday classics on repeat. Now we're talking.
Be bold and generous with string lights (do try to stick with one bulb color for ambience consistency). A home can never, ever have too many Christmas lights during the holidays, especially given the offerings of energy efficient LED options nowadays. Biased perhaps, to me the lights bring out the je ne sais quoi that makes any place magical.
I am obsessed with string lights that have a timer—they really works wonders, especially for elevated spots or outdoor. Set them up once and never need to worry about it for the entire month of December.
Find the appropriate type/size of holiday greenery for the space and throw them on at your whim: garlands, wreaths, and of course, a tree. Depending on where you are, these can be either fresh, dried or artificial. Besides the obvious choices of mantel and stair handrails (that most city apartments don't have), wall shelves, bookcases, a spare chair, an empty wall—essentially any nook or cranny at home can be easily turned into a holiday display with draping greenery and a few removable hooks.
It’s always fun to invite a few friends over to decorate wreaths together. The one pictured above was made with grapevine, seeded eucalyptus, thistle, and red brunia berries. Don’t throw away the grapevine base after the holidays! It can be re-used every year and also works well as home decor in its bare form.
As for the tree decoration, our family has a holiday tradition wherein every invited guest is encouraged to bring an ornament for the tree. Some years a certain theme or color is provided to add more fun. Along with the other trinkets nestled between the branches, this ornament would continue to serve as a memento that brings back a unique set of memories in the years to come.
When it comes to Christmas tree, I tend to think the taller the better. The ceiling height minus 1 to 2 feet (factoring in the height of tree topper if you have one) is generally my rule of thumb to determine the ideal tree size.
Can’t forget about the scent—the invisible but crucial touch. Oftentimes, I start by making a crockpot of spiked cider at home, well before we got to tackle the more elaborate tasks. Leave the setting on warm and let the aroma infuse the space—it's the quickest way to set the mood on holiday mode.
Enjoy the fruits of step 1 through 4, kick back and indulge ourselves. Take a moment to reflect on the past year, but even more importantly, to cherish the present and people surrounding us that we are blessed to share this very moment with. After all, the best holiday joy is to eat, drink and be merry with our favorite people
Melissa Lee is the founder and creative director of Bespoke Only, a boutique event design studio in New York City. (She's also a very good photographer, and took all these pictures of her home in Brooklyn for this feature! We sent her our Celina Mancurti stockings and tree skirt for the shoot.)
Spruce, pine, or fir? Tell us your preferred Christmas tree type in the comments.
Choose your holiday adventure! Our Automagic Menu Maker is here to help.View Maker