How to Decorate a Small Home for the Holidays—No Tree Necessary

Our Art Director has the best ideas for when you are long on spirit but short on space.

November 19, 2021
Photo by MJ Kroeger

I’m often asked by friends and family why I don’t have a Christmas tree at home (and by often, I mean every year). My answer never changes: “My apartment isn’t large enough. I live in New York, remember?” I sometimes add that my living situation also involves a walk-up, and that I don’t fancy the idea of lugging up a giant spruce.

And then there’s this slightly controversial opinion, which I relay less often: I don’t really need a tree to spread festive cheer around my home.

Escaping the Christmas tree tradition is harder than one imagines; it’s so front-and-center of holiday decor. But, what if we could deconstruct the idea of a tree, taking the best of what it represents, and bring those smaller elements to our tables and shelves? That idea sits well with Alexis Anthony, Food52’s Art Director, and agony aunt to the creatively-challenged. “You don’t need a tree to bring some nature indoors. All you really need is a large vase, and a branch of your choosing.”

But, because Alexis always makes it sound so much easier than it is—I mean, she's turned branches into chandeliers—we had to have her show us. So, here are three easy-but-impressive ideas for how you can decorate your home when, as she says, you’re “feeling seasonally-inspired but spatially-constrained.” Or, you know, if you’re a minimalist.

When all you have is a shelf

Photo by Rocky Luten

Ok, so your place isn’t blessed with a fireplace mantle. Alexis’s suggestion: Consider the top of a bookcase or a shelf as your home’s hearth, and design a garland for it. “Starting with a blank surface, layer in greenery like cedar, eucalyptus, seeded eucalyptus, and dried flowers. Use the spaces in the branches to anchor each element, taking care to tuck the ends of each piece under another piece of greenery. And for extra drama, drape the garland off of the side,” she says.

If you're not feeling your craftsy best, you can always buy a garland and add flair by weaving through some string lights.

When all you have is a corner

Photo by Rocky Luten

A corner, and some pine branches, may just be all you need. According to Alexis, pine branches (or any other evergreens) are a lovely way to celebrate the season and are a direct nod to the traditional Christmas tree. “Many flower markets at this time will sell these,” she says. Another readily available option is a large bough of eucalyptus, which brings in that festive green color—and a fresh scent to boot. Or, you could look for a tree in a friend's yard—or your own, if you're that lucky—to “borrow” a branch, with or without leaves. Some options Alexis offers are: pussy willow, sanded manzanita, or magnolia. “I like to pick branches with a sculptural shape for visual interest. And if your branch is sturdy enough, you can try hanging some ornaments, or Christmas lights from them,” she says.

When all you have is a tabletop

Photo by Rocky Luten

“For a festive touch at an even smaller scale, look no further than your tabletop,” says Alexis. Think of your tabletop as a canvas, a blank canvas that you can build on. “Pick your favorite platter like this one (but you could also go with trays, vases or bowls) and scatter in nuts in the shell and seasonal fruit like citrus or pomegranates.” The color is of your choosing, just look for produce that's in season. You can also pick a prop or two. “Here, I’ve added in a special wooden matchbox to elevate the vignette,” says Alexis. For extra glow, add a votive (or a few) in between and viola, you’re ready for the season.

Want a couple more minimal-effort, major-impact ideas? Try these.

A Tabletop Vignette

If you have an entryway table (or desk, or vanity), you can repurpose it to hold all your most adored Christmas trinkets. Here, little deer candle holders frolic among a mini forest of bottlebrush trees, and above them hangs a very doable DIY—a dried orange slice garland.

Tiny Tabletop Tree

Okay, technically there is a small tree in this sweet little setup, but it’s just a little guy! One of the easiest things to do when decorating seasonally is to incorporate decor in with what you already have, so A) it’s easy to coordinate and B). you don’t have to do much to make a big impact. If, for example, you have a shelf or credenza that holds a few frames, adding some garland, a bitty tree, and a couple candlesticks instantly Christmas-ifies the space.

Bedroom Vanity Garland

No staircase or mantel to hang garland? No problem. Garland looks great fluffed up just about… anywhere. Including your bedroom vanity mirror. The same goes for an entryway mirror, a bathroom mirror, a floor-length mirror—you name it, they all look fantastic when dressed up for Christmas.

Branches in Bottles

Did you know that you can collect the clippings of Christmas trees from farms and home improvement centers for free? Yep. Think about it: what would they be doing with those cast-offs besides throwing them out? Go and collect some (or clip a few branches off a friendly neighbor’s tree—with permission!) and toss them in whatever bottles or bud vases you have, and scatter or cluster them on the table.

Team Tree or Team Everything Else? (Just me?) Tell us in the comments below!

This article was updated in November 2021 to add even more small home ideas.

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Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor. Formerly at GQ and Architectural Digest, she's now based in Brooklyn.


Maggie S. December 6, 2019
When all you have is a tea saucer?
Arati M. December 6, 2019
May I suggest a hot toddy in a cup, then? (see: