The secret to Christmas decorating? Start with a feeling : Life Kit Designer Elaine Griffin explains her philosophy when it comes to decking the halls for Christmas, Hanukkah and all your winter festivities: Begin the process with intention — and don't be afraid to depart from tradition.

It's time for holiday decorations. How to create an iconic theme — and save money

It's time for holiday decorations. How to create an iconic theme — and save money

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Picking a color palette is an important part of decorating for the holidays, says interior designer Elaine Griffin. So experiment with colors outside of the traditional red and green scheme. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Picking a color palette is an important part of decorating for the holidays, says interior designer Elaine Griffin. So experiment with colors outside of the traditional red and green scheme.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

I've been decorating my place for Christmas, and I realized I don't really have a cohesive design scheme. I basically just hang up the same old hand-me-down ornaments and string lights every year. And I thought to myself: there must be a better and more fun way to do this.

So I turned to Elaine Griffin, a 20-year veteran in interior design and author of Design Rules: The Insider's Guide to Becoming Your Own Decorator, for advice. She says "you get to make the rules" when it comes to making your home merry and bright for Christmas, Hanukkah and all your winter festivities. But there are a few tried and true ways to create a look that feels pulled together and reflects your personal style.

Her philosophy? Begin your holiday decorating process with intention — and don't be afraid to depart from tradition, says Griffin, who is based in Georgia and has an honorary PhD from the New York School of Interior Design.

1. Start with a feeling

Think about how you want to feel when you look around your decorated house. Cozy? Energized? Nostalgic?

Once you've settled on your mood, decorate for all five senses: sight, sound, scent, touch and taste, says Griffin. If your holidays are all about being cozy, you could have plates of sugar cookies on the kitchen table, vanilla-scented candles on the credenza and fuzzy blankets on the couch.

Consider the five senses when decorating for the holidays, says Griffin. Incorporating decor that engages the sight, smell, sound, taste and touch can create an immersive experience. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Consider the five senses when decorating for the holidays, says Griffin. Incorporating decor that engages the sight, smell, sound, taste and touch can create an immersive experience.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

If you want a space that feels rich and opulent, Griffin suggests hanging white lights to create a soft golden glow and putting metallic-colored ornaments into a centerpiece to add a lavish flair. Play your favorite holiday music on a speaker to add to the grandeur.

Don't forget to factor in your current emotional state, says Griffin. "That's part of it. If you lost a family member this past year, you might decide, 'I really don't want to decorate.'"

In that case, you might cut back on the holiday cheer, she adds — and that's OK. Set out a few poinsettias, put up a mini tree and call it a day.

2. Decide how big you wanna go

"Your holiday decorations are a continuation of the design statement that you are already making in your home," says Griffin. "So you want to look at your decorating style in general. Are you a minimalist? Or are you a maximalist?"

Subtle and strategic

If you're more of a minimalist and want to prioritize keeping your space functional, Griffin says that this one essential design rule will help you streamline your decor. In a room, the first area you see is the spot right across from the entrance. "Designers never leave that empty because the eye has to have somewhere to land," says Griffin, "and it needs to land on something very pretty."

So place a centerpiece in that spot, she says. It can create the same effect as filling a room up with holiday knickknacks. You can make one by thrifting a decorative glass vase and filling it with ornaments.

And don't forget to consider color. If you're going for minimal, you may want to choose decorations in soothing, neutral shades, like beige stockings and white garlands.

You can also pull color schemes from your favorite designers for inspiration. "If you think about Calvin Klein," says Griffin, his palette is "beige, gray, white, black." To create a similar theme in your holiday decor, Griffin recommends hanging silver and black ornaments with pops of navy blue. "That's a very calming statement that would not be offensive to a Calvin Klein minimalist."

Big and bold

Griffin herself is a maximalist. "The bigger, the better, the bolder," she says. If that sounds like you, then embrace the aesthetic of excess this holiday season. That might mean loading up a tree with ornaments, adding garlands and lights throughout your living space and filling your lawn with inflatable snowmen and reindeer.

Griffin likes to wrap up empty boxes to create the illusion of a mountain of gifts under her tree. And she says one of her fellow maximalist friends is notorious for putting up a tree in every room.

3. Don't be afraid to depart from tradition

Reflect on your childhood. What were your holiday decorations like? Did your parents have a mini Christmas village that took over the living room that you weren't allowed to touch? Did you grow up making DIY paper chains and snowflakes?

Feel free to recreate the traditions you loved — and scrap the ones you didn't. Then "give yourself permission to do something different," she says.

Let's say you want to depart from the traditional red and green decor you grew up with. Try your hand at a Miami Beach-inspired look, suggests Griffin. Instead of traditional holiday greenery, consider using palm fronds. Or get an artificial silver or white tree to replicate the whiteness of a sandy beach. Ornamental bulbs in tropical colors like pink and turquoise can add the finishing touch.

4. Find clever ways to save money on decor

Decking your halls can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be, says Griffin. Hit up thrift stores in your area for wreaths, ornaments, candle holders and other holiday decor. Or throw an ornament swap party with your friends to get new pieces to freshen up your collection.

You can also take a look at what you have in your home and see what can be used as decorations. "Be resourceful," says Griffin. Your collection of seashells for example, can be strung up as ornaments for your tree. Collect pinecones from your neighborhood and place them in a fun bowl on your coffee table.

Or ask people selling Christmas trees for any cut branches or tree trimmings. "Those are free," says Griffin. Turn them into wreaths, a centerpiece for your dining room table or wrap them around your staircase banister.

Griffin shares a final word of decorating wisdom: Consider how much effort you want to put into cleaning up — taking down the tree, the ornaments, the lights. "What goes up must go down," she says. So "think about your level of commitment to" putting away that decor.


This episode of Life Kit was produced by Margaret Cirino. Our visuals editor is Beck Harlan, and our digital editor is Malaka Gharib. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.