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December 14, 2006

Cheap and Easy Writing Avoidance Techniques 101: Holiday Decorating

by Nancy Martin

Quick! If you had to kill someone using a weapon from the room around you, what would you choose?

Me, I'd pick the lead crystal reindeer that is regally poised like Bambi's father on the edge of my desk. His antlers could puncture the skull of a home invader, I'm pretty sure.

Yes, even mystery writers decorate for the holidays.  Sometimes when we're supposed to be writing---or when we're taking a break from reading the Iraq Study Group report which in my opinion is way more compelling that most thrillers out there right now--we're much more happily focused on putting the decorative reindeer on the right table, fastening the pine garland on the staircaise with the perfect gold ribbon, gluing the right rustic combo of dried flowers onto the wreath for the front door.

I'm ashamed to say it, but I'm a frustrated decorator. Especially when I hit a plot snag, I day-dream about dressing my house for the holidays. For inspiration, I have 25 years' worth of Architectural Digests stashed around here and--don't tell my husband, please--several more hundred season-specific magazines in various hiding places.

I am also a sharp-shooter with the glue gun. No kidding, I can out-glue the tag team of Rosie and Martha in a craft competition with one hand tied behind my back with grosgrain ribbon. Naturally, I developed this skill while avoiding my writing. Every December, my determination to get a first draft done wanes and I pull my favorite gun out of its holster to attach all manner of garden refuse onto the cheap Douglas fir wreaths I buy at Lowe's (only $14 for the large size this year!) I prune a few dead hydrangeas, yank some brown stalks of daylily pods--and then I heat up the glue gun.  Voila! The results are gorgeous, if I do say so myself.

Here's the quick and easy hall-decking advice I've accumulated over the years:

Nancy's #1 Tip:  Turn out the lights. You think I'm kidding?  Things look romantic with the lights down low. The dust bunnies disappear--poof!--and suddenly you've got ambiance on your hands.

#2:  White Poinsettias.  Honestly, you can bunch them on tables, around the staircase, inside the fireplace (mine doesn't function) or just about any corner that needs jazzing up. The small size is only $2.79 at Home Depot, but Lowe's has the medium size for $2.99! How can you go wrong? Plus you can throw them away in January instead of trying to find a way to store them and you won't miss your spring deadline! I take the plants out of the foil and plunk them into white flower pots.  (I now have a collection of white flower pots that could rival Sissinghurst.)

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#3. Baby's breath.  Listen to Aunt Nancy: Go immediately to the floral department of your local grocery store and buy 2 bundles of baby's breath. (I spent $6 at Whole Foods this morning. I could have gotten a better price down the street, but I was in a hurry.  Have I mentioned that spring deadline?) Break off small pieces and tuck them fetchingly into your Christmas tree. Even if you're decorating with ornaments your kids made out of toilet paper rolls, your tree will instantly look elegant.

#4. Pine cones. Most people swear by candles, but every time I hear, "chestnuts roasting on an open fire," I am reminded of my daughter's friend Stephanie who left a candle burning in her bedroom as the whole family bundled off to the junior high Christmas concert, and when they came home there was NOTHING LEFT OF THE HOUSE but a smoldering heap of charred rubble. So I don't use candles. I use pine cones. Little bowls of them all over the place. Very festive, and your insurance agent will thank you. Plus they're free if you live near the woods or don't mind skulking around your nearby city park after dark when the only people around are those who are letting their hyper-active Labrador retrievers off their leashes and they come snuffling through the bushes and scare the pants off you because you think they're police dogs.

#5. Raffia.  Forget paper ribbons and those bags of shiny bows you can buy at Wal-Mart. ($4.99 for the huge size.) Buy yourself a couple of bags of raffia ($3.99 each at Jo-Ann Fabrics) and tie it raffishly (there must be some etymological relationship, right?) around your packages that have been wrapped in some plain foil paper. The juxtaposition of textures is GORGEOUS.  And isn't the use of the word "juxtaposition" an indication that I haven't abandoned my writing entirely?

#6. Cake stands.  Yes, I'm obsessed with cake stands. They average $25 at Target, but I check TJ Maxx every once in a while and find bargains under $15.  It's nice to have a variety of shapes and heights.(I'm still looking for a square one.) If you arrange buffet foods on cake stands of different heights, you can overlap them and fit more dishes on the table, plus it's elegant even when you haven't had time to bake and are serving those chocolate-dipped Oreos ($2.99 a package at your local grocery) which you can microwave for 5 seconds and sprinkle with--uh--sprinkles. A great cocktail party hors d'oeuvres is white pizza.  Have I mentioned this already?  It's my secret weapon. (Prices vary, but Pizza Hut makes a nice thin crust version.) Cut the pie into small squares and stick a frilly toothpick into each piece.  Add an olive and/or some freshly grated parmesan if you want people to really gush about how hard you worked.  Just be sure to phone your order at least an hour before your guests show up so you have time to hide the box.

#7. An extra table in your dining room makes life easier.  I hauled our round plastic picnic table (on sale for $19.99 at Wal-Mart in September, but they may still have some in the garden section) out of the garage and tucked it into the corner of the dining room. A 90-inch round tablecloth ($32 on sale with coupon at Bed Bath and Beyond) reaches the floor and hides the plastic legs so your guests can imagine there's a fine piece of Ethan Allen's best under the cloth. If you don't want to invest in a 90-inch tablecloth, go to Party City or whatever store sells banquet or wedding supplies in your area and pick up a plastic table skirt. ($3.99 in my town.) You can use any size tablecloth you already own to throw over it, but Sears has some peppermint candy striped 70' rounds that are only $8.99. A well-draped table makes a great hiding place for all your outline notes and that dry-erase board you use for plotting, especially when your annoying neighbor drops in to delivery her yucky fruitcake and to flirt with your husband again.

#8. Yeah, okay, so all the TV shows tell us to accessorize our little black dresses into phenomenal holiday garb, but did you know the Dollar Store or Everything's a Dollar sell cute elf pins and those Christmas ties with the little microchip you squeeze so it plays Jingle Bells?  And they're really only $1! I bought 3 ties for Jeff. Who will bet me $50 he might actually wear them to the bank, and then my Christmas decorations will be free this year?

Plus you could strangle somebody with one of those musical ties, right? Or clonk him over the head with a cake stand?  See, I haven't given up writing entirely for Christmas.

Tell me your cheap and easy decorating ideas.  I can always use more.


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Wow, Nancy - I think you take the cake, uh, stand as far as decorating tips. I want to try them all now!

I can only offer lazy ones, which are helped by crafty sisters who've made many of my decorations (including a door wreath, my quilted tree skirt, and a quilted Santa hanging) or given them as gifts (several crystal santa- or snowman-shaped table decorations).

This year my laziness has led me to not make gifts for my (8) siblings as usual, but order boxes for them all from the awesome PA Dutch jam etc. place in Lancaster (actually, it's in Intercourse, PA, which is fun in itself - www.kitchenkettle.com) Point, click, type in the address, and done.

Move over Martha! What great ideas and at what bargins, darlin. My husband came home from Sam's last night with a Cajun Cookie Jar, $16.99. He is a cute ceramic alligator dressed as Santa, with a goofy smile. My daughter and I laughed so hard when we took him out of the box. He is now the main holiday centerpiece on our dining table.

Oh Nancy, you are indeed the shiniest star in the galaxy. You have saved me from my yearly misery of Christmas decorating. All I have to do is tie raffia around the turkeys still hanging out since Thanksgiving!

Jelly from Intercourse, alligators disguised as Santa----and I think turkey are an all-holiday decoration, definitely! I am very glad to hear you ladies are getting into the pre-deadline holiday spirit!

But I am looking forward to Michele's gingerbread house pictures. I hear we're going to get more pix on Saturday, so stay tuned!

OK - First off - terrific job with that glue gun.

There's just the one thing - on that one wreath (i think it's the last photo) there is a red bird at the bottom. What the hell happened to his green companion? Looks like he found himself on the wrong end of a lumberjack proctologist? Seriously - did the poor thing fall out of a tree and impale himself? Get some pliers and free that little thing!

Other than that - Aces. My husband was supposed to get lights at K-Mart last night and instead he came home with six big red pointsettias - beautiful and that saves me unpacking other crap, I mean stuff, to decorate.

I forgot to mention, I am getting a new hot glue gun for Christmas. It is a stronger, hotter one with a stand. My husband is such a good Santa.

Oops - it's not a red bird, it's a grey and white bird, and that thing below him might be some kind of leaf formation.

Too bad - I liked the first way better. Take a look and you will see what I mean.

Never mind.

I'm Jewish so I'm new to this whole Christmas business, but here are my tips. We have a LOT of ornaments. We bought some for the first year we put up a tree and then we received entire sets of beautiful ones from my in-laws.

Take ornaments (the balls -- not your fragile family heirloons) and drop them carefully into all the glass vases you got at your wedding and don't know what the hell to do with. They look great on a mantel as decoration. You can also use ribbon and hang them on varying heights (not too low, however) from open doorways in your home. Very festive.

I do the pine comb and potpourri thing as well.

Of course, I haven't done any of this yet. We don't even have our tree!

Love the wreath pix Nancy! Not to mention the wreaths themselves, which are gorgeous. This whole idea of making your own wreaths is new to me, but I think it's neat. Our German au pair cut a bunch of branches off our evergreen trees. I was kind of annoyed until I saw the fabulous wreath she made from them, complete with fruit she dried herself.

My big decoration: the gingerbread house. Easy? Not hardly. Cheap? I must've spent at least $100 by now between mixes, candy, felt, plywood, etc. Worth it? You decide. (Update with pix coming Saturday!)

You are all truly WOM (worthy of Martha).

The best I did was ages ago in grad school. Instead of conventional wrapping paper, I put gold spray paint on plain brown wrap and hot glued pot pourri (sp?) in a decorative clump. It was really beautiful.

I bring out my Christmas plush...snowmen, singing bears, and even a reindeer or two. Then I put my favorite Christmas books on the coffee table and the nativity on the china cabinet ledge. No fireplace :o( No mantel...socks are hung from the bookcase with care. The wreath is on the door. My sister however is the creative one, so I will get my Christmas decorating fix when I visit her this weekend. However, Nancy, you make me want to go out and get a glue gun and plan for next year!

In a vain attempt at creativity, and to also help out my mom, I carted home two garbage bags full of white pine cones. Oh the ideas that were perculating...until my blasted suv's transmission seized (all fixed now with a new tranny).

So, I have pawned off one bag to my best friend for her to use for craft projects with her two children...but still have one more left. I was thinking of making bird feeders with pb and bird seed? LOL!

Other than that, the tree is up and looking quite nice inspite of my dad. And the winter wonderland on top of my cabinet at work is looking very festive with all of the presents from years past to wonder how many kinds of snowmen are made.

Debby ~ might go ahead and try the babys breath for the tree along with some fake holly and berries.

Debby, I must admit I splurged on a big package of white sparkly pine cones. (I think they were a Martha product from K-Mart.) I had the plan of strewing them across the mantel, but they looked cheesy. In fact, they ended up looking cheesy no matter where I put them So I have a bunch of white sparkly pine cones if anyone wants them.

Let's talk Christmas collections. Every year, I decide to start a new collection of snowmen/reindeer/rocking horses/stuffed Santas, but the result has been a bunch of stuff that never quite qualifies as a stunning collection. (OKay, maybe all my white pots.) How do you make a bunch of stuff look like a collection, I want to know?

A college friend collects those little houses with lights inside, and they look ADORABLE. She has a zillion, so it looks like a Real Collection.

My hairdresser collects tree ornaments that are Santas with cowboy hats. She uses red bandannas on the tree, too. This sounds absolutely brilliant to me. Unique, clever. Anybody else doing a theme tree?

Inquiring minds, you know.

A vitrine or similar glass-enclosed display-and-viewing structure is what makes a bunch of stuff look like a collection. Bombay Company is good for that sort of thing, at a reasonable price.

Presentation is everything.

Membership in The Lipstick Chronicles is its own reward, but if it weren't, that Cake Stand On The Buffet Table tip would make it all worthwhile. God bless you, Nancy.

Yes, God bless you, Nancy. Can you come over to my house? I could use some decorating help!

Nancy - I have a nice collection of things but you told me not to talk about it. Some of them even light up like those little houses.

Margie? You can talk to ME about it.

We have a Harry Potter tree and we even had the Christopher Radko ornament set. Special lights in purple, gold and cream - don't ask me why, they just seemed like good magical colors. Very cool. It's an extra one that goes in the Dining Room.

We only get it out in Potter years, which means only one more, I guess - maybe we'll start counting the movies. bummer.

Harley - yeah, that's what your husband said at the Christmas Party. Kidding. I try not to spend much time with the husbands. It's just better all around that way.

Nancy, you're an inspiration. I'm using that cheap-table-hidden-under-massive-tablecloth idea next week when we have dinner guests whose children will be coming also. Thanks to you, we can provide a fun and classy "kids' table".

Our tree arrived on Saturday but it isn't decorated yet. Something to do with not standing on tall ladders when no husband is about. I'm starting to like it in its unadorned state...but the company might consider it more than a little eccentric.

Margaret! How's your new career going?

Nancy ~ my pine cones were home-grown in Hanover! LOL! And only cost my mom the time it took her to bag them all up while cleaning up the yard of all the fallen leaves...and pine cones. Mine are 100% authentic, in case there are any takers!

How to make miscellaneous stuff into a collection? One thought would be to only use one variety in each room....Santas in the family room...Snowmen in the dining room, etc.

My mom bought me a collection of carousel horse/animal ornaments for my Christmas tree the year my brother died in her attempt to guarantee that I would have a tree. It worked. Each year, I then have added to the carousel ornament collection although not lately. Based on my current living arrangement, my ornaments and loads of other decorations are all in storage.

Here at work, my collection seems to mostly be snowmen. All different kinds and shapes and sizes. I just put down some of that white sutffing-snowy type stuff, put everything along with two mini trees on top and ta-da...instant Winter Wonderland.

Of course, it helps that I have also brought in my entire collection of Christmas CD's....all 40+ of them!! LOL!

When we sold the nest and moved to the condo, our decorating needs.....ah....changed. No mantle, no kids and 2000 feet of hot retail space to decorate. In years when the out of town kids aren't here, we whip out the uselessly elegant champagne cooler that's tarnished to an elegant patina (kinda like Martha's vintage gold and silver balls), adorn with a huge vintage satin bow and fill with a bunch of fresh Eucaliptus (low cost at Pgh Cut Flowers). This gives us 4 feet to festoon with tiny white lites, the smaller ornaments and the angel. I like the 6 feet of real tree but this ones special. Pack up the ornaments and put on the hearts, green ornaments and Easter deco. Takes me right to spring!
This week-end the blue lights go up on the porch and all things Hanukkah festoon the party room.
Greetings of the season to you all.
Mary Alice

The best Christmas collection I saw was my friend Kerrin's tree toppers. They were beautiful. She's collected them for years and displays them on her mantel and in other places throughout her home.

I am in awe once again at the collective creativity of this bunch -- and Nancy, I love your wreath!

My cheap trick #1 is/was using holiday gift bags (from the dollar store) instead of wrapping paper. They're reusable and don't generate landfill, and they look very festive under the tree (vary the sizes and dimensions for a fetching display).

Cheap trick #2 is/was waiting until the after-Xmas sales one year and buying a bunch of super-cheap plastic foliage-and-berry-etc. decorations. I'm talking the rings you plant your pillar candles on, and the like. I cut them up into smaller chunks and use them to decorate the staircase by tucking the chunks between the risers and the bannisters. Individually, the pieces are really cheesy, but they look nice against the sage green carpet and knotty pine of the staircase.

I want to try the baby's breath, for sure.

I wrap the retail bag around the gift and put tape on it. Real sophisticated stuff.

I will try some of your decorating ideas right now.I really liked them.

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