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Myquillyn Smith: Less Can Be More with Christmas Decorating

This decorator wants you to free yourself of all the Christmas clutter and shares how she found her cozy balance.

Myquillyn Smith in her cozy home.

It was the garland that did me in. The staircase in the house where we lived in 2009 had a wonderful wood banister, and when the holidays came, it seemed like my duty to cover every inch of it in garland.

This is just what one does with banisters at Christmas, isn’t it? I thought. Besides, I had plenty of garland…and plenty of everything else.

We’d moved 14 times (the life of an entrepreneurial family), and I’d never had a moving sale or an I-don’t-want-to-pack-this purge. I believed keeping things I might want or need in the next house made me a good steward, a waste-not, want-not gal. As a result, every Christmas decoration I had ever received—from the weird Mrs. Claus doll in the book club gift exchange to the ornament from a former coworker—I still had. Everything was in the bins.

On December 1, 2009, I lugged out the red and green plastic bins as soon as the boys left for school and my husband for work. Over several hours, I found a place for every single Christmas item we had. I couldn’t rest until I was done. There was always room somewhere for one more gingerbread man knickknack.

My family would come home to an explosion of Christmas cheer, I thought, even if I was tired and cranky myself. Once I’d fastened the vintage garland to every bit of exposed banister, I stepped back to admire my work. I cocked my head to one side, then to the other. Something wasn’t right.

In fact, nothing was right. The garland screamed, Don’t touch me! Was this really how I wanted to welcome people for the holidays? Not to mention my own family, who had to walk up and down the stairs every day? What was I doing? All that work for a look didn’t make sense. And in three weeks, I’d have to take it all down again.

I’d been decorating since I was a little girl playing with dolls. I never cared about what Barbie wore as much as I cared about decorating her dream house. So it surprised no one when I majored in interior design in college and then began decorating for neighbors and their friends, until finally I had my own little business.

When the internet came along, I found “my people” in an online community of moms who valued their homes, but not so much that they wanted to spend all their time and money on them. I blogged about shortcuts to help people get their homes looking the way they hoped, so they could use them the way they wanted to—for hosting without any worries about the imperfections of a couch.

I found my style in what I call cozy minimalism: making sure the beautiful things in a home serve the people in it. It’s tempting to think that if two throw pillows look nice, then 20 will look even nicer—but eventually, with so many pillows on a couch, there’s no room for anyone to sit.

But Christmas…well, Christmas was another story. Christmas excess was in my blood.

My grandma Morland loved the holidays and went whole hog on decorating. We were always so excited about going to her house. Her tree went up early and stayed up well past Christmas. Not only did every branch of it hold a Disney character, but it also stood next to a life-size Santa Claus climbing a ladder.

Grandma Morland’s Christmas home was nothing short of magical. I looked around at my attempt to recreate that magic for my kids. There was barely an empty space anywhere. This wasn’t magic. This was clutter. I bent down to pick up a stray piece of garland, which would surely become a daily aggravation until the garland came down in the New Year. What was I doing?

I plopped down on the bottom step, closed my eyes and remembered Grandma Morland’s Christmas. Even now, I could smell her cookies baking, hear her laugh over her 1950s Christmas music, feel her ample hug. Her Christmas was a feast for the senses, a feast of feeling loved.

I wanted to do that here, in my own way. As I untwisted strands of garland from the banister, I made a plan. Then I played out my morning in reverse, and refilled the bins. I kept one for myself (I saved the pieces my family really loved), then took the rest, with the garland, to Goodwill so someone else (maybe a dozen someone elses) could enjoy them.

By the time my family got home, they were greeted by a warm pot of soup on the stove and cookies in the oven, and best of all, a rejuvenated Christmas spirit. No one asked why our banister wasn’t wrapped in garland. Today, we still decorate for Christmas—just in a cozy minimalist way.

I put flannel sheets on the beds and have hot cocoa and hot cider at the ready. The coffee bar is always stocked with sweet extras for holiday visitors. I play all the 1950s Christmas hits that Grandma Morland loved. My sons may be the only kids of their generation to know all the words to “I’d Like to Hitch a Ride With Santa Claus” and “Christmas Island.”

For Grandma Morland, decorating to the hilt and finding Christmas joy went hand in hand. But I just can’t do both. I scaled back to make room for all the other gifts of the season: welcoming Jesus into my heart, friends into my home and family into every moment. That’s why in my house, two throw pillows work better on the couch than 20. The decorating might be minimal, but the rewards are big.

Myquillyn Smith: The Simple Joys of the Christmas Season

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