top of page
  • Writer's pictureellencdonker


Creating some magic this season and organizing your life are not mutually exclusive

As fall turns to winter, it’s time to turn our attention to the holidays – gathering with family, wrapping presents and, of course, decorating. Most of us will dig through boxes in the garage or drag down containers from the attic, pull out a tangled mass of lights and start to plug them in systematically to see which strands work. Whether you hang a wreath on your door, make your fireplace look festive or hang lights outside, local experts are here to help you with their advice on the best practices for how to make your holiday season a little easier, a little safer, and, best of all, a little more magical.

Exterior Decorating:

When it comes to lighting up your home for the holidays, be prepared for cars to slow down and children to ooh and aah.

Before you staple lights to your roof or drag mismatched lights across your garden, Dan Smith, owner and operator of Decorate With Lights, has some expert advice on how to create the perfect winter wonderland for your home. Dan and his wife, Paula, are heading into their second season and could not be more excited to light up the homes in SOMA. As a former professional commercial photographer, Dan loves lighting. “He has a really good eye for lighting design, color temperature of lights, and how they should balance with the overall design – technical details that make a big difference,” explains Paula. Decorate With Lights offers a “turnkey” service, which includes installation, maintenance, removal and even storage. Here are their tips for decorating the exterior of your home, with an emphasis on safety and having a plan.

Winter Wonderland How-Tos:

Power! It might sound obvious, but outside outlets are critical. They suggest having all your lighting connected so that everything is using one plug – something you can accomplish safely by using low voltage lighting.

There’s fresh snow falling, it’s 20 degrees out, and you’re standing on your roof. Bad idea! Safety should be your priority as you set about hanging lights. The team at Decorate With Lights considers the risk of climbing a ladder (including tying the ladders to the gutters as insurance against a gust of wind) and going on a roof in the wintertime, and so should you. It’s hard to unwrap presents in a full body cast!

Make sure the color temperature of all of your lights match. Warm white lights are very popular, but depending on who the manufacturer is – some strands from a big box store, others from online shopping – they could all be different colors, which ends up looking a bit awkward. Get all your lights from one manufacturer so you know the color temperatures will be compatible.

The Griswolds (from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation) stapled their lights to the roof, but there are clips specifically designed to help you avoid putting holes in your house (always a good thing!). Shingle clips and gutter clips can be found at various big box stores and online, and they are there to make your job easier.

Ultimately, the team at Decorate With Lights wants you to have a plan for your lights before you start hanging them, and, of course, they want you to have fun. When it comes to lighting up your home for the holidays, be prepared for cars to slow down and children to ooh and aah. “It’s a beautiful thing,” says Dan. “It’s that time of season. And when it snows, it really is magical.”

Interior Decorating:

This layered tabletop uses different heights, a color theme and a collection to bring visual interest and sparkle.

Okay, so you’ve decorated the outside of your house, flipped the switch, and basked in the sparkling lights. You head inside for more eggnog and realize it’s time to get started on the inside of your home. That’s where local Maplewood moms and staging design experts Ani Levy and Janel Whitehead, of A+J Designs, come in. They stage homes for a living and are professionals at adding that “Wow!” factor.

Their approach to staging is similar to their approach for holiday decorating. “When we are staging a home, we look at things [such] as layering and creating a point of interest, creating dimension with pieces that are different heights,” Whitehead says. “But we also want to make it a little bit magical so that it really catches the eye and you say, 'Wow, that’s really beautiful.'”

They encourage homeowners to create warmth in their decorating, noting that the holidays evoke that cozy feeling. And when it comes to where to focus your efforts, they suggest the fireplace mantel. “The mantel is often a focal point in a home, so that’s the space where you want to highlight something meaningful, like a family heirloom or a collection of ornaments. The mantel is that extra special place,” says Levy. Here are their tips to keep in mind as you transform your mantel into something magical.

Five Tips for Decorating your Fireplace Mantel:

Whitehead collects Belsnickels. The folktale goes that Belsnickel, a German companion of Saint Nicholas, arrives just before Christmas. If he finds that the children are well-behaved, he will throw them some candy.

Pick a theme! Whether it’s a certain color or a particular look, pick a theme and keep it cohesive throughout.

Add greenery! Fresh greens or artificial garland add both color and texture.

Light it up! Create a festive and cozy mood with some sparkle and shine.

Highlight your favorite pieces to evoke memories and family traditions.

Have fun! Whether you are placing family heirlooms or cute holiday decor from a store, have fun and create something that speaks to you.

They also emphasize the importance of building holiday traditions together as a family. As a child, Whitehead received a new ornament for the holidays every year, and when she moved into her own home, that childhood box of ornaments came with her. She now does the same for her own children, a tradition they look forward to every Christmas season.

Whatever kind of decor you choose, and whichever traditions you add to each year, just remember ’tis the season for being together. “It’s not like I just get out the decorations,” says Levy. “Everybody has a part. Everybody has input.” Now, more than ever, creating something special with your loved ones is a gift itself.


Simple things can help you stay organized, like looping the light strands around your elbow and then tying little ribbons on each end so they don’t unscramble in the storage bag.

When January 2nd rolls around, and the last drop of eggnog has been consumed, the once magical decor becomes a task of “Where do I put it all?” Many of us throw everything back in an assortment of boxes and bins, drag it out to the garage and promptly forget what was put where. For a more thoughtful approach, I turned to Linda Thibodeau and Betsy Cahn of Curated Spaces. Their specialty is organizing, and they have quite a few ornament- and sanity-saving tips.

Organization and Storage Tips for Your Holiday Keepsakes:

Don’t try to do it all at once. Organizing takes time! Do not say to yourself, “I’m going to do this in an hour.” Trying to do everything at once is overwhelming, and that is what derails the process.

Start small. If you’re organizing your kitchen, start with just one drawer. If you are putting away a lot of holiday decor, start with just the ornaments.

Start small. If you're putting away a lot of holiday decor, start with just the ornaments.

Group things in categories. Perhaps you have a collection of red ornaments, pickle ornaments or winter snow globes. Place everything together by groups so you can see how much you have and decide what to keep.

“One thing we always say is you have to make a big mess before you can clean it all up,” says Cahn. That’s right: The organizing experts are telling you that a mess is actually the part that comes before the storage! Allow yourself space to lay the mess out – and enjoy the satisfaction when you’ve put it all away.

The kind of storage you use matters – a lot. Employing Ziploc bags, bins with dividers for ornaments so they won’t get crushed, looping the light strands around your elbow and then tying little ribbons on each end so they don’t unscramble in the storage bag – all of these techniques can help you efficiently store your items and take them back out again.

Label everything! Seriously, though, do yourself a favor and label all your bins and storage bags clearly with the items inside.

So as you get ready for the wonders of the holidays, remember that creating a memorable experience for you and your family is what the season is all about. Enjoy decorating with lights – safely – so you can watch those delighted faces when you flip the switch. Take the interior of your home and add a few layers of fun to go from the everyday to that winter wow. And finally, when the season ends, give yourself time to make a mess and group items, toss what you don’t use and label like your sanity depends on it! Come next season, when you head up to the attic to sift through the boxes of decorations only to surprise yourself with how well you labeled everything, you’ll have an early holiday gift for yourself.

Sara Courtney is a writer living in Maplewood. During the holidays, she can be found sipping on eggnog and going full Griswold on her decorations.


bottom of page