Decorating Our Small House for the Holidays

Last year I almost skipped holiday decorating altogether, but at the last minute I had a crisis of conscience & ran to Walmart to get the last $3 garland they had. Before you go labeling me a grinch, please know that I love Christmas and festive decor! It’s just that December tends to be a crazy month at work and I’m not around enough to decorate or enjoy said decorations. Nothing like spreadsheets and javascript to get you in the Christmas spirit, eh? But this year is different. I’m taking back the holidays and I'll be damned if my house isn't Merry and Bright! 

Fake presents, fake snow and ornaments make for a cute Christmassy vignette

To be honest, it doesn’t take a whole lot to make our small house feel festive – a little goes a long way in close quarters. The hard part is not going overboard and also passing up all the cute stuff in stores (“Must…resist…ironic…dancing…Santa…”). Without a garage, basement, attic, or spare closet, we've got to be very deliberate and thoughtful about what gets coveted storage space. Things we only use a few weeks of the year aren’t on the top of the list, so I set some ground rules to keep myself in check. All holiday decor must be either A) very small, B) fresh/disposable, C) useful year-round or D) so cheap & simple to make that I won’t feel bad throwing it away in January.

The first order of business is that of The Tree and where to put it. In our first apartment we spent a good 3 hours rearranging the furniture to accommodate 1 modestly-sized tree, and it ultimately involved nixing our dining table. (No lie!) I really wasn't in the mood for that escapade, and I really love the dining table we have now, so I asked myself, "can we put a tree ON the table??" Yes. Done. Next question! 

A mini Christmas tree on the dining table does the trick when you don't have space for a full-size tree

Sure, it’s pint-sized but it’s cheery all the same. By some crazy luck, it was totally free at the Home Depot. It didn’t have a barcode, it was closing time, and it was really cold outside where we found it, so the store manager flashed the deuces and said “PEACE!... Merry Christmas!” Which translates to, "Please take this and leave so I can go home." No problem! Thank you!

I slipped its tin base into a winter hat for a cozier look and trimmed it with cranberry garland that I strung onto dental floss and itty bitty pompoms made from red & white twine. Perfect? No, but it's cute, simple, and practically free. So that's what we call a win win win in my book.

I created ornaments for our mini tree out of twine, dental floss and cranberries. 

A tree on the table would look accidental without some festive place settings to elevate it. I fell in love with these beaded chargers at Target and had to have them...they're versatile enough to use throughout the winter, and I can store them on top of the kitchen cabinets the rest of the year. (Please remind me that I put them there when I can't find 'em next year) The small gold bowls are another Target find (are you sensing a trend?), and I plan to use them all year round. They've already come in handy a few times in the week that I've had 'em! I did resist the urge to buy new holiday napkins and instead topped the ones that I already had with sprigs of pine to make them feel special.

My holiday place settings are made up of a beaded charger and gold bowl from Target, cloth napkins from World Market and a sprig of pine.  

Since our tree is clearly not the "showstopper", something else needed to be (because every show must be stopped!). This year that great honor goes to the living room shelves! They've got everything you'd want in a Christmas tree, really – height, lights, greenery, baubles, tchotchkes and presents. What more could you ask for?! ;) 


I first saw these "fairy lights" on Young House Love and ordered them on Amazon – 33 ft for $13 (that's about a quarter of the price you'd pay at Anthropologie, FYI). They’re tiny LEDs on a simple wire, which means they’re energy efficient, cool to the touch, super light weight, and easy to hang. It took 2 strands (66 ft total) and 1 pack of 3M Command decorating clips to do the trick.  Speaking of tricks, command hooks are magical. I used a slightly larger pair to hang the stockings under the TV. Here's a look at them with the lights off.

3M Command hooks save the day! Their decorator clips are perfect for stringing lights. 
3M Command hooks save the day! They're small decorating clips are great for hanging stockings.

That's enough of that, turn the lights back on! I love them!! They remind me of the icing on a ginger bread house. They remind Eli of an airplane aisle. Tomato, tomato.

Built in shelves can stand in for a Christmas tree and mantle

Each compartment of the shelving got its own colorful little Christmas vignette, which was equal parts fun & intimidating to style. I rearranged and repurposed what I had, and added a few new small things. 


How fun is that nutcracker on the right? We used to have lots of traditional ones in my house growing up – they were sentimental because my sisters & I danced in the Nutcracker ballet for years and years and years. It only seemed fitting that I get my own, and Target had so many cute ones to choose from. I couldn’t settle on just one – Oops!


The “presents” are empty boxes I wrapped, because Lord knows I haven’t gotten around to Christmas shopping yet. My California sea lion is moonlighting as Santa’s helper these days… I used floral wire and Scotch tape to help him balance that tiny present on his nose. 


This photo of storm trooper legos making sprinkle angels never fails to make me smile. I finally bought it from a local photographer after months of eying it at Eastern Market. The gold baseball player is a Denard Span bobble-head that they were giving out at a Washington Nationals game. He was originally red, blue, green and flesh-toned, but I spray-painted him gold to up his baller status. I think Denard would approve. 

Just because we don’t have a big tree doesn’t mean we can’t have ornaments. I filled a wooden bowl with them along with some pine needles to spread Christmas cheer to my coffee table... coffee tables are people, too! (errrr... moving on!) 

Ornaments in a bowl can make any corner festive

Pillowcases are an easy way to freshen up the sofa from season to season. This reddish pillow ties in nicely with the Christmas decor, but come spring time I can slip it into a new pillowcase and have a totally different vibe.

Small space holiday decor

I bought this wreath (and the other greenery you see sprinkled around) at our local tree stand. I wanted it to feel slightly Nordic, whimsical and minimalistic... so naturally I tied on small pompoms (AKA cotton balls torn into thirds) with floral wire.

Key to cozy holiday decor: Layers and simple wreaths
Cotton balls attached with floral wire give a whimsical touch to a basic wreath

The star is back! To my guests who poked fun at me hanging this from the smoke detector for the last year, you'll be happy to know that it's now hanging from a command hook :)  

The staircase was begging to get in on the fun too, and I was very reluctant because I feared our freshly refinished rails would get covered in sap. But then I said, "Aw, what the hell?! It's Christmas time!" So up went the fresh pine garland, the cranberries I strung onto floss, and the little white trees from Target. I mean, why settle for one garland when you can have 3?! I would have made a 4th one out of popcorn, too, but I knew that wouldn't last an hour with Eli around.

Our Christmassy stairwell

Be on the lookout for a "How to remove tree sap" post in a few weeks ;)

The string I used to tie up the garland bothers me a little... I would love for it all to just magically float in place with no hanging mechanisms at all, but I'm not bothered enough to hire any witchdoctors. Plus, imperfection is charming. (right???)

Our Christmassy stairwell, featuring pine, cranberries and white yarn Christmas tree garland.
Cranberries strung on dental floss are a fun pop of color against the greenery

And that's a wrap! Thank god I set those ground rules for myself at the beginning, cuz things coulda gotten real crazy around here. The majority of our decorations are fresh, thrifty and disposable, and the rest are either useful year round or small enough to fit in our stockings when it's all said and done. So, mission accomplished! Let the celebrations begin!