Joyous celebrations punctuate and enliven the days of late fall and early winter. Decorating your home to prepare for the holidays is fun, and it builds anticipation for the celebration. The items we use to decorate also have symbolic meanings that remind us of the reason we observe the occasion. In this article, we'll explore favorite traditional decorating themes for Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa, and take a peek at the stories and symbols that influence each theme.
Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, so naturally, lights dominate the decorating theme. The one key element of Hanukkah decorating is the Hanukkiah, a nine-candle menorah that evokes a miracle that occurred 5,000 years ago, when sacred oil sufficient to light the Temple of Jerusalem for only one day provided light for eight days. Traditionally, the Hanukkiah is placed in a window of the home to shine in the darkness outside and show everyone that you're Jewish. Throughout the rest of the house, you can place menorahs and candles everywhere it's safe to light them.
Blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag, dominate the color scheme for Hanukkah, but silver and gold are present, too. White dishes set on a blue tablecloth make a striking dinner table arrangement, especially with a silver menorah centerpiece. Small packages, wrapped in blue paper with white ribbon and a Star of David topper, make a lovely side table display. Dreidels and gelt scattered invitingly on a living room table urge family members and guests to play the dreidel game and remember the miracles that Hanukkah celebrates. Gelt, the gold foil covered chocolate coins used in the game, also symbolize the value of giving to others.
Plates heaped with traditional foods like Latkes and sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts), along with the aromas that accompany foods fried in oil, are important in the Hanukkah scene. But the most important Hanukkah decorations of all are the family and friends who fill your home to share in the celebration.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ and the promise of mankind's salvation. This promise finds expression in the abundance of evergreen plants in Christmas decorating schemes. These plants -- holly, ivy, fir trees and pine boughs -- symbolize everlasting life. They also bring a wonderful Christmas aroma into your home.
Red and green are the traditional colors of Christmas. While evergreen wreaths festooned with red flowers, fruit and bows welcome guests at the front door, and garlands of ribbon-flecked greenery adorn mantles and banisters, the focal point of Christmas decorating is the Christmas tree. For a traditional Christmas tree, wrap the tree with strings of lights, either colored or white, to shine through the dark nights of winter. Follow the lights with homemade and heirloom ornaments with religious symbolism: angels, for the angels who led the shepherds to the manger where Christ was born; images of the animals present in the manger; candy canes, reminiscent of the shepherds' crooks; bells, for the church bells that ring at Christmas; and a star at the top, to symbolize the star that shone over Bethlehem and guided the three kings to the Christ child. Below the branches, hide the tree stand under a red or green tree skirt, and top that with gifts in festive Christmas wrapping.
Your sofa table is an ideal place to display a crèche, or manger scene. Put an Advent calendar on a side table for a fun way to count down the days to Christmas. It's traditional to hang a stocking for each member of the family from the fireplace mantle, but if you don't have a mantle, use ribbon to hang the stockings from a stair banister. Arrange groups of red-flowering poinsettias on stair landings, your fireplace hearth, and in your entryway. If you have children and pets, use silk plants instead of real poinsettias, since this traditional decoration is poisonous. You can also use faux evergreen and poinsettia garlands to drape chandeliers for a festive effect. And be sure to hang a sprig of mistletoe where it's easy to see, to encourage friendly feelings among your holiday guests.
Keep reading to see more traditional Christmas decorating themes.
By replacing the traditional red and green color scheme with a soft-hued palette, the Victorian theme brings a romantic, feminine appeal to Christmas. Choose a single dominant color, such as mauve, pale blue or celery, and support it with silver and gold accents.
Victorian Christmas trees sparkle with an abundance of white lights. To create this effect, you'll need to wrap each branch with strings of lights. Next, adorn your Christmas tree with blown-glass ornaments and lavish decorations that feature lace, feathers and crystal beads in tones of your principal color. Large, elegant decorations are a hallmark of Victorian trees; secure them to the branches with a twist of wire instead of the usual ornament hanger. Let silvery icicles dangle from the branches, and drape the tree with garlands of silver beads or wide, gilded ribbon. At the top, a large, romantic angel is a must.
Opulence continues below the tree with a theme-colored tree skirt in luxurious satiny fabric. Wrap your presents in thick, shiny, theme-colored paper, and finish them with lush ribbon-and-bow treatments. Carry your Victorian theme through the room with displays of angels and Father Christmas figures, oversized stockings in rich fabrics, and fresh or silk flower arrangements with silver and gold accents.
Are you dreaming of a White Christmas? See how to create it on the next page.
Emphasizing the depth of winter, White Christmas is a popular theme even where snow is rare. But don't think of this as a monochromatic theme. Green is a foundation color in the Christmas tree, wreaths and garlands. Silver, gold and shades of beige focus the spotlight on whites in the canvas.
Traditionally, winter solstice was marked by the lighting of candles to throw back the darkness of the longest night of the year. So your White Christmas tree should shine with plenty of white lights wrapped around each branch. Snow, too, is essential. You can dust the branches of a live tree with artificial spray snow for a natural, freshly fallen snow look; but remember that you need the green of the tree to make your white ornaments stand out, so use a light touch.
Less is more in the area of decorations, too. Consider the clean look of a snow-covered anything. Carry this pristine feeling to your tree decorations. A scattering of snowflakes, icicles, silver stars and gold balls lends your tree a calm, unhurried aesthetic. Accentuate the simplicity with a single spire at the top.
Below the tree, bury gifts wrapped in white, beige, gold and silver in drifts of snow-like quilt batting. Hang white stockings under a green garland decorated with white silk poinsettias and faux mistletoe berries. Clusters of white candles in silver and gold holders bring hopeful lights to other parts of the room.
You can easily carry the White Christmas theme to the dining room with white linens and silver or gold flatware. For a clean, simple centerpiece, mass silver and gold spray-painted pinecones in clear glass containers. You can even drape your dining chairs with white fabric and tie them with big gold bows.
There's another December tradition after Christmas. Learn about it on the next page.
Based on an African harvest festival, Kwanzaa is a non-religious observance that celebrates African-American heritage and emphasizes responsibility and commitment to the community. The seven-day celebration takes place from December 26 to January 1.
Kwanzaa means "first fruit" in Swahili. Most of the decorations for this observance are made of natural materials that reflect the harvest. The centerpiece of Kwanzaa decorating is a prominent display of the seven symbols of Kwanzaa:
- Mazao (the crops) -- These are fruits and vegetables of the African harvest arrayed in a bowl made of wood or other natural material.
- Mkeka (a straw mat) -- This serves as the foundation for the display. It represents the tradition and history (foundation) on which African-Americans build their lives.
- Kinara (the candleholder) -- The Kinara represents African-American roots in Continental Africa.
- Muhindi (the corn) -- Each child in the household is represented in the display by an ear of corn. This symbolizes the future that is embodied in children.
- Mishumaa Saba (the candles) -- Placed in the Kinara, the seven candles, three red, three green and a central black candle, represent the seven principles of Blackness, Nguzu Saba.
- Kikombe cha Umoja (the unity cup) -- This cup symbolizes unity with ancestral spirits and all who are present at the libation ritual.
- Zawadi (the gifts) -- Zawadi are earned rewards. They're usually small, handmade, educational and/or African-inspired gifts accompanied with "loving explanations of why the receivers have earned them" [source: Eklof].
The Kwanzaa centerpiece is usually displayed in the living room on a table or fireplace hearth. To decorate the rest of the room, accessorize with traditional African items, such as African baskets, textiles, harvest symbols and art. The colors of Kwanzaa are the colors of the Pan-African flag: red, green and black. As represented in the Mishumaa Saba, red symbolizes struggle and the blood of ancestors; green stands for hope for the future; and black symbolizes the people. To accentuate these colors, bring them together in your gift wrappings, Mazao grouping and festive accessories.
Trying to find how to use Christmas fragrances in your decorations? Read our article How to Use Christmas Fragrances in Your Decorations now!
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Beresin, Dina Fuchs. "Hanukkah Cheer in Atlanta." Southern Accents: November/December 2008, pp. 72-76.
- Eklof, Barbara. For Every Season: The Complete Guide to African American Celebrations Traditional to Contemporary. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997.
- Goodfriend, Kim. Arts and Culture Director, Jewish Life and Learning, Marcus Jewish Community Center Atlanta. Interview, September 15, 2009.
- Heiligman, Deborah. Celebrate Hanukkah with Light, Latkes, and Dreidels. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006.
- Henderson, Helene, ed. Holiday Symbols and Customs, Fourth Edition. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2009.
- Karenga, Maulana. Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 2008. The Official Kwanzaa Website. (Accessed 09/10/2009). http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/index.shtml
- Staron, Debi and Bob Pranga. Christmas Style. New York: DK Publishing, Inc., 2004.
- Unity Marketing. "Spending on Holiday Decorations Expected to Top $16 Billion in 2006." (Accessed 09/17/2009). http://www.unitymarketingonline.com/cms_christmas/christmas/pr_main/pr8.php