“The whole thing was actually kind of an accident, like all things are,” Bob Pranga tells me about his career decorating rich people’s houses for the holidays. He’s otherwise known as Dr. Christmas.
He was working at the Macy’s in New York City’s Herald Square in 1984, just after he graduated from college, decorating a tree on the sales floor, when Mia Farrow walked past and said, “I wish someone would do that in my home.” Pranga said he would do it, and he did — and then themed, expensive Christmas decor exploded in 1986, as American culture steered itself into an apocalypse of gaudiness.
Pranga was decorating as “a survival job” until he met the Hiltons. Then it became a career — a bicoastal Christmas empire, thanks to his Los Angeles business partner Debi Staron.
There’s “no ceiling” on Christmas, he says, and his clients spend between $5,000 and $200,000 on decorations for the holiday. “Sometimes it can go higher than that, but there’s a point where I ask them, ‘Really?’ It becomes Christmas-by-the-pound at that point. Your Christmas tree becomes one big jewelry stand. You’re literally hanging jewelry on the tree.”
(Pranga can’t give me any examples of people who pay for this kind of thing but says it’s not celebrities so much as “what we used to call the captains of industry.” Like Steve Jobs, he says, but not Steve Jobs.)
“My business always depends on the economy,” he says. “It’s a luxury item, not a necessity.” But his business is also part of a broader industry that’s growing.
The question of Christmas each year is, simply, how to get it. We’re all allowed to look at the window displays at American Eagle. We can all go to the diner to say hi to a paper Santa. But that’s really just looking — what about having? What about possessing Christmas decorations that transform your home from that place where you keep your other shoes into the set of a Hallmark movie, where love interests are always sending handwritten notes and a roommate in a slouchy sweater proffers a cup of tea? How do you wake up every morning with rosy cheeks and peppermint breath?
For a not-insignificant number of Americans — not just celebrities, apparently — the answer is quite obvious: Rent some Christmas decorations from someone who will store them for you in a warehouse you never have to see; install them for you, maybe while you’re not even home; and then remove them when you’re tired of looking at them.
The services industry is the biggest and fastest-growing sector of the American economy, and that means all kinds of things, like the option to have a single bottle of pinot noir delivered to your apartment at 11 pm or to hire someone to take your Instagram photos for the evening — and the option to borrow decorations from someone who will set them up in or on your house.
The Texas-based Christmas Decor network, one of the largest professional Christmas decoration companies, was created in 1986, mostly as an additional service tacked onto a landscaping business, and now has 300 franchisees nationwide. Its website boasts that the average member of its network — made up mostly of landscapers looking for offseason work — brings in more than $200,000 per year.
In New York City, renting decorations looks even more appealing because of our collective, severe lack of storage space. I don’t have exact numbers on how widespread decoration rental is here, but I will say that it was very difficult to get in contact with people who build Christmas for a living, as it’s nearly December and it was incredibly rude of me to try to occupy even a small amount of their time with questions.
I will not say which local decorators hung up on me, or which said, “Are we done?” in a way that was maybe worse than being hung up on, because it’s the holidays. In the end, I was able to spend an entire weekend watching Christmas get borrowed and built in New York. I don’t know how it happened — presumably magic.
“I’m getting glitter all over your baby,” Rent-A-Christmas founder Kristen Parness says, handing a baby covered in glitter back to its mother.
New parents Byron and Karen Hagan hired Parness to set up a 6-foot fake tree in the corner of the living room in their apartment in a luxury rental complex on New York City’s Roosevelt Island. They know Parness because she got her MFA in theater with Byron at Pace University, and this is the third year she’s shown up in their home in an elf costume with two elf assistants to set up their Christmas tree for them. When Parness is not doing this, she’s a drama and English teacher at the extremely competitive Bronx High School of Science.
Parness runs Rent-A-Christmas with her husband Judah, who has a day job as a sales professional. “We had this idea one year when we were living in Bay Ridge [a neighborhood in Brooklyn]. We had just started dating; we had no decorations and absolutely zero storage space,” she says. “We went to Home Depot and bought $500 of decorations, and the house looked amazing, but we were like, ‘What are we gonna do with this? This is so crazy; it would be great if we could rent this stuff.’”
This year, they’ll serve around 40 customers with the help of about 10 part-time elves before December 23. The business is small but legit — through research and trial and error, Parness has picked out two interior decorating suppliers who provide the vast majority of her wares, though she still buys stuff at Target or the bodega.
This year, she contracted a lighting expert and firefighter to do the more complicated lights and an electrician so she wouldn’t burn down any restaurants. She has a warehouse space in the Bronx, which is also where she met her live tree vendor, and which serves as the unofficial headquarters of the operation. The elves preassemble garlands and wreaths and complicated decorations there, in heavy coats because the heat doesn’t really work.
“It’s not only rich people,” she tells me, when I ask who the customers are. “It’s so widespread. We have people with one-bedroom apartments or who are really busy or have a baby. And then, yes, there are obviously rich people who go all out.”
Rent-A-Christmas’s services range in price, from $49 for a plain wreath or $185 for a wreath with lights (and installation!) to $12,000 for complicated packages in which an entire apartment is coated in garland. They also decorate restaurants, bars, salons, banks, bagel shops, and law firms, starting around $1,000 and ranging up to $15,000.
Most residential customers spend between $500 and $5,000, and Parness says the most popular purchase is the “Feels Like Home” tree package ($499), which includes the rental of a 7.5-foot artificial tree, lights, tree skirt, tinsel, ornaments, and a star, as well as a team of elves to set it up.
That’s what the Hagans have ordered. Parness’s assistants for this particular job are her head elf Jingle Bell — also known as Sarah King, an actress who makes the bulk of her living as a Disney princess for hire — and new temp worker Cara Weissman, who typically works as a casting director for reality TV shows on TLC and MTV but needed some extra cash this year.
They’re both wearing full elf costumes, complete with glitter-covered ballet flats and, in Sarah’s case, a sparkly silver fanny pack full of stage makeup. Most of Parness’s hair is dyed Christmas red. They sing while they work, and it takes about two and a half minutes for the tree to go from flat to standing, five minutes for Sarah and Cara to cover it in gold tinsel, and 10 more for the whole team to put dozens of generic red, green, blue, purple, and gold ornaments on it.
The Hagans are watching the Hallmark Channel and drinking red wine, chatting with Parness about her plans for the holidays and about the Josh Groban concert that Karen is going to that night. The tree barely fits in the corner of a tiny living room that looks out directly onto a basketball court — where teenagers are flopping around in five or six sweatshirts apiece — and then the East River.
There is one moment when the lights go on and “The Christmas Waltz” is playing on Sarah’s portable speaker, and the kids outside are moving real slow and clumsy ... it’s really good. There’s also a creeping urge to eye-roll at the baby’s grandparents saying, “That’s your first Christmas tree!” while someone else sets it up, but that’s my cross to bear.
When she’s done with her work, Sarah comes over to where I’m trying to crouch out of the way of both the TV and the process, and tells me she gets a real high off dressing as an elf. Kids love it, and adults appreciate it too, especially when they’re having a rough year.
A first-time customer in Manhattan last year called them because her son had just died and she couldn’t bring herself to bring out the decorations. There are cases where people going through divorces find that their ex-partner took both the kids and the ornaments. “You have no idea the joy you’re gonna bring,” Sarah says, “Or how hard somebody’s holidays were going to be.”
I ask her if she’s going to build a career as an elf, maybe transition it into her own business in some way. “Well, I like Christmas,” she says. “Doing it 365 might be too much.” We are in and out of the Hagans’ home in half an hour.
House of Holiday, Queens
House of Holiday is the largest Christmas store in New York, owner Larry Gurino emphasizes to me over the phone. It’s in Ozone Park — the neighborhood of Queens best known as the stomping grounds of John Gotti. It’s also somewhat well-known as a real setting from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road — next to the Tastykake Wonder Bakery Outlet, which may or may not be closed but still features a giant mural of a Hostess cupcake. When it’s not Christmas season, House of Holiday sells Halloween decorations. And when it’s not Halloween season, it sells discount pianos.
“We’re the largest square footage. We make gorgeous displays. Our store is gorgeous,” Gurino says. “Get in the train, come down, and take pictures for your article.”
So I do. The store is gorgeous. I don’t think I’ve ever swooned in the face of a commercial enterprise, but that’s the most accurate wording I can think of to describe the first blush of my experience at House of Holiday.
There is a section dedicated to Christmas-themed trains and miniature villages, one of which has a working Ferris wheel. There is a whole hall dedicated to fake trees, all of which are outfitted in different styles of lights, from tiny and bright white specks to heavy, old-school multicolor bulbs the size of overripe grapes.
There are tacky things and beautiful things, Budweiser ornaments and buckets of gold poinsettias. There is an entire room dedicated to different styles of 3-foot-tall, super-thin elves, which is a horrifying nightmare. There is also a display of dish towels that say things like “Dear Santa, I want a fat wallet and a thin body” and “The tree isn’t the only thing getting lit.” These items are easy to ignore in favor of an arrangement of enormous angels with fluorescent wing tips and gowns more beautiful than any wedding dress I can imagine owning.
I ask Gurino how long it took to find suppliers to fill his store, and he simply emphasizes again that House of Holiday has been open for 25 years.
House of Holiday’s decorators are completely booked for the season, which starts overnight on Halloween, and the team of 25 will have decorated (or designed decorations for) about 200 homes and 200 businesses throughout all five boroughs by Christmas Eve. Typically, residential customers order a 7.5-foot tree, “decorated where you go, ‘Wow’ when you walk in,” as well as garlands for their railings, a couple of wreaths, and a centerpiece. They spend between $1,000 and $5,000.
Gurino points out that there’s a hole in my story: “Do-it-yourself is just exploding. Even bigger buildings and business are starting to push back a little bit [against rentals]. They’re coming in and buying all of their own stuff and then having maintenance put it up.”
That way, they get the same decorations at a fraction of the price. I ask him if this bothers him, and he says no, “We encourage do-it-yourself because we have the … largest … Christmas store.” Okay!
These customers have uncovered, in Gurino’s opinion, a con. “Most guys won’t tell you that because they only do decorating. They don’t have a retail space for people to come to. Most will tell you it’s the fad, it’s the hottest thing, but if they give you a quote for five grand, you can come to my store and do it for two. That’s a big difference. If you need a crane, maybe [hiring a decorator and renting] is the way to do it. …”
Most people are not renting Christmas, he says. Most people invest in Christmas, accruing it over time. “We don’t rent. It’s just taking the money from people. We don’t think it’s right. Everyone can afford a storage unit. Once you rent products from someone, they always have you over a barrel. You have to rent new stuff every year. Once you buy it, next year you have the same budget, so then you have twice as much, and before you know it, you can make a beautiful scene.”
The data would seem to support most of this. The National Retail Federation reports that people are spending more than ever on Christmas — an average of $1,007.24 each — but they are still spending only about $215 of that total tab on non-gift items like food and decorations. (I don’t totally agree that “everyone” can afford a storage unit, but it doesn’t seem worth fighting over at Christmas.)
More than anything, Gurino hates the line about how everyone is too busy. “There’s always time to enjoy the season,” he says. “Make time because it’s important. At the end of it all, this is what we have. We have the seasons and the holidays.”
At the House of Holiday, which is incredibly reasonably priced, I am paralyzed with indecision. Should I try to decorate my home? I agree, the season is important, because what else are we going to do, just cry until it’s spring?
I also have nowhere to store these beautiful things, and I want a tree taller than my body but I don’t think I can fit it in my living room, which has a non-functioning piano taking up 30 percent of the floor space.
After an hour of walking in circles, alternating between adding things to my Instagram story and staring solemnly at the nativity area, where you can look at, no big deal, the face of God, I decide on one small owl with straw-and-glitter feathers ($5.99), to put next to a fake crow I bought at Target when I was in a bad mood. And a light-up Santa and sleigh ($14.99) to put in my front window. For the children!
I ask Larry if he can tell me about the best Christmas decorations he’s ever created. “I don’t have anything special,” he says. “Everything is special.” And then, “Are we done?”
The Christmas Decorators, Staten Island
On Staten Island, the best-known best friends in the Christmas decorating business are Vincent Nicastro and Dexter Calimquim, high school buddies who have been stringing lights up on the stony mansions and saltbox cottages of the largely suburban, increasingly expensive “forgotten” borough for more than a decade.
Nicastro started the business when he was 16, a sophomore in high school in Park Slope, and got 10 jobs his first year just from passing out flyers. He did them on the weekend or after school; now he works 12 hours days without a day off for the entire season.
I meet them after dark, for a job at a home nestled between two cemeteries and a country club on the east side of the island, where house prices hover around $2 million. They’re doing a modest installation — just $1,500 for labor, using lights that the homeowners bought from them some years before.
Nicastro drives me around the corner to a project they just finished, to the tune of around $8,500, including light rentals but not including the 6-foot-tall nutcracker on the stoop or the 8-foot inflatable teddy bear by the private basketball court. Those, the homeowner, Jennifer Bock, picked up herself, as she did with the teenager-size elves in the side yard and the Santa-size Santa in the driveway.
Nicastro has to ask her about a timer that stopped working on the bear, so he rings the bell and she opens the door immediately. A gush of aroma reminiscent of a vanilla Glade plug-in slaps the freezing air around us and I try not to very obviously stare at the chandelier behind her, which is the size of a Toyota Corolla and hanging from a cathedral ceiling with cherubs painted on it. “We love Vinny,” Bock says, “I found him on Ironmine [Drive]; I was driving past and I said, ‘You have to come help me.’”
She comes out to show him where she’d like some extra wreaths, then stands outside and chats without a jacket on. “He does amazing work,” she tells me. “And I love Dexter. He really knows his stuff.”
This assessment seems, from all the available evidence, accurate. Her house looks like the set of a Tom Ford ad. It looks like where Diane Keaton would live in a movie about how she’d made millions writing a hit book series and simultaneously raised elegant and educated children, and was now learning to enjoy the holidays without her handsome and kind husband who died. (Jennifer Bock’s husband has not died; I met him, and his name is Tom.) It looks like, if you lived there, all you would do is stand in the driveway and talk to strangers about Christmas.
The Christmas Decorators do about 175 houses in five weeks. There are two vans and one truck, crews made up of roofers who are eager to take the offseason work and, as a bonus, won’t fall off a roof. Calimquim says the only training they need is some easy electrical tips, because customers really only get mad when you blow their fuse box. A house like Bock’s will take all day, nine hours at least.
“I do enjoy it,” Nicastro says. “A lot of landscapers, companies come and go. We always see 20 percent growth every year.” Then he explains that for the Bocks’ home, they had to glue each bulb onto the roof with a silicone gun, individually, and revises his tepid enthusiasm. “It’s 40 days of torture,” he says.
Calimquim and Nicastro also co-own a Halloween store in East Brunswick, New Jersey, which is open from August through February. There was a second store in Princeton for a while, but Amazon ate too many of the sales. The team decided to take part of their business online, selling on the platform as Costume Wholesalers.
“I’m shipping blood to Alaska, gallons of fake blood,” Calimquim says. “A dragon to Puerto Rico.” The costume business is year-round, not confined to Halloween. They’re selling Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin costumes to schools for plays, Jesus and Moses costumes to churches.
In February — the coldest month of the year, Calimquim reminds me — they’ll work from 7 am to 5 pm, taking decorations off about 10 houses per day. He prefers working in the Halloween store primarily because he gets to be inside.
There are perks to being outside, though. He likes hanging out with the crew; he likes fresh air. He doesn’t like having to take the van to a Dunkin’ Donuts to go to the bathroom. He likes the holiday business because he gets time off to travel, and is going to the Philippines as soon as this is all over. He also hates Christmas, he says, the way McDonald’s employees hate french fries.
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Is this what we’re doing for the rest of our lives?’” he says, more a sincere hypothetical than anything resembling a complaint. “I do okay.”
Bob Pranga, a.k.a. Dr. Christmas, makes a good living. He’s noticed an increase in demand for decorating services because people are “back on the ‘No one has time for anything’ thing.” They’re also increasingly forgetting to plan ahead, which is why he’s been called to give up his own Christmas Eve to decorate somebody else’s house.
“I did it,” he says, “For an additional cost. You have to be willing to sacrifice your holidays for this career if you really want to make it.”
Even in the most glamorous corner of this market, where the customers are Stevie Nicks and Beyoncé, there is a little twinge of a reminder: This is the six-week period during which our feelings about whose time is more important and what dismal dollar amount everyone else’s time can be bought for are spoken a little more loudly and crassly than they are the rest of the year.
I know there is a lot of suspicious cultural and emotional goop around Christmas that makes what I’m about to say sound insensitive or delusional: I totally love Christmas, and both need and crave the “magic” of the most wonderful time of the year.
I know that Christmas, as popular culture has come to define it, is a nightmare of commercialism, a creepy propaganda tool of the evangelical right, and a truly unfortunate time to work in any service industry — hardly a heartwarming combination of things.
At the same time, I think winter is a harrowing experience that humans are still ill evolved to cope with, and that we deserve an elaborate charade to ease us into that and into the blinding horror of yet another year. We have chosen something with an irresistible aesthetic and a wonderful set of smells, and we could have done much worse. The people who build Christmas are at least pretty into it. They do okay.
“My philosophy is always, you know, just remember to sparkle,” Pranga says, laughing. “Glitter gets you everywhere.”
Want more stories from The Goods by Vox? Sign up for our newsletter here.
Correction: This article has been updated to fix some inaccuracies in the description of the tree at the Hagans’ home, and to clarify the range of services offered by Rent-A-Christmas.