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Decking the halls for pandemic Christmas

Revelers are going hard on decor this year, both inside and out.

A lavishly lit Christmas tree in a traditional study
Holiday-themed interior design from designer Bronson van Wyck.
Courtesy of Bronson van Wyck

A 9-foot nutcracker. Magic crystals that light up a fireplace with green and purple flames. Glass-glitter pinecones so sharp, they have to be handled with protective gear.

These are just some of the decorations that Christmas enthusiasts are using to show their holiday cheer in an otherwise dreary year. Dorinda Medley, a former star of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York City, is known for “making it nice,” especially the exuberant Christmas displays she installs each year at Blue Stone Manor, her home in the Berkshires. But she’s going extra-big this holiday season — literally, if that giant nutcracker she bought is any indication. “When I pressed the button, I was like, ‘What have I done?’ But now it’s on the American Express, paid for, and I’m happy for it,” Medley says.

Being happy for it, for small pockets of merriment in a time when everything seems not very merry, is adding up to big business for purveyors of Christmas decor, who are selling holiday cheer at a fast clip. “I’ve got to put in the effort this year,” Medley says of her big spending, “because it would be easy just to fall into the doldrums of 2020 and say forget it. But I think that, at the end of the day, people need to feel hopeful.”

Medley is not alone. In this year of diminished holiday celebrations, with many skipping the holidays entirely and others doing their best to adjust traditions to fit the safety measures called for by the Covid-19 pandemic, Christmas enthusiasts are choosing to redirect energy they would usually spend on parties, meals, and frantic shopping trips to putting up over-the-top decorations and light displays.

Celebrants are expressing holiday cheer inside as well, through old-fashioned Yuletide activities like gingerbread-house building and garland-stringing as people seek out what Medley describes as a Norman Rockwell-esque Christmas. “I want to evoke that feeling of home — because we’ve all been home,” she says. (It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Christmas crafts are highly, highly Instagrammable.)

It’s a scene that is playing out across the country. “Over the last two months, we’ve seen a 45 percent increase in holiday lighting over the same time frame last year, and a 42 percent increase with wreaths and garland,” says Andrew Wolf, a holiday merchant at Ace Hardware. And John DeCosmo, president of Ulta-Lit Tree Company, says, “Light sets sales are up, outdoor decor sales are up, and artificial Christmas tree sales are up, so yes, we are seeing it. Our own sales online are up over 30 percent this year.”

Caroline Moss, an author and host of the podcast Gee Thanks Just Bought It, is doing an outdoor lights display for the first time and saw no reason to wait until after Thanksgiving to illuminate her home. “I put up an outdoor tree and outdoor lights on November 2,” she confesses. Moss, who relocated to Los Angeles this year with her husband Dan, was concerned about what her new neighbors might think, though she needn’t have worried. “I was very nervous because I didn’t want to be seen as the crazy new neighbors. I texted my next-door neighbor, and she was like, ‘Oh, we’re doing it too.’”

According to DeCosmo, the day after Thanksgiving is typically the most popular day of the year for Christmas decorating. But this year, people like Moss got an early start, perhaps wanting to wear their holiday cheer on their lawns. Bronson van Wyck, a decorator who services a high-end clientele, saw a noted increase in business — especially among early birds. “We would typically do somewhere between six to 10 homes for Christmas, and we would probably have booked them by about [mid-November],” he says. “This year we had a dozen bookings before Labor Day.”

Van Wyck is capitalizing in another way: For $475, his website offers something called a “Sugar and Spice, Sensory Delights Package” featuring “(1) Evergreen, cedar and juniper wreath adorned with dried citrus, cinnamon stick and faux berries hand-crafted by genuine Van Wyck Elves,” a full-color smart LED light bulb from GE, and a tube of those magic crystals for tossing in the fire (Amazon retail price: $15.26). Van Wyck isn’t the only one trotting out elves. On the new Netflix show Holiday Home Makeover with Mr. Christmas, interior designer Benjamin Bradley, the titular Mr. Christmas, and his team (yes, of elves) gives four families holiday home makeovers that feature hand-flocked trees, Della Robbia-style wreaths, lucite diamonds, hanging lanterns, and luminescent deer. Mr. Christmas, in his own words, goes “Christmas balls to the walls.”

Preston Davis, the editor of Keep it Chic, is another newcomer to festive outdoor holiday displays. “I have never put lights outside or in windows and I plan to do that this year! I think it’s important to show that we are here, we’re celebrating,” Davis says.

In holiday seasons past, Davis hosted a series of luncheons to visit with old friends returning home for the holidays. But with travel and large gatherings off the table, Davis is thinking about building a gingerbread house and making old-fashioned popcorn garland with her adult daughters, ages 20 and 25 — provided they’re able to safely travel home. “I plan on really ramping up, the tree with the popcorn strings and all that stuff. I really want to go all out,” she says.

She’s also hoping her kids will want in on the fun. “I want them to help decorate and do some of those traditions, gingerbread houses and cookies. Maybe I’ll even get them to produce sugar cubes for Santa. Who knows?!” She views these hands-on activities as a way to break her habit of multitasking — which, she acknowledges, “takes a lot of value away from the time I spend with my family.”

It’s no surprise that in this socially distant year, with touch and physical proximity largely off-limits, people are finding creative visual and aural ways to connect with others. Springtime’s nightly clapping and cheering for first responders beget the summer’s illegal fireworks shows, which gave way to giant skeletons come Halloween. Now, at Yuletide, the creative means have become literal, with people taking up those highly Instagrammable crafting projects.

Garlands made of popcorn and cranberries, laid over a chair back.
Elizabeth Schulte’s garlands.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Schulte

In keeping with the nostalgic tone of this Christmas, Elizabeth Schulte of Salem, Oregon, is stepping up her garland-making, using dried fruits like oranges and apples alongside more traditional popcorn and cranberries. The dried apples are the literal fruits of illicit labor; she engaged in a practice called scrumping to obtain them. “It means, um, liberating apples that are maybe not necessarily legally yours, from a place where there’s no one really necessarily guarding them,” Schulte says. To atone for the scrumping, she’s also considering adopting another historic holiday activity: wassailing. “It’s where they would go around and sing Christmas songs to the orchard” to encourage the trees to grow more apples, she says. “Considering how we have just been robbing apples all over the state, maybe we should go and give them some encouragement.”

Schulte is incorporating nostalgia in another way. “I’m going to use some strange glitter on one of the garlands, I think maybe on the pine cones.” Strange glitter? Schulte explains that before World War II, glitter was made mostly from ground glass out of Germany, and she wanted the real deal. “It’s quite annoying to find, I found some online,” she says.

The German ground-glass glitter presented another problem, albeit one with a very 2020 solution. “I’m low-key concerned that I’m going to get ground glass into my lungs and eyes,” Schulte says. “I think in order to safely use it, I have to wear a mask.”