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Laura Ingalls Wilder on how to decorate for Christmas

Girl decorating tree for Christmas

Ronald Sandino | Cathopic

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 12/17/23

An article by the author of the 'Little House' books can inspire us to decorate our homes with joy and hospitality this Christmas.

In 1917, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote an article called, “How to Furnish a Home.” The article isn’t specifically about decorating for Christmas, but since we’re all ankle-deep in Christmas lights and tinsel I thought it would be interesting to apply her ideas to the way we furnish our homes for the holidays.

There’s something delightful about Christmas kitsch. I love it when people really go for it and put all sorts of random old handmade ornaments on the tree, strew garland everywhere, string up lights, and mix in a dancing Santa or reindeer or three. Wisemen make their journey through a forest of candy canes and Santa pictures, the nativity is tucked in along with an advent calendar and a gathering of elves. The scene wouldn’t be complete without Elvis on the radio singing Blue Christmas. Nothing matches but somehow it all works. It might not make the front cover of a fashion magazine, but decorating scheme is a representation of joy that is barely containable.

Other houses feel different. Maybe they have designer trees tastefully decorated with matching ornaments. The presents under it are wrapped in complementary patterned paper and arranged to look just right. A pretend fire flickers on the screen of the television. Everything is in place. Everything is picture perfect. The decorations are new and probably cost a lot of money, but the Christmas cheer is somehow missing.

Beautiful but empty

Wilder noticed the same phenomenon. She comments, “I spent an afternoon a short time ago with a friend in her new home. The house was beautiful and well-furnished with new furniture, but it seemed bare and empty to me.” She then muses about her own home. When it was new, it had the same feeling. It was sparkling but she struggled to make it feel like a home. She moved furniture and pictures around but it still didn’t feel right.

This experience gets her thinking – what sort of furnishings make a house feel like a home? Some homes feel welcome and inviting, while others almost make visitors feel bad for sitting on the couch. They want to get away as soon as possible. One room makes you want to kick off your shoes and stay a while, the other feels like you’re an intruder. A related question, in my mind, is why some homes are full of Christmas cheer and in others the joy is harder to find. What’s the best way to decorate for Christmas so as to create a warm atmosphere.

What makes a home welcoming?

The answer, once Wilder settles on it, makes a lot of sense. It actually doesn’t have anything to do with the furnishings at all. Some places are nice and new and are wonderfully inviting, so it can’t be as simple as declaring that a certain decorating scheme is good or bad. She comes to the conclusion that what makes a home feel welcoming isn’t how tastefully it is or is not decorated. It has far more to do with what has happened in the room.

Does a house contain fond memories of family Christmases? Have guests been there, laughing and drinking, playing games? “There is a spirit in every home,” she writes, which is a feeling we get in a room that is based on the thoughts and feelings of the people who spend time there. This is why her brand-new living room felt empty. The problem wasn’t the furnishings, it was simply that the family hadn’t created enough good memories there yet.

If a family is ill-tempered, if they don’t get along with each other, if there is no hospitality or generosity, no matter how beautiful the Christmas decorations are at the surface level, the joy will be missing because the good memories will be absent. On the other hand, if the room has hosted love and laughter, it becomes filled with a spirit of warmth and happiness.

Mementos of happiness

Maybe this is why all those old, handmade ornaments that the kids made are so precious. As physical objects they’re no better or worse than any other object, but they’ve become reminders of all the happy times the family has spent together. It doesn’t matter that they’re decades old and falling apart, or that none of them match. Each one is a memento of happiness.

Wilder ends with this thought; “Let us be as careful that our homes are furnished with pleasant and happy thoughts as we are that the rugs are the right color and texture and the furniture comfortable and beautiful!” It seems to me that this advice is well-taken especially during the holiday season. Decorate with joy, in whatever way you please, always keeping in mind that the true decoration, the unseen spirit of the home, is the people we love.

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