Deck the Halls

By / Magazine / December 23rd, 2014 / 7

‘Tis the season of the holiday party and decking the halls can be a daunting task, especially when you’re on a tight schedule. Since my idea of party decorations includes streamers and balloons in primary colours, I’ve consulted a few experts for advice on how to decorate to make your event the party of the season.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Before you start pondering the multitude of decisions you need to make, set down a budget.  “Even for my most casual, in-home gatherings, I set a budget,” says Keri Miller, CSEP, partner and creative director of Calgary’s e=mc2 events.

Your chosen budget will provide you with a guideline for all of the other decisions you make. “The budget determines everything,” says Corinne Kessel, the principal of Greenscape Design and Decor, a design build company that provides decor pieces for event rentals across Canada and the US. According to Kessel, a budget determines how many people you invite, how high-end your menu will be, who provides the drinks (you or your guests) and finally “how elaborate the decor can be.”

Once you’ve set your budget, ask yourselves the five W’s — who, what, where, when and why — says Keri Miller. She explains that answering the five W’s “provides you [with] a filter that you can use when posed with the questions about entertainment and design.” Once you’ve determined this, you can move onto the more exciting decisions of party-planning. Christine DenOuden, owner of Kleur Design — an interior design company based in Prince Edward County, Ontario, decides on the party’s occasion, theme and mood first. “That will set the tone and keep all my selections cohesive for the subsequent decisions that need to be made.”

Picking a theme can be tricky, but it’s all about the season and the space. “Don’t fight the holidays,” says Miller. “Build a design around your venue or home first, and elaborate from there.” She gives the example that a black and white theme in a home with warm, spicy tones would be “like putting a band-aid on a wound,” so planning your decor to match your space is important.

“I absolutely love enchanted forest themes,” says Kessel (which is no surprise, since Greenscape specializes in providing event-worthy trees, flowers and other greenery).  “From dark fairytales to whimsical Midsummer Night’s Dream themes to futuristic Avatar settings, I love a good ‘once upon a time’ concept for events … it is so easy to be endlessly creative and fit any budget with this theme.”

Have you got your budget and theme?

Good. Before you can start decorating, develop a plan for the interior design of your event — what will you use and how will it fit together to promote your theme. “The lighting, music and decor can dramatically impact your event,” says Kessel. “Lights too bright — people won’t dance; music too loud — guests can’t mingle and chat; decor placed too low if people are standing or too high if they are seated — guests won’t see it and it has no impact. Consider all the senses.”

Think about your theme and keep that forefront in your mind as you plan the decor and make your purchases. “Our theme for last year’s Festival of Trees Holiday Home tour [in Belleville] was ‘Glamorous’,” says DenOuden. “I decided on a colour, Chartreuse, and I had my theme, Glamorous, so I made all my selections based on those parameters. Before I purchased anything for the decor, I asked myself, ‘does this feel like a Glamorous Chartreuse Christmas?’ If the answer was yes, then the item made it into my design.”

When developing the theme and deciding what to put in your space, draw on inspiration from websites like Pinterest, design apps and interior design stores. “For theme, DIY and decor ideas, Pinterest is my go-to site/app,” says DenOuden. “I create a board for my event and pin my little heart out!” Though be careful, I know from experience that Pinterest can get addictive, and Kessel concurs: “I guarantee if you search ‘affordable event decor ideas’ on Pinterest, your family will not see you for a week.”

“An app like myPANTONE allows users to take a photo of an inspiring piece of art, or item of clothing or handbag and provides a colour palate to start your overall design process,” says Miller. “For those people that can’t visualize how to use varying shades of colour and textures together, this provides a creative ZAP that starts the process.”

Big name home decor stores can also be a great source of inspiration — and, depending on your budget, you can purchase your items as you find them, getting two birds with one metaphorical stone. “I love looking at the way IKEA takes a product in their stores and turns it into something else,” says Miller. “Really look at what they are using for a shelf and what they use on the shelf when touring their showrooms.”

With the right creative mind-set, anything can add to your event’s decor. “The key to budget design is looking at existing items differently,” says Miller. One quick tip she suggests is nestling your living room end tables over your dining room table for height and dimension, “not only providing a unique way to use your existing furniture, but a way to save space!”

“Party decorations are everywhere,” says Kessel. “You just need to think about how to use everyday items in creative ways. You can walk into a grocery store and buy lemons or apples and put them in a glass vase and you have an affordable colourful centrepiece; an upside down wine glass can be an elegant pillar candleholder; paint things from your yard like pinecones, rocks and branches unexpected colours.”

Just remember, you’re on a budget.

In all this researching and looking around, it’s easy to get lost in exciting ideas. Remember to keep your budget in mind as you go. In fact, the cliché “less is more” applies. “If you are on a budget, spend all your decor money on one big impact decoration rather than trying to get your theme across with a bunch of small stuff,” suggests DenOuden.

“On a budget, you need to concentrate your efforts on impact,” says Miller. “Don’t dilute it with small things placed all over your space.”

Simple items that you can buy in bulk are great budget-worthy decor options. “Check out your local fabric store rather than purchasing pre-made table clothes,” says DenOuden. “Use the fabric to continue your theme throughout the space.”

Another option is to mix real flowers with fake ones. “To make large floral arrangements more affordable, I mix in high quality faux flowers with fresh flowers,” says Kessel. “I use artificial greenery and flowers for areas where you can see but can’t touch, and will incorporate fresh flowers and live trees into decor areas that guests can touch or smell to add extra realism.”

Lighting is another source of high-impact design tricks you can use to your advantage. “I am known for my use of lighting in all my designs and this is no different at my own cocktail parties,” says Miller. “At home, no overhead lights are used (unless dimmed), I’ll bring in additional table lamps from around the house on the buffets, the small clip lights found at Walmart that clamp on to tables and mirrors that I can focus on to flowers or food.”

“Lighting will always make things better,” says Kessel. “Good lighting can create drama in a room and you can instantly change the mood by dimming the lights or draw attention to decor by making sure there is a light pointed at it.” She suggests transforming your space with coloured up-lights, a string of mini-lights or even candles.

Time to get out the boughs of holly.

Once you’ve got your materials and accents, it’s time to make your space look its best. Look around and choose your focal point for each room. “I always consider where my guests’ eyes will be looking the most and the longest, and focus on creating the best impact in those areas,” say Kessel. Maybe there’s an attractive architectural element that could really pull your theme together or a centrepiece that you just absolutely love.

Once you’ve chosen a focal point, arrange the furniture to emphasize it. “Really look at your space and walk the experience as though you are the guest,” suggests Miller. She explains that you should consider where your guests will hang their coats, what furniture they’ll have to walk around and where they’ll congregate the most (though we all know that 90 percent of all parties end up in the kitchen!) and how these will contribute to the overall theme. “If you want ideas on how to position your furniture … go to showrooms like Urban Barn … seeing how they create very intimate, themed spaces in a tight space will help understand how you can stage your home.”

Just remember that continuity is key. “A continuation of the design in the washroom, where everyone goes, is nice,” says Miller. “And regardless of design, make the recycling easy to find.”

Finally, don’t be afraid to get some help. Party planning and production is a huge undertaking. Your friends would probably love to help if you’d let them. “I always have one or two friends that know my kitchen and they show up with Prosecco and aprons to finish preparing what I could not,” says Miller. “It’s a great social activity that allows you to make sure all the details are finished [while you] get dressed and be prepared for guests to arrive.”

Though my favourite must-have has to come from Kessel, who states that she couldn’t live without red wine — “It makes everything look better” — duct tape and zap straps — “they can make the impossible possible.”

Regardless of theme, remember that it’s the holidays and this is a party. The ultimate goal is fun — both for yourself and your guests!


Cheers to the New Year!

Champagne is the traditional “cheers-ing” beverage of the holidays, but too much of a good thing can be overwhelming. Before you pop open yet another bottle of bubbly, consider treating your guests to one of these sparkling alternatives, all of which look great in a champagne flute.

Kir Royale

An oldie but a goodie.

  • 6 oz champagne or sparkling wine
  • 1/2 oz crème de cassis
  • Blackberries, for garnish

Combine and serve.

The Marie Antoinette Cocktail

A citrus-y bubbly that will tame any thirst.

  • 2 oz vodka
  • 3/4 oz Cointreau
  • 1/2 oz Lillet blonde
  • 1/4 oz demerara simple syrup
  • Splash of French Sparkling Lemonade
  • Small sprigs of fresh thyme

Muddle thyme within the shaker. Add ice, vodka, Cointreau, Lillet and simple syrup. Shake well and serve in chilled champagne flute topped with a splash of French lemonade.

Elderflower Champagne Cocktail

Extra bubbly for the perfect celebration.

  • 3 oz Prosecco
  • 2 oz St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur
  • Club soda
  • Cucumber, thinly sliced
  • Fresh Mint

Fill a tumbler with ice. Fill three-quarters of the glass with Prosecco and club soda. Add thinly sliced cucumber and fresh mint. Top with St-Germain.

Sparkling Cider

For the designated drivers in your midst, a glass of sparkling cider is sweet, savoury and oh so delicious.


A freelance writer and editor, Lisa Hoekstra loves learning and trying new things. She can be found with her nose in a book or multiple tabs open on her browser as she researches the latest and greatest in the world of food, style and everything in between.

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