36 Fun Ways to Decorate to Get the Kids Excited for the Holidays
Every twinkly light sparks wonder in kids, so we asked parents how they amp up anticipation and add a little extra magic to this dazzling time of year.
Trick Out a Tree—or Several
Pick a motif (candy canes, woodland creatures, plaids), and go all in. Melody Peralta, a mom of two in Riverside, California, starts each year with a mood board to corral her ideas and inspiration. "Last year we did a Nutcracker ballet theme. The year before that it was mid-century modern. Think The Jetsons!" Peralta says. "One idea I'm considering for this Christmas is Santa's Workshop and trimming the tree in miniature toys."
Go beyond red and green.
An unexpected palette can be just as merry. Hang a mix of ornaments in all the colors of the rainbow, going in order from treetop to bottom. Or do it up with nothing but pastels. "Last Christmas we did ours all pink, gold, and glittery," says Kashia Palmer, a mom of three daughters in Saratoga Springs, Utah. Many families lean into a single shade, such as all blue (which works well if yours is a Hanukkah bush). A total whiteout can wow too. Camille Lai, a mom of four in Orlando, went snowy white with a flocked tree last year.
New York City's American Museum of Natural History displays a tree decorated with origami every year. In 2020, the tree was awash in 1,000 folded cranes in many colors; in 2019, it was covered in 800 origami dinosaurs. "We try to go see it every year," says Jodi Levine, a mother of two in Westchester, New York. "My sons love origami, so we started keeping a basket of their own folded art, and then we fill our tree with their creations."
Make a kids-only tree.
There's the traditional tree in the living room for Kate Dreyer, who lives outside Washington, D.C. Then she has another just for her two kids in their playroom. "We DIY the ornaments for that one. Last year, we decided on a 'sweet treats' theme and made ornaments that looked like donuts and gumball machines," Dreyer says.
Put up a passion tree.
While the presents may go under your main evergreen, a secondary tree dedicated to something the family loves can live in the family room, the den, or a covered porch. Dress it in the colors of your favorite sports team (never too early to indoctrinate the kids!), or make it an homage to a family vacation spot, with Disney ornaments, or shells, sand dollars, and starfish for the seashore.
Rely on indestructible ornaments.
"Shatterproof is best because kids want to get their hands on them," says Joy Green, a mom of two in Houston. "We got soft, puffy balls last year that the kids could play with."
Get Some Cheer Up in Here
Go wild in the kids' rooms.
"We decorate each of our kids' bedrooms first thing for the season so they have a long time to enjoy them," Green says. "My daughter Kai sleeps with her twinkle lights on, and the soft glow is so special." You could swap their regular sheets for some in holiday colors and bring on the party décor. "I doll up their bookshelves with garlands and signs, and rotate in seasonal books," Peralta says.
'We Have Two Trees'
"We're a military family, and in 2015, we relocated to Japan from South Carolina and arrived two days before Christmas," says Victoria White. "I ran to a store and left with its last Christmas tree, the one that was on display, and we put it up in the hotel where we were staying. Now we're living in San Diego, and after the turkey settles in our stomachs on Thanksgiving, we decorate a big tree in the living room plus that smaller one that we call our 'hotel tree' in the dining room or my office. It's a reminder that we've had to adapt and overcome, and that while some years look different, having one another is what's consistent."
Make an impact with multiples.
Bottle brush trees are trending, and they're fairly unbreakable; they contain bristles that look like little branches, and each tree comes on a tiny stand. "The kids help set out different-size ones in a bunch of colors," says Lauren Richel Kelly, a mom of two in Katonah, New York. "Then, to display holiday cards, I string baker's twine across a window. As new cards arrive, the kids use mini clothespins to attach them."
Inflate the excitement.
Why not a balloon arch at the holidays? You can buy a kit in any color combo on Amazon for around $20. Leave it up through New Year's Eve, when you can pop the balloons at midnight. Or treat an arch like an Advent calendar, says Mandy Roberson, cofounder of the Magic Playbook kids' subscription and a mom in Greenville, South Carolina. Her three kids get revved up by helping her put up an arch around the doorway to their playroom. "The balloons are numbered for the days of the month leading up to the 24th, and we slip a little piece of paper inside each one with a fun holiday-ish thing to do as we count down to Christmas, like walking the neighborhood to look at lights," Roberson says. "I pop a balloon for them each morning. It's a great visual to show how much closer to Christmas we're getting."
Cut out giant snowflakes.
"We are a blended family. My husband is Christian and I'm Jewish. So aside from the tree, we focus on nonreligious decorations," Levine says. She loves to upcycle and uses newspaper to create painted snowflakes. "When you paint the paper, it gets stiff and easy to hang," Levine explains.
'We Put Our Menorah Outdoors'
"The restrictions we had last year gave us a new, great idea," says Daryl Rothman-Dick, a mom of one in Somerville, New Jersey. "We put a menorah with candles on our porch at the top of the stairs and invited friends and neighbors to gather at the bottom of the stairs for just a short while one night as we lit a new light. We described the meaning of Hanukkah and handed kids goody bags with a wooden dreidel, a glow stick, a bag of chocolate gelt, an Israeli chocolate bar, and stampers in menorah, dreidel, and Jewish-star designs. It was lovely, and we plan to do it again this year in addition to hopefully having an actual Hanukkah party."
Spread some Hanukkah spirit.
Try dried branches in a vase with blue and silver balls hanging from them. Garnish your gingerbread house all in blues and whites. "I like to display all our menorahs. We have one we got as an engagement gift, ones that have been handed down to us, ones our children have made, and more," says Marti Kerner. "Often we just light one per night, but when we have people over, it's nice to have a collection so everyone can participate." Kerner adds that she embraces the eight-night aspect and celebrates only during that time. "We throw a party. I fill glass jars with chocolate gelt and dreidels. I also bring out the Hanukkah-themed kids' books only for the holiday. It feels like having a visit from old friends."
Use construction paper to cut out Santa hats and tape them onto framed family photos. Wait for the kids to notice!
Build a mini scene.
Many households run a train around the tree or set out a collection of tiny houses. "Mine are hand-me-downs from my parents. I decorate my mantel with a few antique houses that belonged to my dad," says Allene Troy, of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, a mom of two. Kids can also make a miniature LEGO village (the brand puts out new holiday houses on the reg) or use wooden sticks or cardboard boxes.
Dress up their toys too.
For some cheap and hilarious decorating, spiff up any doll or stuffed animal with a reindeer-antler headband or a winter hat, or maybe even outfit one of the kids' plushies in your baby's outgrown Christmas sweater. "For us, it's the holidays when my daughters switch their dolls into their holiday outfits," says Katie Wilson, a mom of three in Lake Forest, Illinois. "We sit the dolls next to the tree for some added cheer."
'Hang a DIY Garland'
If you're yearning to break loose from the usual popcorn and cranberries, try stringing up these items—and feel free to mix and match. (Save small objects for kids 4 and older to avoid any choking hazards.)
1. Simple paper shapes like red circles and white snowflakes
2. Baby socks decorated to look like mini stockings
3. Colorful cupcake liners
4. Dried orange slices
6. Paper letters that spell out phrases like "Happy holla days" or "Up to snow good"
7. Painted pine cones
9. Ribbon ties
10. Wrapped peppermints
Spruce up the faux.
"We love the smell of fresh garlands, but they're also very expensive. For more look for less, I hang a strand of an artificial garland on the banister, then fill it in with natural greenery," says Lauren Comer, a mom of a toddler in Smyrna, Georgia. You can often pick up excess branch trimmings at a tree lot or a hardware store for free. You can do the same to add some scent to a fake wreath.
Assemble edible décor.
"We make little cookie cottages out of graham crackers and put them on cake stands with a bed of shredded coconut for snow and green gumdrops as landscaping," Levine says. "Then the cake stands serve as our centerpieces during Christmas dinner."
'We Hang Our Stockings Without a Fireplace'
"We have a wall painted with chalkboard paint, and every year we draw a mantel with chalk. We attach adhesive hooks to it and hang our stockings," says Diana Baumgarte, a mom of one in Norwalk, Connecticut. There are plenty of places where you can tack up those fancy socks (and we promise Santa will find them!). You can ribbon-tie stockings to a banister, for instance. But with the magic of adhesive Command hooks, stockings can securely dangle from a bookshelf, a kitchen island, a side table, or a bar cart. Or display them on the inside of your front door so the kids get excited every time they see them on their way out of the house.
Go for Holiday Curb Appeal
Embrace big characters.
We all know those giant inflatables that dot suburban yards between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Even if you're not a fan, there's no denying that kids adore them. (Author's admission: We caved and got one blow-up tree with a Santa. Things snowballed, and now we have over half a dozen inflatables, including a giant avocado that reads "Guacin' around the Christmas tree"). If they make you giggle and get the kids psyched, it's a win.
Make a splashy entrance.
This is the one time of year when you don't have to shy away from going all out. White PVC pipe, striped candy-cane-style with red duct tape, looks cute book ending the door. "Last year I found two huge nutcrackers to stand on either side of the door, and then we lined our walkway with Christmas trees," says Jenny Reimold, a mom of seven and a HomeGoods style expert in Nashville.
Personalize a wreath.
There are so many ways to jazz up a basic wreath (real or faux) for your front door. Purchase an inexpensive one and add 3-D letters wrapped in yarn or painted to spell out your family name. Try paper snowflakes or kid-made ornaments. Add cinnamon sticks for an inviting scent.
Perk up the porch.
Big balloons can form a giant, multicolored garland that can be seen from the street. "When you add a cardboard collar to the base of each balloon and connect them with twine, they look like oversize string lights," Green says.
Choose a focal point.
You're maybe not on the Clark Griswold level (yet). Rather than trying to spread what lights you have across your entire facade, pick something to highlight with twinkle lights, whether it's one tree, a bush near the front door, or your mailbox. Add a giant red bow for daytime cheer.
Safety first with outdoor lights.
If you're hanging lights yourself, choose a day that's not wet or icy, and stay off the roof altogether, says Scott Parrish, owner of Illuminight Holiday Lighting, in Highland Park, Illinois, a company that will hang lights for customers. Don't forget the basic first step: Test your lights by plugging them in somewhere like the garage to be sure they work before you go through the effort of stringing them up. Parrish recommends a sturdy ladder, of course, and electrical tape for sealing where one string of lights meets another. Use outdoor-rated lights and extension cords, and plastic (not metal) ties.
Create an illusion.
For next to no work and less than $50, you can place an animated projector in the yard to light up your house with what looks like falling snow or twinkling stars.
Tap into traditional.
A battery-powered LED candle paired with a wreath in every window gives a colonial-chic effect, says Candis Meredith, who with her husband, Andy (plus their seven kids), stars in the Magnolia Network show Home Work. Their candles are each on a timer to glow only at night. "Simple beauty is cheaper too," Andy Meredith says, adding that they set up a few halogen floodlights in the yard to illuminate their home. A final touch: They trade in the porch light's rest-of-the-year bulb for one that resembles a flickering flame.
When You Don't DIY
Turn your home into the North Pole with sleigh-worthy holiday decorations you can buy.
1. Hang Tight The Festive Foliage Chandelier adds a dose of greenery to your house (without shedding pine needles everywhere).
2. Fill 'Em Up A felted-wool stocking looks extra-joyful with multicolored trim.
3. Chase a Rainbow For a burst of cheer right into the New Year, go for this bold Fan Wreath. Keep it indoors to protect the hand-pleated, hand-dyed paper.
4. Pom Party The new garlands are more understated (and softer) than the usual tinsel. String up this Pom Garland for the Festival of Lights.
5. Seize the Day Count down to Christmas by adding mini gifts to all the slots on the Tabletop Advent Drawer Calendar. Reuse it year after year instead of buying disposable ones.
6. Step on It Welcome! Let the Indoor/Outdoor Vacationland Rug be a place for playdate and party guests alike to stomp off snow, while keeping in line with your wintry décor.
7. Light Show All eight nights look stunning with this stylish Opalhouse Designed With Jungalow Dove Menorah. Maybe the peace-bringing bird will send chill vibes to your kids too.
8. Forest Views Accompany your Christmas tree with an army of adorable mini evergreens. The Opalhouse Bottlebrush Trees vary in size, and you can place them together or scatter them throughout the house.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's December 2021 issue as "Deck Those Halls!" Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here