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Holiday Decorating for Multi-Denominational Celebrations

Q: Here’s the holiday guest list: My mother, devout Catholic, and her husband, lapsed Catholic; my sister, who converted to Judaism and is now married to a man who was raised as an Orthodox Jew, and my own husband, a Muslim. Between us, we’ve got a good sampling of the three biggest religions of the world.

How can I possibly host a “holiday party” without causing a Holy War?

A: This is a perennially perplexing question for many Americans, and for the Anxious Decorator, it’s enough to make a hostess spike up that eggnog with a double dose of brandy. One of the great disadvantages to having plenty of diversity is that it can mean a holiday clash among family and friends that creates anything but a feeling of peace and joy.


But it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of focusing on what makes everyone’s celebrations different, why not highlight the similarities?

Perhaps the best way to move forward like this, ironically, is by moving backwards – way back to the origin of all our mid-winter celebrations, which probably dates to pre-historic times and certainly to ancient Celtic rituals.

The reason we have a cluster of special days in the dead of winter is precisely because it is the dead of winter. Even in warmer climates in the Northern Hemisphere, there is considerably less light in December and January than the rest of the year so it’s natural that people want to brighten things up with a little festivity until we can start dreaming of spring.

What about using the central theme of light as the common bond for your holiday get together?

Old-fashioned Christmas decorations include lots of candles; in the days before those annoying electric lights that get impossibly tangled just by sitting in a box for 11 months, people used real candles, which of course provide a softer, magical light. Even if you’re not terribly anxious, it isn’t hard to see the danger in trimming an evergreen tree with lit candles, and it’s really a wonder there isn’t a richer history of death by burning Christmas trees in the days before Thomas Edison.

And of course it’s not for nothing that Hanukkah is called the “Festival of Lights.” Each night of the consecutive eight nights another candle is lit on the menorah, so that by the last night of the festival, the menorah is ablaze with light, really giving one the feeling that indeed, the earth is turning back toward the light, even in the darkest nights.

There’s nothing wrong with including some of the oldest elements of a light-filled celebration in your party décor, and these will probably cause the least offense to your guests. A table decorated with evergreen branches and tall candles gives a holiday look without being too identifiably Christian. In fact, you’d do well to skip any green-and-red color scheme, and instead burn candles in a rainbow of colors, offsetting the Christian associations with the evergreen. A table set with evergreen branches and blue, pink, and yellow candles will have a much different–and more ecumenical–look.

Of course you will use caution, and make sure the evergreen branches are far enough from the candles so as not to light the house on fire. You can also spritz the branches with water just before you light the candles.

What about those twinkling little Christmas lights? Some people keep them up around the house year-round, because they add such a festive flare. If you don’t have a Christmas tree, you could string the lights up around the window frames of the dining room, making a nice echo to the multi-colored candles on the table.

A solid blue tablecloth and green or yellow napkins will further detour your guests from the idea that this party is for the celebration of any particular holiday.

What about gift-giving? There’s nothing wrong with having an exchange of gifts on this night; just make sure you let the guests know ahead of time what the rules are. Often, especially for people who don’t know each other well, a price limit is helpful, and make it low, like $20. You could also encourage people to go with the theme of “things that can be used up,” which will lead to gifts of candles, soap, motor oil, and food. These of course have the benefit of eliminating the dilemma of what to do with that dreadfully ugly teapot or stained-glass sun catcher or the set of coffee mugs emblazoned with a corny saying.

Remember that the Christian New Year is often an element in a “holiday party.” You can use this theme to your benefit, and encourage the guests to bring their predictions of the coming year. In fact, if you do this as an annual ritual, you can then read the predictions from the previous year and see which ones came true. While Jews and Muslims have other times of the calendar to mark new years, almost all Americans recognize January 1 as the start of a new year, if only for tax purposes. Therefore, focusing on this holiday may help shift everyone’s eyes away from that giant dreidel on the front lawn or the stockings you’ve hung by the chimney with care.

  • Tip: For a mixed holiday party, don’t try to mix and match the decorative symbols of several religions. Steer clear of the usual red and green of Christmas or blue and white of Hanukkah; instead, go for a rainbow of colors in your candles, table settings, and linens.

Do you have a decorating dilemma? Our Anxious Decorator is eager to put her designing mind to work on your home problem. If you have digital photos of the problem area, all the better! Send your questions to anxiousdecorator@sheffield.edu.

Reprinted with permission from the Sheffield School of Design

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