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The Wandering Eye: Christmas Decorations

Rural Intelligence Style Our blogger, interior designer Carey Maloney, and his partner Hermes Mallea, an architect, are principals in the M (Group).
My Rural Intelligence buddy Marilyn (think Rumpole’s She Who Must Be Obeyed) suggested a blog on Christmas decorations.  She knows we have decorated The New York Public Library for years and figured this was a good direction to point me in…

Astor Hall with the tree
So –  Indeed we volunteer decorate the Library every year, and we love it. What better space to tackle than Astor Hall?  When they asked us to help back in 1996, we were renting a house up here a few houses north of where we are now.  I looked out the window, and there was a huge spruce with birds flying around it..  Hmm.  Natural.  That could work! 

Little families crowd the tree
We hit the collections for inspiration and fell upon the Library’s huge trove of Christmas cards.  There it was—a mid-19th-century German card with a snowy fir tree full of little birds.  We found more cards with trees and birds, especially the 1960’s UNICEF cards.  So we had a theme and it was connected to the Library (the vast scope of the Library has always allowed us to work backwards. You name the theme, the Library has the materials to back it up.)
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Circa 1949 author and librarian Emma Brock was on the same track.
We needed pine cones, so I mention this to my mother.  Off and running, and a month later, she had collected, via Cub Scout troops, her garden clubbers, and even a group of nuns, 14 huge boxes of beautiful East Texas pine cones, sorted by size (!) for her contribution to the effort.  So these get shipped up.

Meanwhile, I am wondering/worrying—how will we hang them?  Well.  They don’t need to be hung. They just stick to that artificial tree (fire code) like Velcro.  Magic.  Given how rich we were in pine cones, we covered that tree densely and used them as a skirt projecting 5’ around the tree. 

And damned if those pine cones haven’t lasted—with minimal refreshing—year after year… Amazing and unexpected.  Sort of a water to wine-ish-y miracle!  I use them everywhere—in bowls, in the huge Pyrex containers by our fireplace, on the table in my elevator vestibule… Pine cones rock.

Then I shopped for lots of fake birds, as natural looking and forest-y as we could find.  No tucans.  Also lots of little nests to hang, sit, and perch.  Wooden cranberry garlands add a bit of color.  Some snow brightens it all up.

The final product is big and bold from a distance but detailed and ‘lively’ up close.  Children seem to enjoy it—we have Harry Potter-inspired owls that evoke gasps.  And the adults stop to look too.  The librarians set up a large glass case with holiday-theme items from the stacks (such as Charles Dicken’s personal copy of “A Christmas Carol” and a daggeurotype of the real Tiny Tim)—every opportunity is a learning experience at the NYPL!

Upstairs in the very grand Trustees’ Room, we garland it up and focus on pine cones and gilded ribbon, with just a few escapee birds around.

Here the Trustees’ Room set up for a lunch we hosted for six potential donors.
Once this installation is completed on Thanksgiving weekend, I am pretty much done with Christmas decorations for a few weeks. (In the interest of full disclosure, we have about 15 talented window dressers who do the work.  At this point, I just wander through and tweak a bird here or move a pine cone there…)
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My junk store Santa on our front porch. He lights up of course…and he is on a dimmer!
I’ll admit to being consumed with how much trouble it is to set it all up and take it all down, so I opt for a few bold statements (to amuse me) and leave it at that.  Plus, I am loathe to completely change my environs.  I sort of like them the way they are and don’t need a month of twinkling lights and gilded pine cones to add forced sparkle to my already glitteringly glam life (note: insert irony…)

Which brings me to the timetable.  As noted above, I realize it takes time and effort to put all this junk up.  This is the price you pay.  But don’t use that as an excuse to put it up months in advance.  “The holiday season” has gotten longer and longer.  I won’t be pretentious and expound putting up the tree on Christmas Eve, but, really, you want that stuff around for a month or more?  Too much…  If you really “need” the buzz of all that tinsel, it may be nature’s way of telling you you should spend some dough on making your digs nice all year ‘round…

Sweet, right?  There are about 24 pieces and all are almost a foot tall.  Bought in Mexico maybe ten years ago.  This year was the first time it got unpacked.
I put up a few things at our house—a big Mexican crèche is lots of fun to play with, and my junk store Santa makes me happy.  Then we toss around the most useful decorations we have—shiny, plastic, expandable things bought in Puerto Rico to decorate a holiday rental. Love them.  Glittery and funny and they fold flat… 
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Antique Hermes with his Puerto Rican star
When in doubt, nothing works better than lots and lots of evergreens.  Pile it on.  Cheap, elegant, and PC.  When I am feeling ambitious, nothing works better for me than sticking the branches everywhere—jammed behind a painting frame, piled on top of a cabinet, laid flat on tables…You have to watch out for ‘sap’ damage – wrap the leaking stems.

When it comes to lights, we go two ways.  First choice are the old-fashioned BIG tree bulbs we grew up with—multi colored, but on dimmers.  The dimmer is key—it lowers to a wonderful,  evocative glow. Very cool.

If the lights are white we mix two sizes. Let’s say 70% small with 30% medium or large—you get great depth and more interesting results.  Ideally, the mix is virtually imperceptible. 

Rural Intelligence StyleOn the Christmas card front, we long ago opted for New Year’s cards.  The pressure is off!  They can be sent well into January, and they aren’t as likely to be missed in the mass of mailings running up to December 31.  We use the same template every year—a nice thick card with the year engraved in a color up top and our names in another color down low.  That blank page forces a handwritten note—which is the point, right?  Printing your name under “May your Seasons be Bright” is a cop out and not greatly appreciated around here.
Gifts can wait until New Year’s and are mainly books.  We find pens and ribbons in the same colors so everything ‘matches’.  We go for cheap white paper or brown butcher paper and use lots of nice satin ribbon.  As a source for ribbon, I swear by Jamali.
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Many Christmases, we go to Palm Springs.  Our friend Barbara has a great house (1930’s Spanish, formerly owned by the Jack Warners, rented by Elvis—quintessential “Old Palm Springs”), and we park there for a few weeks.  I pull out her stuff and buy a little pine tree to stand on a table in the living room.  Simple and desert-y.
We discovered Palm Springs’ “Most Decorated” house a few years ago. AMAZING. Nothin’ like this in Columbia County.. Five million lights and blow up things and moving things and reindeer sculpture with computer monitor heads. Thousands come. Can you imagine being the neighbors?? Kenny, the artist, started doing it when he was a teenager. And continues to this day (I hope).

Check it out on YouTube—which is longer than the actual tour, by the way. On and on and on and on, right? Kenny started to bum me out…So just Fast Forward ...
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“Kenny Irwin Jr. is my birth name.” How “California” is this??!?
I was going to sign off with a cheery “Happy Holidays” but that reminds me… What is it with those people who “correct” others with “It’s Merry Christmas.”  I am not involved in the War Against Christmas.  I am simply including—for ease—many holidays crammed into one month.  On Christmas Eve, I will wish you a Merry Christmas, but the defensiveness of these zealots is nuts.  Christmas will continue to reign as America’s premier holiday—what with all that $$$ being spent, no one is out to kill Christmas.  How’s about we all just celebrate, each in our own way???

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Speaking of zealots:  On December 15 at 7 p.m. in its South Court, The New York Public Library will host a program with the curators of “Hide/Seek,” a show of portraiture by gay artists at the National Portrait Gallery.  One work, a video by AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, was deemed by the Catholic League—a grand name for a tiny lobbying org (oh, and What’s-his-name Boehner weighed in with some vitriol)—as “anti-Christian” and “an attack on Christmas.”

For 11 seconds, ants crawl on a wooden crucifix.  This is a threat!?!?  Talk about insecure. The museum sadly bowed to demands to censor itself and the poop has, rightfully, hit the fan…Come to the Library that night and hear what the curators, in their only NYC gig, have to say.
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Hermes at Christmas in Texas with his in-laws.  Fun!
—Carey Maloney
For the complete archive of past Wandering Eye blogs, click here.

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 12/09/10 at 12:52 AM • Permalink