How one A-Lister decorates for the holidays…

Q+A with Carey Karlan



How do you choose your theme each year?

I give a do-not-spare-the-horses formal Christmas dinner party each year and the decorations, food, favors and party games always relate to that party theme. It’s fun and challenging! Past themes have included: “Madmen Christmas”, “A Really Red Christmas”, “A Literary Christmas”, and this year I’m going totally tartan with “A Scottish Christmas.” Who knows where the ideas come from? The Mad Men party started with the observation that it sure looked fun to smoke all the time. I got fake cigarettes that blew real-looking smoke and everyone loved it!

When do you start decorating?

The day after Thanksgiving! I’d start sooner if it wasn’t politically incorrect.

Is red and green the only way to go?

Absolutely not! Even if you’re doing red and green there is tremendous variation within that palette.  For instance, one could go traditional with Burgundy/moss/gold or contemporary with lime/cherry red/silver.  In Christmas’ past I’ve enjoyed pastel pinks and blues, silver and hot pink and all sparkle if that counts as a color!

How do you make the décor and design work for large parties and small get-togethers?

My house is small and the rooms are open to each other so though each room has it’s own flavor, everything has to flow. For my annual dinner party I rent chairs to get a cleaner, uniform look in the dining room. For small gatherings I use the desk in the living room as a bar and for larger groups I use a mirror-topped round table in the conservatory.  I also always decorate the master bedroom since for large parties everyone puts their coat on the bed.

Where do you get your tree?

We take the dog and head up to Jones Tree Farm to cut one down.  It is strictly a coalition of the willing: Sometimes all 5 kids come, sometimes just a few.

What are three things you must have for holiday decorating?

Lights, anything glittery and beautiful silk satin ribbon.

What are some ways to decorate when time is short?

Cut some greens from the yard, put them in a pretty container and toss in a few shiny Christmas balls or clove-studded oranges. Get a few inexpensive orchids or amaryllis from the grocery store in clay pots, add a flowing bow to where they are staked and perhaps add a few small silver balls on top of the moss. 

What are some ideas for decorating when you’ve got all the time in the world?

Make a topiary with wax-dipped lady apples, boxwood, and ribbon trimmings and notions. Display it in a silver compote dish. This is also effective with small key limes or kumquats. One Christmas tree may not be enough! Have a second Christmas tree with a specific theme. I have a narrow artificial tree in the dining room that usually has a music theme, but this year it will be decked out in a Scottish theme of wool topped with an authentic Glengarry hat complete with red and green hackles!

Do you have any favorite holiday traditions in your family?

My annual Christmas dinner party is a longstanding tradition that my five children have grown up with. Even though it’s an “adult” party I always found ways for them to participate: passing appetizers, tending bar, performing a musical piece (2 of my children are serious musicians) and of course playing the games. I also have an annual topiary making party for my women friends around the dining room table with plenty of wine and popcorn.

I love all of our traditions but it’s important to be flexible and let go of things that aren’t working anymore. For instance, we always used to make elaborate gingerbread houses but it became evident last year from the sorry creations that interest was lagging. So my daughter-in-law made gingerbread cookies and we decorated them instead which was a huge success.

How do you make guests feel welcome in your home during the holidays?

I like to create a soft, cozy atmosphere and use only candles, picture lights, twinkly strands of mini lights and the glowing fire for illumination. Low lights, soft music, good smells from the kitchen, little beautifully wrapped gifts for everyone and treats galore set the mood. Once I’ve got everything set I like to have small groups of friends over for a quiet drink or tea surrounded by what I hope is a special atmosphere which is a gift to those I care about. Yes this is a lot of work, but it gives me great joy. This is no time to hold back: You get out of it what you put into it.

Have a favorite holiday cocktail?

It depends on the party theme, but old favorite is a bottle of vodka frozen in a block of ice in which some decorations are embedded such as lemon wedges or holly.

How about outdoor decorating?

I do a little here and there. The two Boxer dog statues on the front porch generally get a wreath, lights and a bow. A black urn is filled with greenery, red berries and a silver gazing ball. The window boxes get lights, greenery and red berries and sometimes some outdoor red and silver balls.