How To Make Your Small Space As Festive As Your Parents’ Home
As my husband and I drive around Los Angeles to find the best Target parking lot to shop for our Christmas tree, I think about my rural childhood home in the mountains of Northern California. The closest thing to a parking lot tree farm was a field of knee-deep snow in your neighbor’s backyard or the Boy Scouts selling their own in a lot in front of the grocery store. Most years, it was either cut your own or drive an hour to the city to buy an artificial one. We always opted for the former.
The ceilings in my parents’ home are 20 feet tall, so the tree was always, quite literally, a Clark Griswold tree, complete with sap and melting snow. We used a ladder to place the ornaments and the angel while Nat King Cole crooned on the stereo (no streaming music then). The wood-burning fire—our primary heat source—filled the house with warmth as we wrapped gifts, made cookies, and dusted off our stockings from their 11-month break in the attic. From December 1 through the New Year, my parents’ home transformed into a magical holiday abode. Christmas time became a favorite childhood memory, and now that I have my own home, I hope to replicate that childhood experience or at least bring a little bit of the festivity into my smaller city apartment.
Of course, decorating for the holidays in a small space can be challenging, especially when working with a budget. How does anyone afford a Christmas tree—something that will die in three weeks—in this economy, let alone haul it up various flights of apartment stairs? And that’s if you are fortunate enough to have a car that could transport said tree to begin with.
Even if you don’t live in a city apartment, finding ways to make a small space cheery and bright, especially with sustainability in mind, can present a few challenges—no matter if you’re decorating for Christmas or Kwanzaa or Hanukkah or another December holiday. But that, for me, isn’t reason enough not to try. I won’t let minimal square footage or a balmy Los Angeles “winter” stop me from harnessing my holiday spirit! Here’s how I’m making my apartment as festive as my parents’ home:
1. Start with aroma and fragrance
During the holidays at my family home, the wood-burning stove was constantly roaring, a warm roast or stew was seemingly always on the stovetop, and the 15-foot evergreen tree did well to fragrance the front half of the house. These combinations created the most wonderful aroma I’m convinced could turn even the most stubborn Scrooge into a holiday softie.
To make my space smell just as festive without all of those things, I have a few favorite tips, including the most simple option of lighting a natural holiday candle (this is the collection I’m currently burning). Not only do candles provide a warm ambiance, but they can also make your space smell festive, too—just try to burn sustainable and nontoxic candles to keep your home healthy.
Additionally, you can fragrance your space with a simmering pot recipe or by creating a citrus garland. If you don’t have space for a tree, evergreen trimmings or a natural wreath from Trader Joe’s or your local grocer smell wonderful too! Another favorite trick is to diffuse holiday essential oils—like these warm and spicy blends from Saje. I love my little portable diffuser for moving around the apartment and filling each room with cheery scents.
2. Pick a festive focal piece
Growing up, the holidays never felt like they began until our tree was up and decorated. We always waited until after Thanksgiving (no judgment to the early birds!), which signaled the beginning of the Christmas season in our home.
Whether it’s a menorah, a Christmas tree, or a mantle decorated with your favorite trinkets, every holiday space needs a festive focal point, even the smallest ones. For me, it’s the live tree—we usually keep the height to about six feet, so it’s easy to manage up a flight of stairs with two people (pro tip: add a cordless vacuum to your Xmas list for swift pine needle clean up!). At the end of the season, be sure to check with your local municipal guidelines for disposing of your tree. Or for a more sustainable option, call up your local nurseries to see if they are collecting trees for compost!
If you don’t have a car, consider a small tabletop tree or another winter plant. Your festive focal point can truly be anything that brings you joy and makes your home feel warm and cozy. Ideally, it will be low waste and something you can recycle or use for years.
3. Cook your favorite holiday meals
On Christmas Eve, my mom always made a pot of chili. After church, we’d drive around the fancy neighborhoods to see all the houses lit up; then we’d head home, get in our holiday pajamas, and eat big bowls of chili at the kitchen counter. This became our tradition.
Think about the meals you love most that remind you of your best holiday seasons. If it’s something your grandparent or parent made, ask them for their recipe and try to put your own spin on it. Food has a way of making any space feel just like home; it’s also a low-waste festive option as it’s consumable and can even be shared with neighbors or friends.
4. String the lights
When I think back to Christmas at my parents’ house, it’s not the gifts or cookies or holiday films I remember most; it’s the way the entire house sparkled in the dark, how the windows seemed to glow from the end of the street and how the lights danced every night down the hallway.
Twinkle lights have a way of cozying up any space and adding a bit of magic and warmth—no matter the holiday you’re celebrating. Consider hanging a few strands inside your window (for neighbors to see!) or drape a strand across your TV console. Twinkle lights are also a wonderful way to boost your mood during what can sometimes be a difficult or lonely season. Littles love them too if you’re trying to make a small space festive for kids! For a more sustainable option, try solar twinkle lights, or source your local buy groups for secondhand strands.
5. Fill your home with love and tradition
Thinking back on my childhood, it wasn’t just the decor or smells or even the food that made my parents’ home feel festive; it was the traditions we kept and the people we had over. I can’t tell you how many years I slept on a crowded mattress with my three siblings—so we could stay up for Santa, of course, but also because other beds were taken. Likewise, our traditions were everything in December. From nostalgic films (Christmas Vacation) to the town parade to my mom unboxing her holiday village and sprinkling the ceramic roofs with artificial snow.
Space doesn’t matter when it comes to tradition, so embrace the ones you loved from your younger years and create a few new ones. For my husband and me, our tradition is to sort through all our ornaments and decorations we’ve collected from traveling and living abroad. I also have a very faded and wobbly Nutcracker from when I was seven that I put out every year. Most importantly, I make cinnamon rolls from scratch for Christmas morning and it’s something I hope to continue with my own kids someday, no matter the size of home we’re living in.
Filling your home with people can be more of a challenge when living in a small space, but why not try?! Sure, my box of an apartment doesn’t offer the same space as a larger home would, but the love and laughter my friends bring when we get together for “mini holiday parties” feel the same. Space size becomes irrelevant.
However you choose to celebrate the holidays, and no matter your home’s size or budget, I hope you can find ways to bring a bit of festivity and magic into your living space. If you’re struggling to figure it out, may these ideas help. And if you have your own, I’d love to hear about them in the comments. To you and yours this season. ✨
Kayti Christian (she/her) is a Senior Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for sensitive people.