Each year we find ourselves taken by some new tilt on holiday decorations: one year it was Scandi style, with clean-lined ornaments and plenty of charm; other years we’ve looked toward no-cost and small-space decor. Last year, after a late-December trip to the snowy storybook city of Stockholm, I found myself inspired by the (varied) old traditions of western Europe. From France to Sweden to Ireland, here are a few ways to decorate for the holidays like the Europeans do.
England: Trim the mantel.
Above: While you’re decorating the tree, don’t forget to make the mantelpiece merry. “Deck the mantel with fir garlands and decorate it with pine cones, candy canes, and Christmas decorations,” says London-based designer Rita Konig. “Then use the fireplace to gather the presents and hang the stockings.” Read more of Rita’s tips in Expert Advice: 8 Decorating Ideas for an English Holiday. Photograph by Justine Hand from DIY: Minimalist Holiday Mantel, $10 Edition.
France: Set out thirteen desserts.
Above: Do as the French do and let sumptuous bowls of food double as decor. Here—following the Provençal tradition of Thirteen Desserts—nuts, dried fruit, and sweets look elegant when displayed in mix-and-match cut glass and silver heirlooms. Photograph by Anson Smart from Christmas in Burgundy: At Home with the Expat Family Behind the Cook’s Atelier.
Sweden: Channel Saint Lucia.
Above: “Last week I got to attend Santa Lucia mass in Malmö, Sweden, by way of a friend’s Instagram story,” writes Alexa. “While I’d rather be there in person, I did enjoy the benefits of modern armchair travel as I watched the long-haired girls in candle crowns on repeat.” Channel Sweden’s tradition, 11 nights before Christmas, of lighting candles to bring light to winter darkness. These 5 Scandi Circular Candleholders in Brass evoke the traditional crowns.
Denmark: Invest in festive stamps.
Above: Among Denmark’s many holiday traditions (see: the entire concept of hygge), one of the most charming is Danish Christmas seals, in which an artist (or, occasionally, the Queen, who possesses surprising artistic talent) designs a special-edition set of postage stamps for the holiday season. It’s a tradition that’s been going for well over a century. Buy a few of past years’ collections at Present and Correct (this one was a set from 1962 that’s sadly no longer available), or source a similarly festive set from the post office for all of your holiday postage needs. For more tiny European finds to tuck into stockings, see Holiday Gift Guide 2018: 12 Petite Gifts from the Old Country (aka Europe).
France: Make a pomander.
Above: Who knew this old-school holiday favorite traces its roots to France? Pomanders (from pomme d’ambre, meaning “amber apple”) were originally worn or carried as an early form of perfume in the Middle Ages. Make this simple version with cloves to hang in the house or give as a gift; for instructions, see Gift Guide: 3 Last-Minute DIY Holiday Gifts.
Ireland: Hang holly and ivy.
Above: Before Christmas trees caught on, the Irish traditionally hung mistletoe, ivy, and holly (considered a “noble” wood) to ward off evil spirits. Cuttings are widely available at floral shops, tree lots, and even grocery stores; tie them into swags, set them in vases, or hang tiny bundles on a wall, as seen in DIY: Holiday Decor for Small Spaces.
Norway: Set out gløgg.
Above: Sweden is known for gløgg—the warm mulled wine with spices, and sometimes spiked with port or brandy—but Norwegians partake in it, too. Ceramic wine cups will keep the drink hot—and warm hands. For our favorites, see 10 Easy Pieces: The New Ceramic Wine Cup, and for a similar recipe, see DIY: Mulled Apple Cider, With a Secret Ingredient on Gardenista.
Germany: Add intricate carved-wood scenes.
Above: “My paternal grandparents (last name Hotz, or Hötz, as it was intended) decorate their home each year with heirloom decorations from Germany, things like hand-carved carousels with tiers of taper candles and miniature wooden houses,” says Alexa in our recent roundup of Garnet Hill gifts. Follow in traditional German folk art traditions with intricate carved-wood Christmas decor, like this tree topper (no longer available) from Schoolhouse, or a tiny wood carousel powered by candle smoke. See more in The 10 Best Holiday Decor Finds, Nordic Christmas Edition.
Austria: Light an advent wreath.
Above: Borrow a tradition from Austria, and so many other European countries, by lighting—with care and supervision—an advent wreath. (Concerned about safety? Swap in faux clip-on lights.) You can make this one yourself; see DIY: Simple Advent Wreaths Made from Foraged Flora.
England: Set crackers around the holiday table.
Above: Crackers are a traditional addition to holiday tables in the UK, as seen here, in Holiday Tables Fit for an Englishman: Ben Pentreath’s City and Country Picks.
Italy: Have a ceppo.
Above: Ceppo is the (far more romantic) Italian term for what we call a yule log. (It can also refer to a triangular display featuring a nativity scene, tiny gifts, and more.) All the more reason to keep a festive fire going through the season. Photograph from Villa Lena: A New Creative Hub (and Hotel) in Tuscany.
Portugal: Set out your shoes.
Finland: Feed the birds.
Above: In Finland, animals are central to the celebrations—and farmers and homeowners hang out wheat or seeds to help feed winter birds. Do something similar with Gardenista’s DIY Grapefruit Bird Feeder, which makes use of discarded citrus rinds. Photograph by Justine Hand from A Winter Berry Garden to Feed Birds.
Switzerland: Light a fire.
Above: Bundle up after hitting the slopes—or just against the cold winter weather—with a fire in the fireplace or wood stove, as the Swiss do. Add Swiss specialities like raclette and chocolate accordingly. Photograph by James Brittain Photography from Swish Chalet: An Alpine Remodel by Jonathan Tuckey.
For more European holiday decor, see 13 Favorites: European Christmas Ornaments. And for more easy holiday decor ideas from the archives, see:
- DIY: Holiday Decor for Small Spaces
- The Simple Life: 10 Christmas Holiday Tips from Tricia Foley
- 10 Favorites: No-Cost Holiday Decor Ideas
N.B.: This post is an update; the original story ran on December 4, 2018.