Creating a home design that will provide joy throughout the holidays

Imagine preparing your home —  just once! — in a way that will welcome guests and delight family from the feasts of November through the celebrations of the New Year. 

While you may choose to make a few tweaks for specific celebrations, this base design will establish an inspiring, festive setting that reflects your interests, heritage and style.

“There’s a certain idea of what ‘holiday decor’ is supposed to look like,” says Sunyoung “Sunny” Hong, owner of Portmanteau Home, a North Seattle studio that specializes in multicultural home design. “My approach is about making it meaningful and personal. Bright and festive, yes, but breaking that homogeneity that we see in all the magazines.”

For some, Hong’s approach might lead to a new purchase for the holiday season. It can send others diving into the attic or storage unit for family treasures (silver, miniatures, train sets) that they haven’t seen in years. But first, she suggests carrying out an edit of what’s already in your rooms.

“In many cultures, the tradition before the winter holidays is to purge all the things that have collected during the year,” Hong says. “You might want to part with some things, or to pack some away. The idea is to do a quick edit.”

Now is the time to put most of that summer stuff — linens, pillows, jars of beach glass, etc. — into a box marked “summer” and store it away until next year. Donate that stack of beach reads and recycle those July issues of magazines. And halve the number of sweet little tchotchkes that are covering the horizontal surfaces in your living areas.

Now you’re ready to set the scene with some holiday decorations.

Find your focus

Some of us love to decorate every corner of our homes with holiday brilliance. For others, just thinking about decorating can quickly become overwhelming.

Ted Kennedy Watson, co-owner of Watson Kennedy Fine Home on First Avenue near Pioneer Square and one of Seattle’s longtime authorities on gracious living, wants us to take a deep breath and focus on the enjoyment of friends, family, nature and the holidays. With the right approach, a little bit of decorating can go a long way.

Warm lighting and easy-to-find plants like hydrangeas create a welcoming mood for your holiday guests. (Courtesy of Watson Kennedy Fine Home)

Not surprisingly, Kennedy Watson’s personal blog is packed with holiday tips that emphasize hospitality — not the fussy kind, but an expansive style that makes guests feel truly welcomed. One of his favorite areas to add seasonal decor is on a table in the living room or in the entrance to the home.

“Simple bowls of fresh fruit and nuts can be an inviting tableau on tabletops in your common areas for guests,” he says. “It makes for an easy way for folks to help themselves while in your home.”

Kennedy Watson adds candles, flowering bulbs, a stack of small plates or napkins, and a nutcracker if he’s serving nuts with shells. All you, as a host, need to bring out from the kitchen is a pot of coffee or a bottle of wine when the guests arrive. He says this “front of the house” setup works perfectly to keep a Thanksgiving crowd out of your busy kitchen or to welcome friends dropping by with cookies in December.

Transform with sights and smells

Hong and Kennedy Watson both suggest focusing your design energy on key rooms and areas where family and guests gather. These include the entry, the living room and the dining room. 

Kennedy Watson has found a new favorite area for holiday decorating: an enclosed front porch. “That’s where we do a tree now,” he says. “It looks dramatic when people drive up.”

The good news is that distinctive decorations for your hallway, mantel, coffee table or dining room tabletop needn’t break the bank.

“You can find narcissus (paperwhites) and amaryllis at a fine nursery or get them at your grocery store,” Kennedy Watson says. Cinnamon sticks, which he places in bundles on decorative platters, are similarly easy to find.

For Hong, it wouldn’t be the holidays without candles. “In the depths of winter, especially in Seattle, you want the feeling of coziness — and a little extra light,” she says. She points to the Nordic tradition of St. Lucia’s Day, held on Dec. 13, with candles in lingonberry wreaths.

While she loves holiday illuminations, Hong thinks vanilla-scented candles have worn out their welcome. If you crave seasonal scents, she recommends lighting your home with holiday blends such as Homesick Candles’ Winter Mantel (Fraser fir and holly berry) and Latkes and Lights (baked apple, butter and potato), both available at

Outdoor decorations can create a welcoming vibe for holiday guests. Sunny Hong likes to weave ribbons of colorful Korean Saekdong fabric into Christmas wreaths for her front door. (Courtesy of Portmanteau Home)

Through her company’s focus on designing for multicultural homes, Hong has become keenly aware of the changing nature of the holiday season in the U.S. Winter holidays were once limited to Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and the New Year, but these days, you may find friends and family celebrating Diwali, Kwanzaa or the winter solstice, as well.

Hong urges families with mixed heritage (like hers, which is Korean and American) to bring elements from their cultures into their winter decor. She weaves ribbons of colorful Korean Saekdong fabric into evergreen swags and Christmas wreaths, and she has clients who decorate their tables with runners made of Banarasi silk brocade from Northern India.

Celebrate with color

This year, Kennedy Watson is decorating the windows of his First Avenue store in “super traditional” reds and greens, but he’s also been known to take just one color and run with it. You can see this inside the store, where each display offers fanciful variations on one color, such as turquoise, green, blue, red or gold. 

Outdoor decorations can create a welcoming vibe for holiday guests. Ted Kennedy Watson says his enclosed front porch has become one of his favorite areas to decorate. (Courtesy of Watson Kennedy Fine Home)

Visit his blog and you’ll come across many examples of his affection for the color green. If you’re looking to do something a bit different this year, follow Kennedy Watson’s lead and mix up different shades of the hue. “Green bowls, green glassware, green platters — this is the time to get out to the thrift shops and antiques stores,” he says.

Hong’s holiday tabletops show her passion for bright reds, blues and metallics. She favors tapestries from a range of cultures — framed, used as ribbons or wrappings, or brought out to serve as table coverings.

“Be brave, be bold!” Hong advises. “If you love lots of color and texture, go for it. This is all about your home, and how you feel at the holidays.”