clutter-free holiday decorations.

December 6, 2016

clutter free holiday decorations | reading my tea leaves
We needed to take things up a notch with our holiday decorations this year. I knew we’d put up the usual lights and candles and tree, but I had a hankering for something extra sparkly, extra magical, extra jolly. Hell, I totally lost my mind and brought red into the picture.

If it’s looking like my adult Christmas tree is merely a vehicle for me to live out my childhood dreams of time traveling well, then, mission accomplished.

I love a good old-fashioned Christmas tree, not just because I think they’re pretty but because they make sense in a small space. I’ve written before that we try to keep all of our holiday decorations to a single shoe box and with the exception of one special addition this year, we’ve stuck to that rule by making our tree a little more festive through the magic of compostable decorations. Here, four simple ideas for decking the halls a bit more lavishly, without breaking the bank (or needing to invest in a storage unit).clutter free holiday decorations | reading my tea leaves

Cinnamon and Applesauce Ornaments

What you need

Apple sauce + Cinnamon + Heat + Time + Upholstery Needle + String

One of my cousins makes them every year for Christmas, but I hadn’t made a batch of my own since I was in elementary school. Happily, these guys couldn’t be easier and if you omit the traditional use of Elmer’s glue, you’ll find that they still hold perfectly well together. (Caveat: It might be that without the glue these guys get crumbly after a year in storage—I haven’t tested that—but for now, they’re as solid as the glue-filled alternatives.) I got cinnamon in bulk from my neighborhood spice shop, bought a jar of plain apple sauce, and used my friend Katy’s recipe to make a batch. 
clutter free holiday decorations | reading my tea leaves

We ended up with so many stars, that I’m planning to use them to decorate presents this Christmas, too. I used an upholstery needle to make the holes and string the stars, but any poky thing you have around will do. 
clutter free holiday decorations | reading my tea leaves

Cranberry Garlands

What you need:

Cranberries + Needle +  Thread

We made these a few times growing up and I was glad for a little something in a pretty shade of crimson to add to the tree. The good news is that in the week or so following Thanksgiving fresh cranberries often go on sale, and you can make a festive garland or two inexpensively. The cranberries are easy to puncture with just about any sewing needle (and if you use a blunt-tipped needle even little helpers can join in). No hugely extensive tutorial needed here; just string those berries and tie off the ends of the garland!  (Update: As with all things, please make an effort to source sustainably! Industrial cranberry agriculture is something of an environmental disaster. I found sustainably harvested, organic berries for just $2.99/bag at my local organic market!)clutter free holiday decorations | reading my tea leaves

One tip: For both cranberry and popcorn garlands, I find that it’s easiest to drape them nicely in the tree if I make several shorter lengths that wrap around the girth of the tree just once, rather than trying to string one very long garland neatly around and up the entire tree.
clutter free holiday decorations | reading my tea leaves

Popcorn Strings

What you need: 

Popcorn + Thread + Needle

Stringing popcorn is admittedly slightly more tedious than stringing cranberries (sometimes it takes a few times to strike the sweet spot that will let the needle through the popcorn and sometimes the popped corn crumbles under too much pressure) but generally making these is a cinch, very inexpensive, and something meditative to do while watching a movie in the evening. I make a batch of stove top popcorn that I leave plain—no need for butter or salt or za’atar here—and string it onto cotton thread. For my tree this year, I chose to alternate all-popcorn and all-cranberry garlands, but of course you can mix them up and add other interesting things to your garlands as your heart desires.
clutter free holiday decorations | reading my tea leaves

Dried Fruit Ornaments

What you need: 

Sliced apples, pears, and oranges + Heat + Time + Needle + String

A bit of dried fruit on a tree is another inexpensive and easy-to-make alternative to traditional holiday ornaments. You can follow last year’s tutorial for dried oranges if you’re looking for a step-by-step guide. I concede that I was a little impatient this year and had these guys in too hot an oven, so my pears and apples were a little more on the brown side of golden than I would have preferred. No matter, they still look pretty and apparently they’re still delectable, too—Faye took a gigantic bite out of a hanging pear and was very pleased with the results.
clutter free holiday decorations | reading my tea leaves

A tip: In general, the oranges take a little longer to dry out than the apples and pears, and so it might be a good idea to cook them separately, or at least to check in to make sure your apples aren’t getting too cooked.clutter free holiday decorations | reading my tea leaves

All put together, I think the finished tree is every bit as cheery as we needed, without being overwhelming in a small space. 
clutter free holiday decorations | reading my tea leaves

For our tree-topper this year, we decided to go the decidedly heirloom route. My dear internet pal Ashley of ABJ Glassworks made us this five-pointed glass star to add to the top of our tree. Needless to say it’s quickly become a treasured gift and a reminder that you don’t have to be overly dogmatic about any of this minimalism stuff. Strike a balance that works for you, treasure the things you have and that you love, and otherwise get on with it. If you are wanting to go a simpler or smaller route for your tree-topper, I happen to think a lovely length of mustard-colored grosgrain or velvet ribbon would make a mighty fine bow atop an otherwise compostable tree (and of course it would be very easy to stash in a small space for future years). clutter free holiday decorations | reading my tea leaves

In case you’re not into the the compostable Christmas tree look (and yes, I admit I had one reader email me earlier this year to say that she needed something a little less…homespun), here are a few more ideas for finding ornaments with a bit more polish.

Shop Vintage: While we really don’t have the space to store them, I can imagine one day starting a collection of vintage glass ornaments. (And likely there are plenty of folks who have boxes of family ornaments that might eventually get passed their way—or that already have.) There’s no shortage of beautiful vintage options on places like Etsy, but it might be worth keeping in mind that in addition to being fragile, some of these older ornaments likely include things like lead paint, so they might not be best choice for homes with small children.

Shop Fair-Trade: There are lots of artisans around the world making beautiful ornaments this time of year (and always). Businesses like Ten Thousand Villages or Fair Indigo are committed to sourcing fair-trade ornaments from around the globe, so they might also be a nice place to start looking. These sparkling snowflakes from Bangladesh caught my eye. 

Shop USA-Made: If you’re looking to invest in brand-new traditional ornaments, you might also consider seeking out Made-in-the-USA options. While I can’t vouch for the products or company personally, I did notice that Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Michigan has a section of their site devoted to USA-made products, including sets of very classic glass balls.

Shop Small: Finally, my personal favorite route is to turn to small designers making beautiful ornaments and decorations by hand. Here are a few beauties that have caught my eye:

+ Beveled Star Ornament by ABJ Glassworks

+ Carved Wooden Bell by Pilosale

+ Balsam Fir Embroidered Ornaments by Quite Alright

+ Big Dot Ornaments from Pigeon Toe Ceramics

+ Patchwork Stockings by Ace & Jig and Kou Kou

+ Homespun Christmas Star by 86 Home

+ Porcelain Moose by Art et Manufacture

What about you? Any favorite sources for ornaments? Any favorite things to make yourself?

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  • Reply Alyssa December 6, 2016 at 11:56 am

    Our house is much too small for a tree (and we’re moving at the end of the month), but I always have a garland in the house for the holidays, and will likely use many of these ideas this year! A couple questions though: is there a specific temperature you recommend for baking the fruit? And lastly, where did you get the candle holders in your tree? I love them!

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 6, 2016 at 12:21 pm

      I’d do as low as you can and still have your oven be turned on! The candle holders are vintage. I found mine on Etsy: lots more where those came from!

  • Reply Jennifer December 6, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    My husband’s parents passed down an entire tree’s worth of ornaments! Mostly the classic Hallmark kind, but I love that he gets to revisit his childhood every year and show our girls.

  • Reply rebekah December 6, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    My husband and I have not bought a single ornament since we’ve been together. Since I was born, my aunt, a quilter, made me a new ornament every year, and my husband brought to the marriage his own collection of ornaments made for him by his grandmother. We’ll continue this tradition with our kids as their ornaments start to take priority over ours!

  • Reply Gigi December 6, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    I love the compostable Christmas decorations idea! Unfortunately, my family (I am a university student who goes home for the holidays) does not put up a Christmas tree anymore, since my parents are too tired to set it up and to take it down. My goal is to some day have a healthy fir tree in the backyard that I can annually decorate with ornaments, but that would then beg the question of where to store the presents!

    • Reply jiturka December 13, 2016 at 4:45 am

      My grandparents keep their very old fake tree with all the ornaments hanging on them covered by a blanket in their pantry/hall closet 😀 Before I found out every year I was wondering if the ornaments are exactly in the same place or not.

  • Reply laura December 6, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    I have an overly sentimental tree. Ornaments from places I’ve traveled solo and with my husband. I can’t help but pick up an ornament anytime we’re in a new place. I want my kids to pull off an ornament and say, “Now tell me about this one!”

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 6, 2016 at 1:55 pm

      Totally get that! I think that’s true for lots of people!

  • Reply Dottie Louise December 6, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    What a beautiful tree! I love the homemade/classic look! And my goodness the popcorn! Do you find that the oranges actually smell still or is it more for the look of them? Either way, it’s lovely!

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 6, 2016 at 1:55 pm

      They honestly don’t smell terribly strong. While they’re drying there’s a bit of an orange odor, but otherwise the scent is pretty minimal.

  • Reply MissEm December 6, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    We just gave away a ton of ornaments bc we don’t have space to store them and I don’t really like them. Yes, I’m a bit of a Scrooge, but pretty much okay with that. We have some handmade ornaments, and I’m going to try that bow idea this year! It fits right in with the book The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree that I just bought for my daughters. I’m also on the lookout for bottle brush trees. Did you see the paper winter wonderland at House of Lars? Not the most environmentally friendly perhaps, but very magical!

  • Reply Elizabeth December 6, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    I love my favorite low-clutter tree decoration – paper cut snowflakes! (The kind where you fold the paper into quarters or eighths and cut shapes around the edges and unfold them, remember those?) They’re fun to do with kids (of a certain age of course), and this grown-up totally loves making them too. 🙂 I just use plain white printer paper, though more eco-friendly materials would be great, too (old Trader Joes bags, unwanted white junk mail envelopes?). My husband and I make 6-12 total and nestle them in the tree branches. They’re beautiful, and their storage footprint is tiny – or, easily recyclable, too. Love, love, love and highly recommend!

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 6, 2016 at 1:54 pm

      Oh, yes. Huge fan of those in me, too!

  • Reply Whitney December 6, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    My kids get a pewter ornament from Danforth Pewter each year in their stockings. The ornaments are absolutely gorgeous and feel so satisfyingly heavy in your hand. When my kids are grown up and leave home, I can give them their ornaments to take with them — and there will still be plenty of room left in the shoebox for some other ornaments!

  • Reply Jessica December 6, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    I wish that I had thought of the dried fruit option this year as I scratched my head trying to figure out what to do for a tree with two toddlers in the house. Ultimately, we opted for lights and paper ornaments in the form of Danish hearts and stars, but I would have loved the fruit! The kids would have, too. (Of course, the dog would have, too….)

  • Reply Susana C. Galli December 6, 2016 at 5:42 pm

    Last year I made stars with orange and clementines peels, very easy to do with the star cookie cutter and looks beautiful too!

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 6, 2016 at 7:11 pm


  • Reply Lanen December 6, 2016 at 7:32 pm

    Rosehips also make lovely red garlands, are often easily foraged for free. Since you’re not consuming them, roadsides and such are fair game.

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 6, 2016 at 7:41 pm

      I loved that idea! Now I’m thinking salt dough and rose hips for next year!

  • Reply Jess December 6, 2016 at 11:35 pm

    This is so lovely! But living in the Tropics the ants would eat it all…

  • Reply Susannah December 7, 2016 at 12:06 am

    I absolutely love these ideas! I think I’m going to make a few of them with my little man!

  • Reply Erin December 7, 2016 at 8:58 am

    I wonder if you could string, then dry the cranberries? I had a whole batch of cranberries go bad after sitting for only a week, so, I’d be nervous they’d rot on the tree.

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 7, 2016 at 10:07 am

      They get a little wrinkled eventually, but they stay plump for a long time. They’re really drying on the tree and since they’re much les moist than the other fruit, there’s no need to dry them out in the oven (which would just make them wrinkle sooner!).

  • Reply Lynn @ The Not Dead Yet Blog December 7, 2016 at 9:45 am

    I love the cranberry garland, but I had no idea that the cranberry industry was such a problem (which is shameful, really, considering my profession). I’ll be careful what I buy.

  • Reply Breanna Marie December 7, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    Appreciate these suggestions! I love that little porcelain moose!

  • Reply Stacie December 8, 2016 at 10:45 am

    Love these ideas! Also, for people who don’t know it, you can search Etsy for cities. I like to do this so I can see if there is anyone in my own city I can support who are making what I’m looking for. (; Sometimes it’s difficult to just find these local vendors online, but I love that Etsy has this search option.

  • Reply Heather December 9, 2016 at 1:11 am

    Your tree is beautiful! I’ll admit to my own personal love of vintage and handmade ornaments. I make beaded snowflakes (each different) that I love to hang on my own tree and give as gifts. I’ve also made a garland from old Christmas cards. But I have thrift store treasures too. They do take a fair bit of space to store, but it’s like unpacking memories when my kids and I get them out every year. However, the joy of making ornaments each year as a family sounds just as wonderful.

  • Reply Kara December 9, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    love this post. another compostable decoration is stick star ornaments – i made these with my 4yo last year and they’re rustic and pretty. we just used some of my knitting yarn and sticks we gathered together outside: we also enjoy making these felt acorns with gathered acorn tops and a little bit of felting wool – rolling the wet/soapy wool into balls is fun for little ones: if you live near the beach, scallop shells, oyster shells, sea glass, etc. make lovely natural ornaments. happy holidays!

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 9, 2016 at 2:23 pm

      Lovely, Kara! I love the idea of beachy tree!

  • Reply Kelly December 10, 2016 at 8:30 am

    Erin, have you heard of Moravian stars? They’re German paper stars that you can make 8-pointed or 3D 16-pointed. Large strips of newspaper are perfect for them, and then I’ll recycle them at the end. I’ll make a large one and paint it as a tree topper, or many little ones as ornaments. Long thin strips of wrapping paper also work well, if you, like me, save the paper from gifts you are given.

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 10, 2016 at 8:47 am

      Yes, lovely!

  • Reply Kelly December 10, 2016 at 8:33 am

    Here are the instructions I use, though my grandma does it differently and almost purely on muscle memory.

  • Reply jiturka December 13, 2016 at 4:52 am

    I usually bake gingerbread cookies, decorate them with sugar-icing and put them on the tree. Many. My favourites is the star or flower shape, because they make perfect base for snowflakes icing. Not this year though. But next year, oh totally!! They’re edible (even if they get a little bit dusty :-D)

  • Reply Isa November 21, 2018 at 9:15 am

    Love the natural decorations. I’m planning to decorate my tree this year like yours. How long do the cranberries, popcorn, dried fruit, and cookies last? Thanks!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 21, 2018 at 9:54 am

      the dried fruit and cinnamon stars lasts and lasts, the cranberries become wrinkled after a few weeks. i don’t mind that look at all, but if you want plump cranberries on christmas, best to do just a week or two prior!


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