Beyond Tinsel

How to use pot-scrubbers and costume jewelry to decorate your tree. Plus: The master window dresser judges your Christmas decorating efforts!

Simon Doonan in front of the tree he decorated at the White House, 2009. 

This must surely be the most low-key, under-ballyhoo’d White House Holiday on record. Not only has the White House press office tamped down the endless coverage of Mrs. Obama’s fashion choices, but it also seems to have put the kibosh on holiday frippery.

Remember the frenzy this time last year? The White House was the epicenter of the Yuletide universe. The Salahis were there! Bo the Portuguese water dog was there! Oprah was there! Desiree Rogers in her Comme des Garcons frock was there … and so was I!

In early 2009 I was officially invited to szoosh the White House for the holidays. I was stunned and honored. This was, in many ways, the apotheosis of my window dressing career. “OMG you are the First Elf!” said my chap Jonathan Adler. And so it came to pass: December 2009 found me clinging to a scaffold, hanging balls on the famous Blue Room tree.

Being the First Elf turned out to be an unforgettably complex, multifaceted experience. Meeting the gorgeous, gracious, and chic-er-than-hell Mrs. Obama was the high point. Being pilloried by Andrew Breitbart on his Big Government site for allegedly introducing transvestites and a Maoist Communist agenda into the White House via my crafty holiday balls, and enduring the subsequent Internet fatwa, was the low ebb. Feel free to Google for deets and verification.

Time is a great healer. I look back on the whole experience with pride and satisfaction. I am not sure which brave soul has undertaken the role of First Elf this year. I wish him/her luck and safe passage. Of one thing I can assure you, it’s not moi. I am, as a result, 100 percent available to help you, the ordinary woman in the street, with your Christmas tree décor. Permit the former First Elf offer you a few tips for the holidays.

First let me encourage you to divest yourself of all preconceived ideas about what holiday décor should look like. Remember that a holiday tree is a pagan symbol. There is, therefore, no restriction on what kind of creatively wacky theme you may adopt. Same goes for wreaths and garlands. Here are some broad concepts to get your juices flowing:

Holiday Hero. Dedicate your tree décor to an inspirational figure in your life. Last year, my pal Alexandra Morrill paid tribute to her stylish mother Cecile by adorning her three-foot tree with her massive stash of her mom’s costume jewelry. The result was magnifique. Before I die I fully intend to similarly memorialize my tough Irish grandpa. I envision a tree adorned with Guinness bottles and betting slips. A tree topper? I thought his flat tweed cap, pocket watch, and dentures might make a lovely garnish.

Navel-Gazer’s Delight. The freaky rise of Facebook has left me staring at the horizon uncomprehendingly from my Internet wheelchair. I just don’t get it. However, being a magnanimous kind of dude, I would like to offer the following suggestion: If you are a Facebook addict, then your favorite hero is undoubtedly—drumroll!—YOU! So why not vomit your entire Facebook page onto your tree? Start by collaging and decoupaging the faces of your “friends” onto your holiday orbs. Sharpie their names, along with disparaging or complimentary remarks about them, onto white satin ribbons. Strew liberally. Now dismember your old discarded computers and swag your tree with colored wires, cables, circuit boards and hard drives. Glue your face to a cutout cardboard star and— voil à!—you can become your very own tree-topper.

Have a Cubist Christmas. Everyone has a favorite artist or art movement. How about a Warholiday? One year I snagged every Warhol postcard I could find at MoMA and the Whitney. I attached them to the tree with those little metal clips that my pothead pals use to pinch their doobies. Aluminum foil bows added a reflective Warholian sizzle. The tree-topper? I gave a Barbie doll an Edie Sedgwick makeover complete with Campbell’s Soup can minishift.

Fluxus and Dada. One of the easiest and most fun approaches to holiday décor is to simply integrate improbable-but-attractive objects. Think Duchamp! Miniature whisks, purchased in large quantities from any catering supply store on the Bowery, add a dangly Dada elegance. Or try copper pot-scrubbers, which make a sparkly, rich, and surreal embellishment for either a tree or a garland. (Check out my current Foodie Holiday windows at Barneys Madison Avenue, where pot-scrubbers abound.)

Support My Husband. If you are disinclined to embark upon crafty ornament-making, then check out my Jonny’s tchotchkes at I highly recommend the new “Naughty and Nice” ornament package. All proceeds benefit Jonathan Adler and his immediate family.


P.S. Send pics of your creative efforts to  by Dec. 16 and we will post a Slate holiday hall of fame. The creator of the most luscious tree will receive a no-expenses-paid invite to next year’s Slate holiday party in New York City. Who knows? Maybe you are an unsung talent waiting to be discovered! Maybe you have what it takes to become the next First Elf!Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.