You’ve Gotta Have Balls

The secret to decorating a great holiday tree. Plus: Enter Slate’s tree-trimming contest!

Christmas Decorations Hanging from a Tree.

The one necessary ingredient to a pretty Christmas tree

Digital Vision/Thinkstock.

Who doesn’t love a festive holiday tree? I don’t know about you, but the mere thought of it sends me screeching off to find my wine and my mulling poker.

As the world’s most experienced holiday elf—my almost 40-year career in retail display culminated in the commission to decorate the Blue Room tree for the first Obama holiday in 2009—I have a million nifty tips up the sleeve of my green felt jacket. Here is the most important one: Regardless of how complicated, avant-garde, or trad your tree decoration, your starting point is always the same. You need a great set of balls.

Some of you fancy, WASPy types have probably inherited a gorgeous set of balls. I refer to those fabulous caches of strange and fragile ornaments, lovingly stored in attics and passed from generation to generation. One is reminded of those borderline-creepy Patek Philippe time-piece ads where the patrician father and son are juxtaposed with the copy line: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” Ditto those holiday orbs.

Those who do not have recourse to inherited balls need not despair. There are a number of options open to you. Et voila!

Secondhand balls. You can score some killer vintage holiday ornaments with the click of your mouse. My favorites are those supergroovy ’60s tear-droppy ones which hark back to the design of the original Aladdin casino in Las Vegas. If you don’t have the patience to trawl for real antiques then hit the Christopher Radko vintage collections.

Decoupaged danglers. As mentioned above, I was hired to decorate the Blue Room tree for the first Obama Christmas. The central components of this extravaganza were the five hundred lovingly decoupaged balls. Here’s how it went down: Since it was 2009 and the recession was raging, we—the Obamas and I—thought it best to inject a recycling theme into the holiday decor. We took crates of large tacky silver balls from the White House warehouse and sent them to various organizations and community centers around the country where they were fabulously collaged and creatively reimagined using the theme of “Great American Monuments.” We took a sad ball and made it better.

So follow our lead, buy a jug of Mod Podge and start transforming those orbs. Pick a theme that resonates with your family. For example: pussycats’ faces; the zodiac; great blondes of today and/or yesterday; sports stars or even scandal-plagued sports stars. Snip the relevant images from old magazines. This kind of project will engender a kumbaya spirit that will give whatever is left of your brain a much needed break from those Internet distractions.

Balls of steel. If you feel compelled to adorn your tree in an unconventional manner, then go right ahead. The Tannenbaum is, after all, a pagan symbol, so why not approach its embellishment as an act of creative expression? Add a little eccentricity, a dollop of the unexpected.

Start by looking for your ornaments in all the wrong places. A quick sprint through your local Home Depot will provide lots of inspiration. Electrical conduit makes a great garland. If you know a butch dude with a metal shop, ask him to accumulate some metal shavings for you. These add a futuristic luster to any tree. My favorite hardware-store trouvé (as I’ve noted before in Slate): Those gorgeous silver or copper metal pot scrubbers. These can be purchased by the sack-load. You can clip them to the limbs of your tree with a teensy metal roach clip. Pot scrubbers can also be strung onto picture hanging wire—like popcorn!—to make a nifty swagged garland or wreath.

By creatively recontextualizing these scrubbers and other household objects you will elicit admiring ejaculations from friends and family alike, and what would the Holidays be without an admiring ejaculation or two?          

Ornothilogical orbs. If you are not into the low-tech butch vibration of hardware store detritus and would prefer something more romantic, then drag out the Audubon book. Yes, dodos, hoopoes, and spoonbills. (Well, maybe not dodos.) Since the focal object in question is a tree, why not cover it in birds, by which I mean, a mélange of stuffed birds, fake birds, photographs of birds, and glass bird ornaments? Tweet that!

Soccer balls. In the sports world there is, as can be imagined, no shortage of sparkly balls. (David Beckham’s nickname is, after all, Goldenballs.) As a supporter of Chelsea Football (soccer) Club I am looking forward to festooning my tree with the logoed balls the Chelsea merchandising team have so thoughtfully made available to us fans. Vintage supporter scarves can be wound and garlanded through the tree. As a concession to my husband—he supports the Philly Eagles—I will dangle one of his team’s balls in a semiprominent location.

Branded balls. If you enjoy the pop-art frisson of these promotional balls, you could even make them your theme. A quick foray onto eBay will yield an astonishing array of new and vintage logoed balls. Examples include Dr. Pepper balls, Coke balls, Lamborghini balls, and more.

Custom jobs. Thinking ahead to 2013, why not design your own balls? Create a family crest. Add a motto or a logo. will produce a ton of balls to your specifications, with reasonable minimums and great prices. Unused balls can be gifted to beloved relatives and friends, or made into oversized earrings for your trans uncle. Warning: Don’t overload his lobes!

All right already with the tips and suggestions. Let’s get to really important stuff: THE SLATE ANNUAL TREE COMPETITION.

Exceed my expectations! Blow my mind! Send a snap of your holiday tree to me at no later than Monday, Dec. 17. I will choose the tree which I feel has the most panache and originality. The winner will, along with a cavalcade of the top designs, be unfurled on Slate on Thursday, Dec. 20. The prize? A set of the new Jonathan Adler circus ornaments—six total!—plus a signed copy of his new book, 100 Ways To Happy Chic Your Life. (To see the contest rules, click here.)

Now fire up your glue gun and let rip!