An illustration of holiday lights

Handy Holiday Decorating Tips from a Big Red Designer

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By Beth Saulnier

Senior lecturer Rhonda Gilmore, MA ’95, is a longtime teacher of design in the College of Human Ecology—and as her neighbors in the nearby Village of Cayuga Heights know, she’s an ace at decorating her home for the holidays.

Cornellians tapped her for some simple tips on how to make the festive season fabulous.

Rhonda Gilmore
Gilmore has taught human-centered design at Cornell for nearly three decades. (Provided)

Embrace sustainable décor

“If possible, try not to buy anything; incorporate natural materials—things like pine cones, evergreen boughs, and holly branches—as much as you can. Not only are they sustainable, they bring the outside in—at a time of year when many of us are stuck inside.”

Get out your glass

“Take natural materials like cranberries or dried orange slices and put them in apothecary jars or canning jars. When you put something in glass, there’s an immediate signal: ‘that must be something special that deserves my attention.’”

Candles set the mood

“Candlelight is soft, and it’s not static. As humans, when we came out of the caves, we were used to walking under trees, or having the sun go behind clouds. But in the built environment, lighting doesn’t change much. So it’s important to provide a light source that has some variability. Of course, if you use natural elements like pine cones and tree boughs, you would not want to use candles close to them.”

When you put something in glass, there’s an immediate signal: ‘that must be something special that deserves my attention.’

Light up with luminaria

“Candlelight within a paper bag—that glow that happens when the light through the bag reflects off the snow—can be a great way to line a driveway or sidewalk when you’re having an event. People are safely led to your front door, and it’s festive. It signals, ‘we’re having a party; this is a special event.’”

A Cornell snow globe
’Tis the season for snow in the globe ... and on the Hill. (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

Look for ‘softer’ LED lights

“Almost every string of lights these days is an LED. And it’s fabulous for energy savings, but it’s pretty harsh. So if you can, look on the package for a high CRI, or ‘color rendering index’; 100 means it looks as close to natural sunlight as possible. With a higher CRI, the lights on your tree will have a warmer look and be less piercing to the eye.”

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Try some tree lighting hacks

“Wrap a string of lights around the trunk; you can then put ornaments closer in, and they’ll be illuminated on all sides. Also, rather than taking the string and walking around the tree, put an extension cord a third of the way up the trunk; all the light strings can be plugged in there. Then, take each string and pull it out to the exterior of the tree and run it up and down, almost like a condensed sound wave.”

A gingerbread house shaped like the Cornell clocktower
A gingerbread McGraw Tower is eco-friendly—and delicious. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Give your tree the squint test

“When you stand back and squint, you’re able to see if all those little lights are evenly distributed. Where do you have a hole? Where is it not illuminated? Where do you need to add more lights or move them around?”

Use solar ‘up lighting

“It’s one of the most dramatic and effective ways you can light a house—because when you put a light source below eye level, it’s immediately eye catching. You can use these to light a wreath on your front door, roping along a railing, or conifer trees in your yard.”

Incorporate antique or repurposed objects

“I use Christmas books and vintage toys—like fire trucks and small stuffed animals—in my decorations. It not only brings in a historical element, but it’s a great talking point. I’ve also seen people decorate with old musical instruments, like a distressed tuba or a violin with no strings.”

Put (electric) candles in the windows

“When you’re inside the house, it doubles the light; you can see the reflection of the candles on the glass. And if you have storm windows, you see two lights reflected.”

A snowman on the Cornell campus
Do you want to build a snowman? We do! (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

Inhale nature’s aromatherapy

“If you decorate with pine boughs, it brings the scent of pine into the house.

Another of my favorites is to take oranges and insert whole cloves into them in a spiral or grid pattern.

Not only is it a natural decoration, but it provides wonderful aromatherapy. They can go on a mantle, a windowsill, a table—really anywhere—and last for two to three weeks.

You can also bake them in the oven at 350 for about half an hour, then put them in your punchbowl to keep hot cider warm.”

Get creative (and green) with wrapping

“I’ve used recycled maps or newspaper as gift wrap. Or I’ve used plain brown craft paper and decorated it with stamped designs; I make my own stamps carved out of potatoes, but you could also use a rubber stamp. If I do buy gift wrap, I make sure it’s made in the U.S., which has standards for the safety of ink used in printing.”

Make simple centerpieces

“I use natural elements—often branches of some kind—with votive candles mixed between them. I also put votives in cut glass. It has all those facets, so it changes the light and looks continually different.”

Top: Illustration by Cornell University

Published December 7, 2022


  1. Pam Hanna, Class of 1975

    Great tips from an amazing human! Thank you, Rhonda!

  2. Michaline Bruyninckx, Class of 1979

    I would love to see pictures. They would have enhanced this article.

  3. neva frank, Class of 1988

    Love the repurposing and using natural/found objects.
    I re-mix my berry sprigs, ribbons, pinecones, greenery every year for centerpieces, wreaths and indoor swags – so always something new (but cheap and sustainable)!

  4. Beth McKinney, Class of 1982

    Great ideas Rhonda – you missed one. Put a toy train down the middle of your dining table. I heard you did that recently, and it sounds so fun!

  5. Erica Dawson, Class of 2003

    What a fun and useful article! Thanks for the ideas, and I second the call for pictures for inspiration! I’m off now in search of an antique baby rocker that I’ve had for years and never found any use for. 🙂

  6. Judy Wood

    These are great tips! Thank you so much for publishing this article.

  7. Annette Marquis

    I enjoy wrapping gifts with homemade cloth gift bags that are easy to sew and enhanced with beautiful string, chord, twine. They are reusable and machine washable if made from a retired shirt, jeans, sheet, etc.

  8. Mary Grainger, Class of 1979

    One year I bought holiday pillowcases to use instead of wrapping paper or bags, and I know those family members have used them as pillowcases, for holiday decorating, and for gift giving. I’m sure Rhonda was my inspiration for that as well as many other things in life! Thanks to her neighbor Beth for shining a light on her creativity!

  9. Renee Dake Wilson, Class of 1992

    OK! I’m on it – especially the wrapping paper of old drawing sets. Thank you for so many great ideas.

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