Natural Christmas Decorations

Plants, Kissing Balls, Snowmen

Winterberry (image) is at its best in December. Its berries shrivel in freezing conditions.
The berries of winterberry shrub can play a prominent part in natural Christmas decorations. David Beaulieu

Natural Christmas decorations spice up the outdoors during a time of year when, in the North, there’s just not a lot of color otherwise, many of our plants having deserted us till spring. As the last leaves fall from the trees and rotting flesh disfigures our Halloween jack-o-lanterns, is it any wonder that folks flock to the stores to buy the outdoor Christmas ornaments that will replace autumn's natural splendor with the glitz and glitter of the winter holiday season?

For example, inflatable Christmas decorations, despite their detractors, have been growing in popularity during the 21st century. For a more restrained and traditional (yet still store-bought) option, some set up outdoor Nativity scenes.

But if you prefer a more natural look, remember that not all your decor has to be purchased at the mall. Examples abound of plants that don’t bail out on us as winter arrives. There are many shrubs and trees that provide evergreen foliage and/or berries that will liven up your winter yard, either while still alive or after their boughs have been harvested (for use in crafts). I furnish examples in my photo gallery of Christmas decorations using greenery. Natural materials also play a dominant role in my 16 Ideas for Tasteful Christmas Yard Decorations.

And don't forget a natural material that Old Man Winter often furnishes in abundance: snow, which you can easily turn into a knockout snowman worthy of an adult's efforts (see below).

How to Make Kissing Balls With Natural Materials

Have you ever seen a Christmas kissing ball hanging from someone's porch roof and thought, "I have to buy one of those someday"? You're right to be attracted to kissing balls, but wrong to think you have to buy one. Why not make your own? It's really not that difficult.

And the best part is that you can "go natural" to a large degree in this project. For more, see my tutorial on kissing balls:

How to Make a Kissing Balls

But if you enjoy crafts, do not stop with kissing balls. Here are some other ideas for Christmas craft projects using natural materials:

  1. Wreaths
  2. Swags
  3. Garlands
  4. Containers with Christmas greens, etc.
  5. Topiaries

Do not underestimate the number of natural materials at your disposal for these projects. Evergreen boughs are a no-brainer, but others include:

  1. Berry-laden sprigs. 
  2. Various types of pine cones.
  3. Attractive branches (especially from birch trees).
  4. Grapevines.
  5. Dried Artemisia.
  6. Other dried plant material that you can spray-paint gold to make it show up (if it is OK with you to be slightly less than 100% natural, that is), such as the seedheads of Schubert's flowering onion.

Note: Dried plant materials are generally best used in decorations for porches, gazebos, covered pergolas, etc., where they will be afforded some shelter from precipitation.

How to Make a Snowman

Am I pulling your leg?

No, you adults who think you're too "grown-up," I'm not joking. Climb down from your high horse and consider making a snowman to decorate your Christmas landscaping (provided, of course, that there's snow for you to use). What, afraid the neighbors will laugh? Tell them to lighten up! If you put some thought into outfitting your snowman, the result can be a satisfying natural Christmas decoration.

How to Make Snowmen

Shrubs as Natural Outdoor Christmas Decorations

Perhaps the shrub we most associate with the holidays is evergreen holly shrub, a mainstay in the winter décor of the United Kingdom for centuries. As live plants, evergreen hollies can be used as specimen plants or grouped together in foundation plantings. Cut holly branches, which can include bright red berries, make for popular accents in door wreaths and kissing balls. For more, please consult the following article:

Evergreen Holly Shrubs

A neatly trimmed hedge of evergreen boxwood shrubs offers much-needed landscape structure and greenery in winter, while evoking images of colonial Williamsburg. The cut sprigs of boxwood are used in door wreaths, garlands and kissing balls. For indoors, arrangements called “boxwood trees” are popular. For more, please consult the following article:

Boxwood Shrubs

Like holly and boxwood, mountain laurel shrubs are broadleaf evergreens. Used to frame an entryway, laurel shrubs will welcome guests to your door all winter with their inviting glossy-green foliage. The cut stems of laurel are fashioned into the “laurel roping” (a type of garland) popular in outdoor Christmas decorations. Florists use cut laurel in winter window boxes and cemetery logs, in which cases the laurel is commonly sprayed gold or silver (since the leaf structure will hold up on the cut sprigs, but not the natural color). For more, please consult the following article:

Mountain Laurel

There’s another holly that is not evergreen, called “winterberry” holly. Winterberry loses its leaves in fall, but displays masses of attractive red berries in their place. If your winter lawn is graced by a winterberry holly bush, its berry-laden branches will be the talk of the neighborhood! The cut branches of winterberry holly are prized by arts and crafts enthusiasts for use as accents in door wreaths, kissing balls and winter window boxes. The berries will shrivel in the extreme cold, so cut winterberry branches are best used in late fall and early winter décor. For more, please consult the following article:

Winterberry Holly

A final shrub to note is mistletoe, although it is a rather odd example of a shrub. For mistletoe is the “shrub of the heavens,” a parasite that lives on the branches of trees. Yet an article on outdoor Christmas decorations would be remiss without mentioning mistletoe, as it has been hung up over doorways for decades in hopes of snagging a few kisses during the holiday season. Mistletoe is, of course, the ultimate material for a kissing ball, and it’s also used as an accent in door wreaths. The mistletoe used by Americans for holiday decor is Phoradendron flavescens. Mistletoe is not as hardy as the other plants I’ve discussed above, being a native from New Jersey south to Florida, so it’s best to treat its sprigs with a preservative for use in outside. Make a fresh cut on the bottom end of the branches and dip in glycerin. For more, please consult the following article:

Mistletoe

Of course, when the words, "evergreen" and "Christmas" are juxtaposed, one immediately thinks of shrubs or trees festooned with Christmas lights. While lighting up live Christmas trees planted outdoors is certainly not obligatory, the practice does have one distinct advantage: live Christmas trees that are lighted can be appreciated at night, as well as during the daytime.

Live Christmas Trees

Don’t let the traditional use of spruce and other evergreens indoors as a Tannenbaum (whether living or, more typically, cut) blind you to their potential use outdoors, too.

More and more people are buying live Christmas trees for display inside, then planting the trees outdoors after the holiday. As evergreens, these live Christmas trees lend color to the winter landscape even if left natural. But you can add an extra blast of cheer by decorating them with colorful lights, ornaments, etc. To learn more, please consult my full article on the subject:

Trees as Outdoor Christmas Decorations

Avoiding a Mess

In choosing between the various options for live Christmas trees, you may want to make a more fundamental decision beforehand:

  • Do you wish to use the live Christmas tree indoors first, before planting it outdoors?
  • Or do you wish, instead, to plant the live Christmas tree outdoors immediately?

While this decision is perhaps not a critical one, here's why I'm raising the issue: some live Christmas trees will drop their needles more readily when brought inside. And who wants an extra mess to have to clean up after the holidays?

For instance, hemlock trees don't hold their needles very well. But hemlocks make for excellent live Christmas trees to be planted outdoors immediately. One virtue that hemlock trees boast, for instance, is their ability to withstand shade.

Live Christmas Trees to Be Planted Outdoors, After the Holiday

But there are many options for live Christmas trees that can be used indoors, briefly, for the holiday, then planted outdoors afterwards.

Various pines and firs are among the most popular live Christmas trees, but I discuss a few other options below.

Colorado blue spruce trees are valuable in deer country, as their prickly texture and strong aroma render them conveniently deer-resistant. For more, please consult the following article:

Blue Spruce

Yews occupy a central place in yuletide decorating history. It is thought that Queen Charlotte initiated the English tradition of decorating a tree for Christmas, in the year 1800. And what type of tree did Queen Charlotte employ for this purpose? A yew tree! For more, please consult the following article:

Yews

Dwarf Alberta spruces make for rather adorable live Christmas trees. Because of their relatively small size, they can be grown in containers. Many people balance a pair of container-grown dwarf Alberta spruces on either side of a walkway, patio, deck, or front door entrance. For more, please consult the following article:

Dwarf Alberta Spruces

Arborvitaes are evergreens in the Cypress family.

Although some might say they are, technically, tall shrubs, arborvitaes are commonly referred to as "trees." For more, please consult the following article:

Arborvitae Trees

As said on Page 1, our enthusiasm for Christmas yard decorations (ranging from holly shrubs to Christmas inflatables) is understandable. In winter, the nights are long, the plants are dead and the snow falls over us like a burial shroud. If ever there were a time when we needed to be cheered up, it would be in winter! Thus the popularity of Christmas yard decorations such as Christmas inflatables featuring ebullient Santa Claus figures and other staples of secular holiday decor.

You don’t have to be devout to have them in your yard, as they have nothing to do with the religious aspect of the season. But Christmas yard decorations have everything to do with dispelling winter’s gloom, injecting vibrant color into a landscape now dominated by drab tones of white, gray and brown.

Inflatable Christmas Yard Decorations: Christmas Inflatables

Among the most popular items for Christmas yard decorations are the nylon airblown Christmas inflatables. These figures light up for night viewing, and they can be big: many stand 8 feet tall or higher. I say they're "popular" because they're omnipresent; but that doesn't mean that Christmas inflatables don't have their detractors, as proven from the results of my poll on Christmas yard decorations.

Christmas inflatables are simple to set up. After unfolding your Christmas inflatable’s stand, zip up its back and plug it in. Using the tethers and stakes included, secure the Christmas inflatable to its stand.

Inflation time averages 3 minutes. Options for Christmas yard decorations using airblown inflatables include not only Santa Claus, but also snowmen, polar bears, penguins, reindeer, moose, dogs and the Grinch.

In fact, there are Christmas inflatables for all sorts of fictional characters who have nothing to do with Christmas -- until, that is, a Santa Claus cap is slapped on their heads!

I've seen such Christmas inflatables for Winnie the Pooh, Homer Simpson, Mickey Mouse, etc.

Lighting for Christmas Yard Decorations

Of course, colorful lighting is an old standby for all sorts of Christmas yard decorations (not just on trees and shrubs). But don’t restrict yourself to traditional light sets.

For instance, you plant-lovers may wish to use the popular red chili pepper lights as Christmas yard decorations. Their red color is in tune with the holiday season, but their shape suggests the plant-life that you miss and the garden that you dream of for next spring. Still more popular are the Christmas lights already arranged into various shapes for you: Santa Claus, snowmen, drummer boys, toy soldiers, Christmas trains, Christmas carolers, etc. Simply anchor the cut-out or framework structure to the ground, plug in the cord, and your lawn is instantly populated with classic Christmas figures.

Religious Christmas Yard Decorations: Christmas Nativity Scenes

Christmas outdoor Nativity scenes, or "crèches" (crèche is French for "crib" or "manger") are the Christmas yard decorations that best reflect the religious significance of the holiday, i.e., Christ's birth ("nativity" means "birth").

The figures in Christmas Nativity scenes vary, but their core usually consists of a barn sheltering the baby, Jesus in a manger (a "manger" is a food trough for barn animals, functioning, in this case, as a crib), with Mary and Joseph nearby. The Three Wise Men, guided by the Star of Bethlehem, are often included, too, in Christmas Nativity scenes. A variety of other figures may also be present, including angels, shepherds and animals such as mules, sheep and oxen. Most Christmas Nativity scenes you'll see today as Christmas yard decorations are made of molded plastic, but there are some exceptions. For instance, the figures in Christmas Nativity scenes can also be cut-outs (as in the picture above), using wood or another stiff material.