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Christmas Tips from Mrs Danvers

Clever Christmas Tips

Dear Mrs Danvers, can you advise on how to display Christmas cards?

First, don’t hang them up on lines like old washing, even though there are special Christmassy clothes pegs highly priced in the shops. Don’t parade them on every surface, because you will need the surfaces for real life and besides, they will all blow over every time you open a door. I have taken advice from two true stylists.

One suggestion is that you push the non-illustrated flap of the card between books in your library (of course, you do have a library) leaving the pretty bit on view. If you have lots of cards, then grade them by size, small ones among the small books and big among the big. This comes from Rosie Inge who, as Prime Minister Gladstone’s great-great-granddaughter, knows all about libraries. My second advisor suggests piling them on a large tray to encourage people to shuffle through them, like a photo album. Remember, he adds, to put cards sent by any visitors tactfully near the top.

Dear Mrs Danvers, now my children are grown up, I’d like my Christmas decorations to grow up, too. Can you help?

You are right not to get too tasteful if your children are still young-Christmas is really for them. But now they have, hopefully, fled, I think you should get smart by controlling the colour scheme and the amount of glitter, paper chains, tinsel and busy lights. First, ignore those magazines that suggest you cover every mantelpiece, banister and rail with desperately complex wreaths that take a full week to make-life is too short for decorative dementia.

Instead, use natural greenery, such as ivy, holly and fir, to create one large classical festoon in the 17th-century manner and remember, always overscale. The artist and illustrator Francine Raymond loves playing with natural objects such as dried leaves, twigs and skeletal flower heads to produce soft brown and beige decorations. ‘I much prefer them to evergreens as Christmas decorations,’ she says. With floristry wire frames, you can make them yourself or buy them at her Christmas shopping event in Suffolk (01359 268322, until December 4). She is also giving a course on decorations and food as presents on December 7.

Lucinda Waterhouse, a designer with a special interest in flowers, likes to combine foliage with strong winter colours. ‘Vibrant colours are surprisingly easy to find, deep crimson and plum add luxury and style to decorations,’ she says. ‘Crab apples, mixed with dark amaryllis or branches with red berries, create a festive mood without being over the top. But keep these deep colours to a minimum, just a splash of red will have more impact when used sparingly.’

Dear Mrs Danvers, how can I make my Christmas dinner table look elegant without breaking the bank?

Simple-keep it simple! We like plain white crockery of absolute purity of design (Asda has a set of 12 bowls and plates for ?5.75). A plain platinum band is also acceptable. We like our glasses to be plain, uncut glass in Classical shapes. We like cutlery to be Georgian silver (not as dear as you might think) and the knives to be old-fashioned ‘ivory’-handled ones. Mats should be bland and the centrepiece should be an array of plain, beeswax candles of different heights and thickness. Put them in silver candelabra if possible, otherwise plain glass is good. The Headland Hotel in Newquay, Cornwall, props up candles with chunky stones found on the beach. All the colour will thus come from the food and wine, which makes it look especially appetising. Look at Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries (Fourth Estate, £25) to see the effectiveness of the minimal approach.

Dear Mrs Danvers, I’d like to have some special lights to make my house seem more festive. I want something which is beautiful rather than showy.

Lighting, according to designer George Carter, is the most inventive area in decor today. ‘Every year, people have to think up startling styles,’ he says. ‘White pea lights, of the net variety, are especially useful inside and out-but not flashing-draped over plants and the tree.’ We have spotted an Ice Star Multi Colour Glow Light at Pedlars (01330 850400, ?7.95 each). This is a transparent 11cm-wide star that uses batteries to change its colour from red to purple to ice-blue. A group is quite beautiful. Hang them over a window, or pile six or so in a huge bowl. It’s always best to concentrate your effect in groups than scatter about.

Dear Mrs Danvers, I read that supermarkets waft the scent of freshly-baked bread around their aisles to get people in the mood for buying. What scent should I waft around my house to get people in the mood for Christmas (one to drown the smell of burnt toast, perhaps)?

Winter is a fine time to perfume your house, because you are probably trying to keep the outdoors firmly where it should be. Winter rooms should look inward to glowing fires and polished furniture. Sue Jones, a director of smart design firm OKA, has been researching scented candles before the company launches its own. She told me: ‘Scents are very personal, but there are many distinctive smells that immediately conjure up certain seasons, memories and places. For example, cinnamon, orange, wood smoke and pine needles make most of us think of autumn days and Christmas.’ There are scented candles dedicated to Christmas which will last for days rather than hours; you could also make or buy an orange pomander studded with cloves, use wintry pot pourri or even (when no one is looking) spray a spicy aerosol around. I suggest that, if you go the artificial route, you should cheat by having pomanders as decoys.

Dear Mrs Danvers, I like to keep my Christmas devoted to the religious festival. But as I drive home, I am confronted with six bungalows in a row covered with dancing Santa Clauses, prancing reindeer, exploding Christmas puddings and animated Christmas trees – all in non-stop, multi-coloured flashing lights. Can I ask them politely to tone it down?

Once I would have agreed with you but, recently, a friend told me these displays are ‘one of the few present-day expressions of folk art on a big scale’. Does that make it better?