I love holiday decorating.
This is the one time of year I really commune with both my inner Martha Stewart and my inner child. It's when I get to spend hours crafting wreaths, cutting angel shapes out of old Christmas cards, fussing over mantel displays, and obsessing about centerpieces and garland.
When I'm done, my house is transformed into a magical place where candles flicker, glass ornaments sparkle, and greenery scents the air.
All of which helps explain why I braved an icy rain Sunday morning to drive 15 miles to the Pottery Barn store in Glen Mills for a holiday-decorating class.
There, I joined 37 other hardy souls, all similarly undeterred by the sleet coating their windshields. We were gathered, we women, to cull ideas from the ubiquitous retailer on how to deck the halls in that eclectic, upscale-but-casual Pottery Barn style.
Teaching the session was Annie Smith, the store's manager of decorative accessories, a British expat with a dry sense of humor.
"The first question people always ask is, 'What are the rules?' " said Smith, who ran two equally well-attended sessions the previous weekend.
"Well, there are none. The idea is just to make things visually appealing. And you are the only one who can say what is appealing to you. It's your taste."
That said, she offered some guidelines for getting started.
First, pick a color scheme you like. "This should be three colors at most. And the second rule of thumb is repeat, repeat, repeat. You need continuity throughout the house, especially those of you who have those big, open-plan houses."
That means sticking to your color scheme and using consistent decorative elements throughout. If you have berries in the garland wrapping the doorway, use some on the mantel. If silver is a theme, introduce small touches of it everywhere, from ornaments on the tree to candleholders on the table.
"Of course," she said, "if you are someone who likes every room to be different, knock yourself out. It's your house."
Smith directed the group's attention to a red, white and silver tablescape she'd put together before the class.
Down the long table stretched a red paisley runner. Atop a silver charger were stacked white dinner and salad plates and an elaborately patterned red-and-white appetizer plate. Atop those, Smith layered a white linen napkin with a red silk napkin and gathered both through a silver-beaded napkin ring.
"The layering is a way to bring in some more color," Smith said. (There's an idea I'll be borrowing.)
Displaying several other napkin-ring options (cloisonné, clear acrylic, a red-beaded number), Smith said, "Or, you could get your kids a beading kit. Get them busy. That's what Christmas is about: making things."
On top of the napkins were silver glass ornaments to which placecards could be attached, and which, Smith suggested, could be offered to guests as party favors. (At $8, those ornaments would make for a pricey party, but it's a look that's easy to emulate for less.)
As a centerpiece, she arranged faux greens, cranberries and pinecones around four different silver mercury-glass candleholders and votives in red cut-glass holders. Her tip: "Vary the heights so there are no obstructions."
She held up a pinecone. "These are everywhere, so get your kids out walking and foraging."
At a more contemporary tabletop display featuring a red-and-white-striped runner and polka-dot plates mixed with plain white ones, Smith showed small framed photos hung with ribbons on each seat back, another party-favor possibility. "If you have pictures of everyone who is coming to dinner, you could use those."
Back to centerpieces: Smith showed a squat vase covered with a handsome white birch "sleeve" and filled with vivid red silk amaryllis. "You could do a line of those down the table," she said.
She also brought out several large, clear-glass containers beautifully layered with faux green apples, pinecones and fake snow, or with berries and moss. "Think trifle," Smith said, referring to the English dessert that layers fruit, cake and pudding.
Moving on to the tree, she declared: "The average 9-foot Christmas tree should hold about 200 ornaments. Some of you might be surprised at that, but I'll bet if you go home and count yours, you are not far off.
"You want a full tree. You want to decorate the inside branches as well, and really layer it."
The demonstration tree was nature-inspired, decorated with pinecone angels and birds, magnolia leaves dipped in silver and gold, and a grapevine garland.
"If you are going to do a natural theme, that is not the place to bring in color. Less is more in this case," Smith proclaimed. (Too much dull brown for me, though.)
An alternative-tree idea: frosted faux branches hung with ornaments and displayed in tall glass vases.
"These are great for a buffet in a dining room, or in front of a fireplace you don't light," Smith said. "You can even wrap little battery-powered lights around them." (At $29 per branch, they're too pricey for my decorating budget - but easy enough to simulate with cuttings from trees and bushes and a can of white spray paint.)
Finally, Smith drew the group over to a section of the store where decorative elements were arranged in groupings suitable for mantels, consoles and buffets.
"Start with your tallest objects in the back and work down," she said, pointing to a vignette featuring a towering vase of those ruby-red silk amaryllis blooms, a shorter grouping of red silk flowers, mercury-glass candleholders, and some votives.
"But you really want to think about the space you're working with and its purpose," she said. "You don't want to pile a big pyramid of stuff on an end table.