One thing about Christmas: It absolutely can't be beat for beauty and variety of decorations. Perhaps no place is this clearer than at Baltimore's "fantasy fairyland," the annual Festival of Trees.
The weeklong event, now in its fourth year, features fabulously decorated trees and wreaths, tableaux of Christmas traditions around the world, a bakery and sweet shop, a "village" of gingerbread houses, a "Merry Marketplace," with holiday carts brimming with crafts and other holiday gifts, and a 40-foot merry-go-round.
And the event itself is a gift of sorts, designed to benefit the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a regional resource center for children with disabilities.
This year's festival opens tomorrow in downtown's Festival Hall and continues through next Sunday. For most visitors, the highlight is the winter wonderland of trees, decorated by local designers and others. This year there will be more than 150 trees and wreaths, in themes classic, whimsical and contemporary.
The display is an inspiring textbook for people looking for fresh ideas to decorate their own homes this holiday season.
"Expanding the horizons" of Christmas design is how Jay Dillinger, senior staff designer at Louis Mazor, describes his philosophy of adorning home and tree for the holiday. Last year's tree, with an angel theme, won first place in festival judging. "Every year you try to beat last year's tree," Mr. Dillinger says, laughing. "It gets a little harder to beat yourself." This year's tree is an 8-foot topiary. It's typical of Mr. Dillinger's unconventional approach.
"Very often, when I approach decorating a tree, I won't even think of putting a ball on it," he says. Instead, he suggests using family pictures in tiny, pretty frames, carved animals, costume jewelry, even the jewel-toned blazer medallions found at sewing shops.
"You can throw dried flowers into bare spots," he says. The flowers will help fill out the tree, "and give it a real soft line," he says.
Above all, "don't do the easy thing," he advises. "Don't just buy red balls. Or if you do, go to another department and buy rhinestones and glitter glue and turn those red balls into something special. I think people say, 'Oh, I can't be artistic' -- but they can be, if they try."
Start by picking a palette of colors you like, or a theme that's close to your heart, suggests Karl Egenberger, creative director of the Becker Group, an international display-design firm based in Baltimore. The Becker Group's festival tree has a "Happy New Year" theme, Mr. Egenberger says, in a "festive" color scheme of red, cerise and gold. Among ornaments will be champagne glasses, masks, party horns and hats.
He suggests putting lights on the tree first. "I like to work with the tree lit, so you can see what kind of coverage you're getting."
Whatever you put on the tree, he says, all the ornaments shouldn't be the same size. "You need several larger objects, to draw the eye into the tree," he says.
One look that's very popular these days is what Mr. Egenberger called a "Ralph Lauren-looking palette," with berry sprays, apples and pine cones among greenery. "Mixing leaves like holly into greens is nice," he says.
But the look and the colors needn't be traditional, he says. For a Christmas display in Palm Beach, his firm used colors of shrimp and coral and mixed bay leaves among the greens, for Mediterranean feeling.
Christmas displays can carry a message too. Kathy Slayton-Berkowitz, a designer at Alexander Baer, designed a "save the environment" tree for the festival, based on a program of their corporate partner, Cignal, called "Give care and share."
"Everything is done in natural materials," she says, in a color scheme of red, blue, green and yellow. "With white doves for peace," she adds.
Decorations will include natural hemp ribbon, "birds' nests" made of sticks, bittersweet berries and a tree skirt made of burlap.
Ornaments could also be made of tiny grapevine wreaths, available at craft and garden stores, or milkweed pods gathered from the wild. "Milkweed pods make great angel wings," says Ms. Slayton-Berkowitz. "You can make angels with milkweed pods and pine cones."
She recalls gluing fake jewels onto gold plastic ornaments and draping the tree with "pearl" ropes. Ribbons fashioned into bountiful bows make great tree-top ornaments, she says; the same ribbon can be used in streamers that cascade from the bow. Cinnamon sticks can be strung, like popcorn and cranberries, she says -- perhaps interspersed with clumps of sage for a marvelous potpourri-like fragrance.
Collectors could make use of their treasures to decorate a tree, Ms. Slayton-Berkowitz says. She's seen trees decorated with miniature carousel horses and with hunt objects, like tiny gold horns.
The advice from all the designers is to look around you, and choose objects from nature or from your home that already have meaning for you. That way the decorations speak of sentiment, as well as beauty.
While the trees are a major focus, they're not all there is going on at the Festival of Trees. Other events include an opening ceremony at 1 p.m. today, a gospel night from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Scout Night from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, and a Teddy Bear Tea from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday.
The festival is open from noon to 6 p.m. today, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and from noon to 6 p.m. next Sunday.
Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children and seniors. Festival Hall is at Sharp and Camden streets, near the Camden Station Light Rail stop. For more information, call (410) 550-9487.