Holiday Cheer Without the Tree: Alternatives We Love
Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, a little greenery around the house is a winter necessity
For better or worse, in the Western world, Christmas is kind of a juggernaut, with its traditions and aesthetic spilling out all over the place. (And the music! Oy, the music.) “Reason for the Season” aside, there’s lots to appreciate about Christmas, particularly when one considers that many of our holiday traditions were created by folks who endured very long, cold winters and needed to emerge from it all with a shred of their mental health intact: Northern Europeans. Surviving long bouts of darkness requires lots of crackling fire, plenty of cookies (and mulled wine), and of course, a dead (albeit fragrant) tree festooned with baubles and twinkling lights, and we have snow-bound pagans to thank for all of it. For non-Christians, cookies and candles are perfectly acceptable ways to observe the holidays, but the tree really sticks as a symbol of Christmas. Fortunately, there are so many other ways to have a little holiday greenery without committing to Christmas, and you can leave these around the house well into January without getting side-eye from your neighbors. Here are a few of our favorite Christmas tree alternatives.
Poinsettia, the Christmas Queen
There are so many gorgeous poinsettias out now, we’re no longer relegated to red or white. There are pink ones! Ruffly cream-colored ones! Salmon-colored varieties with red speckles! The grocery store in my neighborhood has a giant display of about a dozen different types, and it’s just glorious. We’ve got a whole eye candy-rich roundup of them for your perusal right here.
Christmas Cactus, Another Classic
Another classic holiday houseplant, Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) is a tropical, epiphytic cactus hailing from Brazil, and when well cared-for, will reliably explode in blooms in shades of vermilion, fuchsia, white, and pretty much everything in between from around Thanksgiving to the new year. They can be a little fussy; once they set their flower buds, you have to keep them in the same place and give them steady light and water or they’ll petulantly drop their flowers before they even open.
Bouquets of Winter Greens
Red’s not your color? No problem. Leave out the holly and go with a bouquet of eucalyptus, snowberry, coniferous greens, and pine cones that’s unexpectedly gorgeous and smells like the Swiss Alps.
Rosemary Trimmed in a Tree Shape
If you kind of like a Christmas tree but want a more useful, space-saving alternative to chopping down an entire tree, they have these potted rosemary plants at Trader Joe’s, already trimmed like this. Instant holiday splash! To take it full-tilt merry, decorate the rosemary with fairy lights, plus you can snip little bits off for your holiday roasts, focaccia, cocktails, and any number of DIY herb products. And best of all, you can transplant it into your garden and keep it as an edible, aromatic shrub.
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For fans of Frau Perchta*, Krampus, and those with a slightly sinister streak, why not put out a pot of carrion flower (Stapelia)? The colors and shape of the blossoms are on point for the holidays, and the flowers smell like rotting flesh for a little metal edge.
Winter Wonderland Terrariums
Having a bonsai pine tree is already pretty extra, but for maximum winter sparkle, you can decorate a terrarium with fairy lights or add a tiny, snow-dappled cottage and some little woodland creature figurines. When the holidays are over, just pull the decorations out and enjoy your terrarium as usual.
Amaryllis and Paperwhites
Forcing bulbs indoors is as easy as opening the fridge and marking the calendar, but fortunately you can also find lots of amaryllis (Hippeastrum) and paperwhites (Narcissus) already cold-stratified, in little kits with little pots of soil or vases and gravel, ready to bloom. You can also just keep a bouquet of cut amaryllis; though the blooms don’t last as long, there’s likely better variety to choose from in a cut flower. If you do grow the bulb in soil, don’t throw it away after the holidays—you can care for it and get another round of blossoms the next year.
*Perchta is my favorite of the pre-Christian/pagan Alpine characters; per the tradition, on January 6 (a.k.a. Perchtenlauf), clean your house spotless, eat fish and gruel, and leave Perchta a bowl of porridge as an offering—otherwise she’ll slice your belly open and stuff you with rocks and straw. 🤷🏻♀️