how to decorate for Christmas

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The Independent Culture
Deck the Halls is a one-day course that, at first glance, seems irredeemably frivolous. Look twice, though and you realise it plucks so many evocative chords, it produces an entire emotional symphony. This is because it is all about Christmas - and creating the perfect Christmas is a surprisingly common longing among adults, whether they are basing it on a happy childhood memory or more likely, the Christmas they always wished they'd had.

Stephanie Donaldson, whose brainchild this is, comes down firmly in favour of tradition. She also uses only natural materials. So this is the place to learn how to make garlands and swags and wreaths of fir and cones, cinnamon and dried oranges, rings of dried cranberries and gilded ivy. She also insists that all her ideas are easy and quick to make and fun to do. "Far too often the person who's organising Christmas - usually a woman - ends up either feeling resentful, because she's flogged her guts out and everyone's taken it for granted, or she feels a failure because she hasn't done enough," says Stephanie.

It is well known that on all those stress-rating charts Christmas ranks high, nudging up towards divorce. Deck the Halls tries to redress the balance, make you feel creative and actually look forward to the whole business. The first thing is to set sensible parameters. There's no point in wearing yourself to a frazzle producing a wonderful table-setting as it will be a scene of utter devastation after three hours of eating and drinking. Equally, creating a sophisticated colour-co-ordinated tree is impossible when you have small children putting all their cotton-wool snowmen round the bottom.

Instead, how about an alternative Christmas tree of twisted willow branches decorated with gilded hanging pears and a miniature partridge? Or hung with hand-baked biscuits - you get the picture?

The course also offers gilding and a special Christmas pot pourri, using such oils as frankincense, clove, juniper and mandarin. We were given two projects. One was a swag of bay leaves, cinnamon sticks and dried scented oranges. The other was a pomander - an orange stuck with cloves that would gradually dry out over the next month in a bag full of spices. It was the sort of thing that Elizabethans had hanging around, and I was assured it would scent the clothes in my wardrobe for the next six years (always assuming I want to smell like a plum pudding). I have never been particularly Blue Peter-ish so, on emptying out my bag of ingredients, I was relieved to see everyone else looking as baffled as me. The first thing was to tie one end of a piece of string around a cinnamon stick and make a loop. Once we got going, it became deeply satisfying and quite hypnotic. Clearly, this was not only highly therapeutic - and much more fun than a psychotherapist - but you took something home at the end.

I was also rather drawn to Donaldson's idea of the Slut's Christmas. "Turn out the lights and light lots of candles. Polish the taps, make mulled wine and have some pot pourri around. That's really all you need to create a Christmassy atmosphere - a bit of sparkle, nice smells and a dollop of nostalgia."

It certainly put me in the mood. The next morning, on the nursery run, we sang "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and "Away in a Manger". Then I went straight back out and bought a Christmas tree.

'Deck the Halls' at the English Gardening School, 66 Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 4HS, on Thursday 7 Dec (0171-352 4347), pounds 70.50. Also in Welwyn Garden City, Herts. Details: 01707 393105. 'Aromatic Gifts' (New Holland, pounds 14.99) features many of the above ideas