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Column: Holidays are steeped in both tradition and trends

Steve Schaak shows the Christmas trees, complete with tiny lights, decorating his head Saturday, Dec
Steve Schaak shows the Christmas trees, complete with tiny lights, decorating his head in 2006, in Billings, Mont.
(Photo by Larry Mayer / Associated Press)

Back in my reporting days I was frequently assigned to write stories about Christmas — what gifts and decorations were popular in any given year, how much shoppers planned to spend, which toys were hot, and what new techniques merchants were employing to drive traffic.

Not exactly hard-hitting investigative journalism, but I enjoyed it, after a fashion.

As crassly commercial as Christmas can be, it’s worth remembering that this is a make-or-break time for many retailers, with as much as 30% of their annual sales logged during the holidays.

These days I find that old habits die hard, and I still check in every year to find out what’s expected in the Christmas business.


This year the National Retail Federation, in its closely watched forecast, predicts that holiday sales will increase 4.3% to 4.8%, to as much as $720.9 billion.

That’s respectable growth — not as good as last year’s 5.3% increase or the 6.8% growth of 2004, when the economy was booming, but it’s still healthy compared to, say, 2008, when holiday sales slumped amid a severe economic downturn.

With so much riding on seasonal sales, it’s no wonder retailers use every trick in the marketing playbook to maximize their results.

In a world gone mad, I find the holiday craziness oddly comforting.


How crazy? Well, consider the fact that it’s now taken as a given that some stores will open for their Black Friday blowouts the day before, on Thanksgiving Day itself. Just a few years ago, the thought that we might so demean our sacred day of gluttony seemed outrageous; now we merely take it in stride.

Remember the upside-down Christmas tree rage?

Neither do I, but the Christmas cognoscenti tell us they were everywhere last year, and we’ll see even more of them this year. Apparently, inverted trees hearken back to an old Slavic tradition, but now they’re promoted as a way to inject an element of whimsy into modern holiday decor.

Here are a few more Yuletide trends we’re expected to see this year:

  • Decorating hair to mimic a Christmas tree. This fashion choice started a few years ago, and apparently it’s still a thing. The look is achieved by placing cones or other objects on top of heads. Hair is then smoothed up and over the top (employing a gravity-defying combination of hair spray and pins, I’m guessing), and festooned with festive baubles and even lights.
  • Giving toys that promise to make kids smart. Somewhere along the way, we stopped looking at toys and games as objects of fun and now consider them another means of enhancing the brain power of budding little geniuses — or at least as a way to hone their future workplace skills. A cuddly teddy bear might now be an “augmented reality bear” that is meant to teach kids about biology and technology, and to foster critical thinking. Retailers’ shelves are stuffed with interactive robotic toys and digital gadgets that purport to teach kids how to code — this despite warnings by pediatrician groups and other child development experts that simple, old-fashioned toys are usually best for kids’ cognition and socialization.
  • Items that I’ll lump under the general category of “eccentric.” This includes Christmas tree skirts made of the kind of chunky knits previously reserved for sweaters and scarves (do trees get cold?); items that evoke rusticity, like wooden plate chargers and driftwood decorations; pineapple Christmas trees; and black Christmas trees, “rainbow” trees, and other nontraditional color schemes.

Intriguing as these ideas might be, there are many aspects to Christmas that, thankfully, remain immune to change.
“People always ask me what are the trends this year,” said Hedda Staines, head merchant at Roger’s Gardens in Newport Beach.

“I always say, ‘Santa. Red.’”

Staines, who begins searching for holiday products in January, typically chooses items that evoke a “classic European feel.” Think elegant hand-blown glass ornaments and decor based on vintage designs, as well as the usual assortment of fresh wreaths, mantle pieces, floral arrangements and themed gift baskets.


She does pay heed to fads and fashion — this year, for instance, there’s high demand for interactive pieces, “grab and go” items such as a glittery foot-tall tree and decor with LED lights built in, but she advises customers to keep it simple and avoid the temptation to overdecorate.

As for me, I prefer my Christmas steeped in tradition. Every ornament on my tree has a special memory attached, and I’m not embarrassed to admit that whenever I see twinkly holiday lights I feel a familiar warm glow set in, one that gives me, if only for a moment, a sense of peace and well-being.

I love it all, the baking marathons, the late-night wrapping sessions, the carol singing, the incessant gift exchanges and the cornball Hallmark movies about finding true love at Christmastime.

I won’t be putting any of those twinkling lights in my hair or decorating pineapples this season — not my style — but I hope that, however anyone else chooses to do their holidays, they may experience a similar sense of goodwill and kinship that Christmas always brings to me.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.