How Holiday Decorations Became the Elite's New Competitive Sport
One thing there will be less of this holiday season is gold lamé. For starters, it’s gold lamé. But, more important, Kylie Jenner beat you to it last year, with 20 feet of it exploding from every branch of her Christmas tree.
Hers wasn’t your grandmother’s holiday display. It was a blitzkrieg of bedazzlement, Xmas in extremis, lavishly executed by L.A. “flower whisperer” Jeff Leatham and eventually consumed on Instagram by 19 million to the tune of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”
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From Calabasas to the Upper East Side, ’tis the holiest season of all: the Olympics of showing up your neighbor with the bigger, louder holiday decorations. For some members of the one percent, the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s (and sometimes even later) has become a time of high intensity hall decking that makes Dyker Heights look like a minor Hallmark special.
Households are even competing against themselves. Rudy Giuliani and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Judi are in divorce court reportedly fighting over not just their combined $30 million fortune but also Judi’s “huge walk-in closet of decorations,” including “six-foot-high wooden soldiers” that she claims hizzoner is holding hostage at his Madison Avenue condo.
In a way, the holidays have always been interior design’s thirst trap, Christmas cards the original Pinterest humblebrags. Social media has only raised the stakes, and if you’re one of the people Elizabeth Warren wants to tax, now is the time to broadcast to the max.
“I’ve been to parties where they had a caviar trough you could Greg Louganis into, or entire 12-foot blocks of ice that time-traveled from ’90s Miami,” says Jill Kargman.
The event planner Bronson van Wyck specializes in dioramas that can start with a $15,000 Christmas tree hand-picked in the Adirondacks and decorated with all the fixins’. But he usually doesn’t stop there.
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“A visit from Santa is made so much better when he’s accompanied by his reindeer,” van Wyck says. “Let’s just say I’m well acquainted with many an animal handler.”
In this quest to flex like Daddy Warbucks, no demand is off-limits. In Los Angeles budgets for the holidays can start at $25,000 and go up to as much as $200,000, says event planner Mindy Weiss. She was once asked to hang a client’s indoor Christmas trees upside down, which presented a technical challenge.
“I lost sleep for the entire month they were up—but they looked beautiful!” Weiss says.
“I’ve been to parties where they had a caviar trough you could Greg Louganis into."—Jill Kargman
In Palm Beach, too, clients can spend $25,000—not on their homes but on the interiors and exteriors of their yachts, says designer Tom Mathieu. In Dallas, the florist Rusty Glenn once decorated a three-story stairwell with 7,150 stems of white Dendrobium orchids shipped from Thailand, several hundred red amaryllis blossoms, and fresh greenery. The cost? $21,000.
For another winter wonderland Glenn dragged in several hundred flocked 20-foot trees. “The daughter said, ‘I want real snow.’ So even though it was 80 degrees outside, we brought in snow machines and had them sprinkling from the roof over the valet,” Glenn says.
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New Yorkers, meanwhile, take their competitive decorating indoors. For one prewar apartment that appears in his new book, Born to Party, van Wyck used 500 white-feathered bird ornaments, 300 glitter-encrusted pinecones, 2,000 glass icicles, 2,500 feet of Christmas lights, and 10 yards of silk damask for a custom tree skirt.
“They do it for themselves. They spend thousands and thousands of dollars and they’ll have 10 people over,” says Michael Giannelli, the proprietor of East Hampton Gardens.
“It’s really about showing off their real estate,” Kargman says. “It’s a dick measuring contest, literally. The higher the ceiling, the bigger the tree.”
Americans are expected to spend just over a trillion dollars at retail this holiday season. For members of the highest income brackets, the astronomical sums spent perfecting a seamless celebration are an extension of the sort of made-to-order luxury they have come to expect in other parts of their life. For them Santa is not make-believe—he’s for hire. It just turns out that in the real world elf power isn’t cheap.
“The challenge is the install. We have to go in very quickly right after Thanksgiving and design a whole house in a short window of time, because they don’t want a giant military operation in their house,” says Bryan Rafanelli, the events designer and author of the new book A Great Party, which documents dozens of his events, including Christmas at the Obama White House.
For the first family, Rafanelli created “dog trees” of Bo and Sunny, and now they’re a “huge trend,” he says. “They are very realistic. They can be covered in fun fur; we’ve done one covered in Christmas balls—all done by hand. This is beautiful, high-quality stuff, not an inflatable Santa on the lawn.” Prices can run up to $25,000 for some 300 hours of work.
While some people helicopter into their second and third homes to find that hired elves have done the heavy lifting, others take pride in taking matters into their own hands. Kathy Hilton’s obsession with Christmas started when she ran a gift shop, the Staircase, in Los Angeles in the ’80s.
“I would do 24 trees, and they would each have a different name,” she says. “The Lucille Ball would be covered in red hearts; the Liz Taylor would be dripping diamonds and bottles of perfume.”
When her children were born, Hilton started incorporating personal touchstones into the festivities. Two years ago, when her daughter Nicky married James Rothschild, Kathy turned fabric from the bridesmaids’ dresses into garlands hung from her balcony.
“This year my son Barron is expecting a child with his wife, so that’s being worked in,” she says. The tradition extends from her home in Bel Air, where she has 3,000 square feet of storage for holiday knickknacks—she already lit her Crushed Candy Cane Voluspa candle two weeks ago—to the annual Christmas party she organizes for hundreds of her nearest and dearest.
“I go into a different world,” Hilton tells T&C. “And the decorations don’t come down until right before Valentine’s Day.”
This story appears in the December 2019/January 2020 issue of Town & Country U.S.
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors