I’m the kind of person who wants Christmas Day to look like a Hallmark movie — the entire extended family spends the holiday gathered around the fireplace or the big dining room table. But sometimes, that’s just not how things work out. (For one thing, I don’t have a fireplace or a big dining room table.)
Sometimes, you end up spending Christmas in a hotel room or an AirBNB instead of in your cozy living room. So how do you turn a rented, impersonal space into someplace you’d like to spend Christmas morning?
A couple of Christmases ago, I got to spend Christmas in Telluride. I was excited about the skiing, but sad about waking up in utilitarian AirBNB without our stockings or our tree. I searched the internet for ideas to jolly up a hotel room and struck out — but we ended finding a way to have a wonderful trip AND a magical Christmas morning. So here’s the blog post I wish I’d found when I was planning on spending Christmas away from home.
Decide What’s Important to You
The key to making a homey, cozy space with just what fits in a suitcase is to determine which things actually make a space feel cozy to you. Think about your ideal Christmas — what things come to mind? Is there a specific smell you love, like cinnamon or fir? Do you have a favorite ornament or stocking? Does it not feel like Christmas morning without cinnamon rolls? You can’t bring everything, so identify the important things. Here are the things that helped define Christmas for me:
Pack Your Gifts in Carry-on Luggage
Finding easily packable gifts was a challenge, but we were pretty dedicated to only bringing carry-on luggage, so we chose gifts that were likely to make it through airport security, and that could survive getting smashed in a suitcase. This made travel easier, and it also ended up helping us stay under budget.
I bought Russell slippers, pajama pants and an extra warm base layer for skiing. He bought me a vintage dress, Christmas socks and a necklace. Clothing works well because it’s inherently packable anyway, and it’s not as likely to get flagged (and opened) when you’re going through the security line.
If you’re traveling with your family and worried about gifts being opened and surprises being ruined, you might want to put all your gifts into one suitcase and send one parent through with that one separately before the kids come through with the other parent. That way, if the gifts end up being opened, the kids won’t see them.
On Bringing Wrapped Gifts in Your Suitcase
We wrapped using regular paper and ribbons, but we skipped most of the boxes so our gifts would fit in suitcases better. They looked smashed and sort of terrible by the time we arrived, but I thought that was charming and kind of fun. If you want better looking gifts, check out furoshiki wrapping, which is uses fabric instead of paper.
How to Hang Stockings in Your Hotel
My stocking is handmade and really important to me. Luckily, stockings are super packable. (If you’re flying, put them in your carry on so you don’t lose an heirloom.) We decided to fill our stockings with gifts instead of the usual “stocking stuffers” to save space in our suitcases. (Skipping the boxes when wrapping our gifts also meant they fit in the stockings better.)
I hung our stockings with command hooks. My husband was freaked out that we were going to damage the wall, but it turned out just fine. If you’re worried about damage, you can sometimes hang stockings on the backs of chairs, on the handles of doors or cabinets, or you can prop them up against the wall once they’re filled.
Light a Christmas Candle
I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to light candles in AirBNBs and hotel rooms, but I do it anyway. Scents really evoke Christmas to me, so I packed a couple of Great Bear Wax Forest candles and lit them whenever we were in the AirBNB. Most AirBNBs have matches (although hotel rooms don’t), but you can also carry a small book of matches or a common lighter on a plane.
Tiny, Battery-Powered Lights Go a Long Way
I packed a couple of small strands of battery-powered lights from Target. (If you can find these from a local shop instead, bonus points!) You can take non-rechargeable AA batteries in a carry on through airport security, but I was worried the wiring might look suspicious, so I left the lights in their packaging so their purpose would be more clear to security. These lights are on small wires, so they’re easy to drape onto or wrap around pretty much anything to add a little Christmas cheer.
No Christmas Tree? No Problem
Even a small tree took up more space than I had left in my suitcase (ski clothes are bulky), so I packed my fairy lights and planned to pick up a branch outside to wrap them around. (This looks cool even if there’s no greenery on the branch — you just stick it in a vase, jar, glass, or even an empty beer or wine bottle.)
It turns out, I found an inexplicable little green triangle sculpture at the AirBNB, so I draped lights around it. It was tree-shaped and really pretty perfect.
Bring Craft Supplies So You Can Improvise
Even if you’ve scouted out your AirBNB or hotel room online, you can’t anticipate everything. You can do quite a lot with cotton yarn in holiday colors, washi tape and command hooks, and they’re all easy to pack.
A few ideas: Use the yarn to help hang stockings, or to wrap gifts (use wrong-side-out paper grocery bags for wrapping paper, then tie them up with yarn). Washi tape can help wrap a gift, and it’ll also help stick homemade snowflakes on the windows or even most walls without leaving a film. Command hooks can help you hang fairy lights or stockings.
Bring or Make Your Traditional Christmas Food
A lot of traditions are centered around Christmas food, so I think it’s important to choose one or two things to bring with you. For me, that’s my mom’s cranberry bread, so I packed a loaf of that. I also threw in a couple of hot chocolate mix packs because they’re pretty easy and seem Christmasy. We bought some meats and cheeses for charcuterie after we arrived, but having cranberry bread really made it feel like Christmas to me.
Have Time on Your Hands? Pack a Puzzle
I associate puzzles with Christmastime, so I found a cheap, small puzzle and packed it. To be honest, we didn’t even have time to put this together on the trip, but it made me happy to see it out on the counter. (Russell would probably disagree.) I’d say a puzzle is mainly worth bringing only if you’ll have several hours of downtime.
Play a Christmas Movie
Playing Christmas movies, or movies you associate with Christmas, can be an easy way to bring the holidays with you. That’s Harry Potter for us, and I actually have a small projector, so we packed it and projected the movie on a wall to make it more special. You might not want to be limited by the hotel or host’s options, so even if you don’t have a projector, consider bringing an HDMI cable, Roku or Chromecast so you can cast movies from your phone, computer or iPad.
Don’t Like the Way Your Hotel or AirBNB Is Set up? Move Stuff around
This is another thing that’s technically against the rules, but I do it a lot, and for what it’s worth, I have a perfect AirBNB rating. The trick to rearranging is to take pictures before you move anything.
First, I walk around my AirBNB and get the lay of the land. I note what I can use, what I like and what I dislike. Then I take pictures of where everything was when we arrived, and I hide the stuff I don’t like. (I often take really ugly pictures off the wall and put them under the beds. That way, they’re protected, but I don’t have to see them.)
When you’re ready to leave, check the photos you took and put everything back the way you found it.
Don’t Worry If Things Aren’t Perfect
Even after you’ve identified what you really love about the holiday and planned for it, try to hold it loosely. Things will go wrong — maybe your special loaf bread will be taken by airport security, or maybe you won’t find a place to hand the stockings. As much as possible, embrace the adventure and remember that the real point of Christmas has nothing to do with food or stockings anyway. It’s more important to let things go and have a good time than to end up making yourself (and your family) miserable because you were trying to make things perfect.