Thanksgiving Decor in the Downturn

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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It's not news that Thanksgiving has been gobbled up by Christmas; what's remarkable is that it still exists at all. It doesn't in Macy's or Neiman's or other decorated hubs, which have all been jingling with red and silver and Burl Ives for weeks now.

"No, we don't carry a whole lot of Thanksgiving," says Jason Richardson, thoughtfully. He's the manager of the Michaels craft store in Rockville. "We used to carry all the little paper turkeys and things. Now you're lucky if you can find some fall leaves." So, lots of foliage and Pilgrim kits for kids. You've mostly got to grab those by Halloween, when the store goes yuletide.

Filene's Basement is where you go for Thanksgiving. Or Ross. Or Marshalls. Places where the housewares shelves can consist of picture frames and the odd French press are stocking cornucopias of cornucopias. All piled near the registers and marked 25 percent off, well before the holiday, as if the items were made to go on sale.

But oh, what you can find in the sale bins at the Marshalls on 14th Street. All the trimmings of a proper Thanksgiving. Pumpkins made of twigs, turkeys made of leaves, Pilgrims made of cinnamon sticks, everything made of something else, everything color-coordinated in a mix-and-match Thanksgiving palette so that the whole stock could be swept from shopping cart to holiday table without much planning. Foolproof, like Garanimals for grownups.

Sometimes the decor segues ahead to December: a brown-and-orange nutcracker, a Star of David reading "Harvest Blessings." But mostly it's piles of dead-looking wreaths and assorted candles with fragrances of November. Spiced pumpkin, spiced apple, spiced nutmeg (which is already a spice), spiced vanilla, ocean breeze -- oops, a leftover from summer.

Maybe it's wrong to decorate for Thanksgiving. It is, after all, one of the few no-pressure holidays still in existence. Virtually prop-less. No one is setting up a Yankee swap, no one is making you kiss at midnight, no one is saying there will be prizes for best costume, no one is organizing a luau theme.

There is no theme of Thanksgiving. except eating. Eating until your stomach spills over your pants and then being grateful that you are spending the day with the only people in the world you would let see you this way. (Grateful, of course, being the real and sentimental theme of Thanksgiving.)

Which is precisely why some people say you should decorate. "It's such an important part of the fiber of our society," says Marilyn Jenkins, an interior designer in Arlington who gets houses ready for the holidays. This year she actually did a Thanksgiving house, in Vienna. Dried hydrangeas on the table, arrangements of pheasant feathers and dried wheat. After this weekend, Jenkins says, "the hydrangeas will go, the feathers get some glitz added to them, maybe some golden balls." It's designed to be transitional, "so you get two holidays for basically the price of one."

Cost concerns and all.

Recently, grateful has been replaced in many places by nervous. The fortunes of New York and Detroit never seemed so important. Air travel never seemed so pricey or perilous. If you can get where you're going without being bumped or delayed, maybe it's best just to tuck away your mashed potatoes and drumstick and never mind bothering with a centerpiece of harvest wheat and foliage. Who needs a cinnamon Pilgrim?

But this year, a lot more people might be shopping at Marshalls than Macys. Frugal is in. The ethereal holiday shimmer of upscale department stores seems fantastical in an absurdist way, rather than a delightful one. What seems more appropriate, more fitting to this economy, is the slightly battered pumpkin-scented turkey candle on sale for $3 at Marshalls. I'm not the point of the holiday, it seems to say. Your loved ones are. Well, your loved ones and the pecan pie.

So as the ever-extending holiday season revs into high gear -- as catalogues arrive and ABC Family continues its countdown to its holiday countdown (Only five more days until 25 Days of Christmas!) -- we may feel moved to resist, and to pause a little over Thanksgiving. To buy a few spiced-apple doodads for the house, and then eat turkey, eat turkey like there's no tomorrow.

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