Home & Garden: Organizing the Attic Home & Garden
Week Three: Organizing Holiday Decorations

Professional organizer Caitlin Shear and I have been diligently combing through the clutter in my attic in search of organization. So far, we have finished what Caitlin calls zoning -- the act of grouping similar items together, such as books, photographs or clothing -- to see what has actually been hiding up there for the past few years.

Now we have begun the work of sorting through each individual zone.

We started with holiday decorations for one reason: I thought it would be easy. It was a messy pile of boxes, long plastic bags filled with wrapping paper, and a bunch of loose bows and gift tags. But compared with other zones, it didn't contain much stuff to sort through.

When I was in college, I used to tease my mother that she'd failed Christmas 101. The holidays were always a weirdly austere time in the four-room Brooklyn apartment where I grew up. There wasn't room to store much, so she never bought many holiday decorations. For sure, we'd put up a real tree in the living room and hang a real wreath that she'd bought from the vendor standing outside the entrance to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on 92nd Street. Sometimes she'd set up an Advent calendar on the marble-top table in the foyer and, on another table, a basket for the Christmas cards that would trickle in during a three-week period in December. There was no fireplace, so no greenery on the mantel; a stocking for me dangled from the living room bookshelves.

Used to consolidate gift bags, bows, ribbons and gift tags.

And that was pretty much it. So when my husband, Bob, and I moved from the West Coast to Washington in 1999, my parents arrived for their first visit carrying an enormous box containing all of their tree ornaments. "I just figured we'd probably start having Christmas here," Mom said, as the box dangled off my father's left shoulder.

About three years later I bought two rectangular ornament boxes and took the best of my parents' stars, Santas and balls and combined them with what I had acquired over the years. Every Christmas since then, I'd grab those two boxes from the attic, never bothering to notice what else was accumulating up there.

As Caitlin and I plunged in, she seemed happy to hear this family history, because it meant that my holiday stash is actually pretty manageable. Many of her clients have lots of the trappings of decorations for every conceivable holiday: wreaths, trees and mantels to decorate, full sets of holiday china, burned-out Christmas lights and broken ornaments, Halloween costumes that haven't been worn in years. People collect decorations for St. Patrick's Day, Valentine's Day and the Fourth of July, she says.

Used to fit decorations for every other holiday of the year.

We began by pulling out everything in the holiday junk zone. I looked at every item and asked myself if I really wanted to hold on to it. Ornaments that I had not looked at in six years were immediately set aside to donate. We thought assisted-living centers would be a good drop-off prospect. But only the Goodwill in Northern Virginia would take them, and a representative told Caitlin that usually they accept only current seasonal items, so if you've got Christmas decorations to get rid of, wait until November.

Among the junk in my attic was a bag full of wrapping paper scraps. No single scrap was large enough to cover much more than a jewelry box, yet there were at least two dozen small pieces there. Caitlin eased my guilt by encouraging me to throw them out.

Bob puts the lights on the tree each year, and he has a good system for rewrapping them and fitting them neatly in a box. Caitlin saw no reason to mess with that, or with the green box that is just the right size to store my wiry silver-star tree-topper. Usually she tells clients to wrap each strand of lights around a hand and put it in a gallon-size plastic bag. She does not recommend any kind of customized light organizer; because she says they are completely unnecessary.

Upright wrapping paper holder.

She also was kind enough not to say anything when I insisted on keeping the snowman cookie jar my cousin handed down to me this year. Tacky, I know, but my two young children, Margaret and Charlie, went crazy for it, just as her two kids had 15 years earlier.

In the end, Caitlin and I accumulated three bags of trash, filled mostly with broken ornaments and ornament boxes from the 1960s and '70s. A few days later, I went to the Container Store and bought two plastic storage boxes (large, small) and an upright wrapping paper holder. In one plastic box I consolidated gift bags, bows, ribbons and gift tags. In the other, bigger, box, I fit decorations for every other holiday of the year: Easter baskets, Halloween candy bags, and leftover Valentine's Day cards that Margaret and Charlie can give to their preschool friends next year.

I cannot believe how nicely we consolidated everything. I feel as if I could actually have the holidays under control this year. Now, there's something to celebrate!

E-mail me about your organizing projects at organize@washpost.com

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About the Series

Got an attic abandoned to clutter and chaos? For the next 11 weeks, join Home staffer Liz Seymour and professional organizer Caitlin Shear sort through, toss out, tidy up and reclaim the space -- one step at a time.

About Liz

Liz Seymour, deputy editor of The Washington Post Home section, grew up in a four-room apartment in Brooklyn with two very organized parents and almost no closet space. Now she lives in a center-hall Colonial in D.C.'s American University Park neighborhood with her husband, Bob, children Margaret and Charlie, and one appallingly overstuffed attic.

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PHOTOS: Organizing - James M. Thresher, Courtesy of The Container Store; COPY BY: Liz Seymour - The Washington Post; WEB EDITOR: Janet Bennett Kelly - washingtonpost.com

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