My late father, a merry widower the last 10 years of his life, loved everything about the holidays — the food (beef tenderloin), the wine (chardonnay), the presents (books). Everything, that is, except the decor. Though he’d been blissfully happy with my mother for decades, after her death, he’d eschewed her heaps of tinsel, army of china angels and dozens of ornaments in favor of a potted topiary strung with a single strand of lights.

“It’s my minimalist tree,” he laughed, putting up a gallery-like tag on the wall that read simply: “Tannenbaum.” His houseguests and family got the joke, and his December dinner parties didn’t suffer for the lack of Santas and cherubs.

Still, most people (the minimalist’s daughter included) have the urge to dress up their nests during the holidays. But how can you walk the line between Dickens-story charming and “I got this inflatable Rudolph at Wal-Mart” overblown?

“I like a theme like white lights, green boughs and bows,” says Diana Bulger, public relations director for D.C.’s Fairmont Hotel and an admitted decor-aholic. “Then it won’t clash with our home’s color scheme, and the 4-foot-tall Nutcrackers don’t seem that ridiculous.”

Keep in mind what your house looks like January through November before stocking up on menorahs or ornaments that don’t suit your abode. “My house is decorated in gray and white with pops of pink, so my tree only has pink, white and silver ornaments,” says Pixie Windsor, owner of Miss Pixie’s Furniture & Whatnot.

Yet, “you don’t want to go for Pottery Barn syndrome, where people walk into your party and say, ‘It’s the wreath from page 15 of the catalog!’” says Danny Seo, eco decorating expert. This means your place should look like you live there, even if that means tucking Grandma’s slightly beat-up nativity set under your industrial-cool Restoration Hardware tree. “Personal touches keep a home from looking too decorated,” says Arlington interior designer Dolly Howarth. “Group sentimental things: vintage Santas on a sill, childhood ornaments on the tree.”

Amassing yule decor is a bit like building a wardrobe. “You need basics; then you can add or subtract unusual items,” says Howarth, who is draping her tree with faux pearls this year (think Coco Chanel in yuletide form).

Whether you put a megawatt tree in every room or opt for a simple wreath on the door, the most important thing is to bask in the holiday’s metaphorical and physical glow. After all, even a minimalist tree casts a lovely spell in the darkest month of the year.