FOR EVE DEVINE, IT'S Christmas in February. And May. And October. And just about any month of the year when she finds an iridescent strand of beads or bolt of tulle that inspires her to think of her favorite pastime: holiday decorating.
While some may need the mercury to plummet or a Muzak version of "Silent Night" to play before seeing visions of sugarplums, all Ms. Devine requires is the slightest mention of the season to get her fanciful imagination flowing.
Throughout the year, she collects trinkets to deck the halls of her 200-year-old Ellicott City cottage. By mid-November, the dining room table becomes the backdrop for an elaborate arrangement of cherubs, fresh greens and ornaments. Strands of white lights glimmer on her tree. Topiaries decorated with pomegranates and grapes grace a window ledge. And the overall effect is an elegant, festive setting for holiday gatherings.
But why in a season so fraught with obligations and business details would the owner of Faidley's Seafood in Belvedere Market go to such elaborate lengths?
"I just get great pleasure from doing it," she says. "It's exciting. To me, it's a release, an escape."
Holiday decorating. For many, it's as much a part of the season as caroling and shopping, baking and attending religious services. It's also as individual as those who do it, with each party napkin or sprig of mistletoe reflecting the spirit of the decorator. While interior designers and florists describe the current trend as being traditional updated with interesting twists, they stress that family rituals often give the season an PTC "anything-goes" feel.
"People are taking the holidays more seriously," says interior designer Alexander Baer. "There's less glitz. It's a more traditional year. It's not the stereotypical red-and-green look, but mixing in more rich shades of burgundy, navy, darker greens and rich colors."
He favors understatement and simplicity in decorating and recommends making one item the focal point in each room. "There's nothing more beautiful than a bowl of apples at Christmas," he says. "And trees don't have to be large. Having one beautifully done with cranberries can have more meaning."
That same easy spirit is seen in flowers for the season, says Karen Lock, co-owner of Flowers at Belvedere Market. Distinctive topiaries, which are being dressed up with everything from bows and gold balls to red peppers and eucalyptus, are real attention-getters at holiday get-togethers, she says. Most often she finds people using them as centerpieces on coffee tables or featuring them prominently on sideboards.
Ms. Devine was attracted to the idea, in part, because of the versatility of the small trees. "They have an endless style to them," she says. "And you can put them anywhere -- in the center of your window, on coffeetables, end tables." She also found that they worked well with her 18th and 19th century antiques and extensive cherub collection.
While poinsettias are still a holiday favorite, Ms. Lock has found people moving away from using staid bowls of stuffy flowers as party centerpieces. "People are using more blooming plants," she says. "These are simple things that people aren't intimidated by. We're seeing people loosen up. Flowers don't have to match rooms anymore. They don't have to match your curtains. If it's in season, then it's the thing to buy."
Paperwhite narcissus, tulips and amaryllis are favorites in December, she adds.
For New Year's celebrations, Mr. Baer favors filling homes with plants, which help symbolize the new year. He suggests inviting each guest to take a stem home as a remembrance of the evening.
In general, designers are seeing greater interest in the use of natural materials like pine cones, raffia, magnolia branches and fresh fruit. This trend is directly related to society's greater concern for the environment, says Carol Siegmeister, of Taylor-Siegmeister Associates, an interior design firm in Mount Vernon.
"There is more spontaneity and creativity in the use of natural materials," she says. "People don't want plastic and paper to give the spirit of the season anymore. They want to respond to what's going on in the world."
In addition, the uncertain economic times and Persian Gulf crisis have had an impact on the kind of decorating people are expected to do this year, says Shirley Chappelear, an owner of the Christmas Spirit, which has stores in Annapolis, Ocean City, Columbia and Rehoboth, Del.
"We're going back to a more patriotic feel. People are more conscious of what their country's involved in in Saudi Arabia," she says. Because of that, she's found that "the Americana look" -- garland, flags, donkeys, elephants, Uncle Sam figures and Abe Lincoln ornaments in muted shades of red, white and blue -- is capturing attention this season.