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Getty Images / A family of four takes a selfie, capturing the real reason for the season: each other.

You've got your tree. You've got your events and your shopping list. You've also got a few questions.

For instance, is there a better way to hang these lights? Who, exactly, outside of your household, should you be buying for? Will this be the year you finally get a family photo in which nobody blinks?

While the details help make our holidays more memorable, they shouldn't cause us to lose sight of what's most important this time of year — nor do they have to.

Here, local design, photography and etiquette experts share practical advice for our common holiday quandaries, helping us stay focused on the real reason for the season: each other.

Deck the halls

By September, Brandon Carruth is already in full holiday mode, dreaming, designing and shopping for the components he'll incorporate into that year's installations. The owner of Carruth Concepts, he spends the entire fall season holiday-decorating hotels, homes and retail shops across the country. In 2017 and 2018, he even landed a gig helping decorate rooms in the White House.

"I only have this career because I love Christmas so much," he says. "Growing up, my mom and I would put up the tree; my dad and I would do the lighting. It was a big thing, and it sparked my passion."

To help spark yours, Carruth shares his guide to holiday home décor.

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Contributed photo by Brandon Carruth / When setting up your tree, says designer Brandon Carruth (pictured), be sure to open and fluff every branch.

> Choose a theme. This will help give your tree personality. In choosing his, Carruth considers the elements available to him: carpet design; wall color; an interesting light fixture, for example. Then, he selects colors and prints accordingly. Or, for a classic, no-fuss look, white and clear or red, green and gold are always in style, he says.

What's hot and what's not

When it comes to tree accents, "a lot of people are ditching structured bows and poinsettia flowers for more greenery with a natural touch and feel," he says. Floral picks, found at most craft stores, are an easy do-it-yourself option. Just choose 3-4 that fit your color scheme, then layer them and stick them into your tree or the peaks of your garland. Natural cedar garland can be found at most tree farms, says Carruth, while local shops such as The Great Backyard Place or Barn Nursery offer natural-looking artificial options.

> Fluff your tree. The biggest mistake Carruth says people make is not taking the time to properly set up their tree. "You want to touch every limb. Open those branches, fluff them up so there are no gaps. That applies to wreaths and garlands, too. It's worth the time," he says.

> Be intentional. When tree decorating, remember depth, distance, texture and color, Carruth says. Ornaments and lights should cover the branches to the trunk to show the tree's depth. Older, more affordable ornaments should hang on bottom limbs, while nicer, newer ones go closer to the edges and at eye level. Moreover, ornaments and accents should be evenly spaced out. A combination of trimmings — glass balls, floral picks and lights, for example — will help bring texture to your tree.

> And remember: What goes up, must come down.

"I don't think it's tacky to decorate as early as you want. Anytime after Halloween is acceptable," says Carruth. "But it is tacky to leave them up too long. Be prepared to take down your decorations after the first week of January."

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Contributed photo by Flint Chaney / Photographer Flint Chaney, pictured here with his wife Jen Chaney, son Flint Roman Chaney and mother-in-law Lauretta Williams, demonstrates how to capture high-quality family photos using only your smart phone.

No place like home for the holidays

With today's technology, there's no excuse for bad family photos, says Chattanooga photographer Flint Chaney. "We have fantastic phones," he says. And by following his advice, you can make the most of what you have in hand.

1. First and foremost, Chaney says, wipe the smudges from your phone's camera lens.

2. Coordinate your colors. Or at least, pay attention to them. You don't want everyone in gray T-shirts and only one in red, Chaney explains. The fix could be as simple as having a person or two slip on their jackets before photos.

3. Pay attention to lighting. Move a lamp or point a flashlight into the darkest areas of the room. Use the flash if necessary, and if that's too harsh, Chaney says, try draping a tissue over the bulb to help soften the look. And remember, he says, "God's light is always best." If window-light is available, take advantage of it.

4. Get a tripod. Chaney prefers the Ubeesize portable, phone tripod, with flexible legs that can be secured to almost anything, and a wireless remote. Selfie sticks work, too, he says. "People make fun of selfie sticks, but they get better photographs — so don't be embarrassed. It's worth capturing that fantastic memory."

5. Download a photo editing app like Lightroom or Photoshop to enhance your photos. But don't over-filter, Chaney says. "You want to look real. You don't want to look like a Barbie doll."

6. Always do a countdown: Three, two, one — and one means "don't blink," says Chaney. Though, someone inevitably will, which is why you should always take multiple pictures. And get creative, he says. Take one with everyone smiling; one with silly faces; one with everybody looking to the left, then the right. "And be prepared to say something funny for that one family member that doesn't like to smile," he says. "I always tell people to holler 'chimichanga!' And they light up. It works every time."

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Staff Photo /In 2020, Americans, on average, spent nearly $1,000 on gifts, holiday items and other expenses during the holiday season.

All I want for Christmas

For Dawn Jumper, Chattanooga's de facto expert in etiquette and children's manners, "the holiday season is all about showing appreciation and affection for others." And that is the star that guides her gift-giving, whether personally or professionally.

Though, says Jumper, it is important to differentiate between the two.

> Do you buy for your boss?

Short answer: No.

"You don't want to appear to be seeking undue favor," Jumper says. "Gift-giving in the business world should flow downward, so it's OK for bosses and managers to give down the line." Moreover, Jumper says, gifts in the workplace should never be personal.

"Avoid stuff like perfume, lotion or clothing," she says. Better options are coffee, food or a gift card.

And while she doesn't recommend employees give to their higher-ups, "never underestimate the power of a handwritten note. You can show your appreciation without giving a gift."

> What about service professionals?

Cash tips are appropriate for some professionals: trash collectors, dog groomers or mail carriers, for example. (Though, it should be noted that postal workers are only allowed to accept gifts worth $20 or less.)

"If the service is important to you, if it makes your life easier — the holiday season is the ideal time to show your appreciation," Jumper says.

However, Jumper does not suggest cash tips for "salaried professionals," like teachers or doctors. Instead, she says, give them thoughtful gifts. For teachers, "I suggest involving your child in selecting the present and wrapping it so they can experience the joy of gift giving," she says.

> Navigating awkward exchanges

How do you teach your child to be gracious — no matter the gift?

Talk with your child ahead of time, says Jumper. Prepare them for the possibility of receiving something they don't like, and remind them that the proper response is always, "Thank you so much."

And remember, Jumper says, "Our children are always watching us." You can help coach your child's manners by demonstrating them yourself.

What do you do when someone gives you a gift, and you don't have one to give in return?

"Don't make a big fuss," Jumper says. "They're trying to show their appreciation for you, so don't make that person uncomfortable. Simply say, 'What a wonderful surprise. You are so kind.'"

And, of course, follow it up with a "thank you" note.

"Emailed 'thank yous' are acceptable but not the best practice," says Jumper. "Think about how many emails you get in your inbox versus how many pieces of mail you get in your mailbox. A handwritten note is so much more meaningful, and its purpose is to reciprocate the time and effort someone put into giving you a gift."

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Santa's winter tour of the Southeast will include various stops throughout the Tennessee Valley.

Where to see Santa

Santa's winter tour of the Southeast is officially underway. Here are a few kid-friendly and pet-friendly places to have pictures made with the man himself.

 

Events for kids

Hamilton Place Mall near the Food Court, 2100 Hamilton Place Blvd.; or Northgate Mall in Center Court, 271 Northgate Mall

When: Through Christmas Eve, Monday-Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.

Cost: Photo packages range from $39.99-$49.99

Don't forget: Reserve your spot online beforehand to help Santa and his helpers stay safe this season. Visit hamiltonplace.com or visitnorthgatemall.com to learn more.

 

Breakfast with Santa at the Read House, 107 West Martin Luther King Blvd.

When: Dec. 11, first seating 9-10:30 a.m., second seating 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Cost: Adults $30; children (5-12) $15; children (4 and under) free

On the menu: The chef-prepared feast will feature Belgian waffles and pancakes complete with a show-stopping toppings bar, plus all your breakfast favorites.

Don't forget: Mr. and Mrs. Claus will be making an appearance at both seatings. Bring your camera! Tickets can be purchased online at thereadhousehotel.com.

 

Mistletoe Market at the Collegedale Commons, 4950 Swinyar Drive, Collegedale, Tennessee

When: December 11-12, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: Free

Know before you go: In addition to free photos with Santa, the annual holiday craft show (also free!) includes petting zoos, pony rides, food trucks and 100-plus vendors. Call 423-479-6116 for more information.

 

Events for pets

Bass Pro Shop; 1000 Bass Pro Drive

When: Through Christmas Eve, store hours

Cost: Free

Don't forget: Advance reservations are required. Save your spot at basspro.com/shop/en/santas-wonderland.

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