Holiday Harmony An Etiquette Guide to Holiday Decorating

Holiday Harmony

 Holidays are usually synonymous with good cheer, smiles, and a festive  atmosphere—but occasionally, they can be the cause of friction and ill will as well. When  people of various faiths and traditions all live in the same high-rise building  or HOA, rules and aesthetics for holiday decorating have to take into account  the whole community—not just those members who happen to be a part of the dominant culture. Good  boards and managers tread carefully and are mindful of their associations'  diverse residents when it comes to mapping out policy for holiday decorating in  common areas such as lobbies, garages, hallways and balconies.  

 In cooperative buildings and condominiums, intense conflicts often arise when it  comes to figuring out the level and aesthetics of holiday decorating in common  areas such as lobbies, garages, hallways and balconies.  

 When people of various religions all live in the same high-rise building or  community development, holiday decorating has to please everyone’s customs and traditions, which is a very difficult task.  

 In Illinois, there are no statewide rulings about how much is too much, how  religious is too religious and how long is too long to keep up those holiday  lights or decorations.  

 So it all must be decided and regulated by cooperative and condominium boards.  In an effort to keep everyone happy, many of the management companies suggest  that boards have formal decorating policies related to holiday décor.  

 “It’s a sensitive subject, and nine times out of ten, there isn’t anything in the association’s declaration that speaks to it,” says Fred Rodriguez, director of property management with Heil Heil Smart & Golee LLC based in Skokie.  

 The declaration needs to touch upon how much religion is allowed when it comes  to the decorations, what types of ornaments, lights and décor can be in the common hallways, how much to put in the lobby and even the  size of the holiday items.  

 “If you’re going to have an 18-foot Christmas tree, don’t get a tiny menorah,” Rodriguez says. “Get a menorah that’s at least three or four feet tall so it will balance out. That way, you strike  an even balance between the two.”  

 Typically, the declaration only refers to overall holiday décor rather than specific holidays—despite the fact that residents tend to get into the largest number of holiday  decoration arguments in the month of December. But if they already know that  they’re limited by how many flashing lights or obtrusive items they can put up in the  common areas, they can apply the same knowledge to other holidays, such as the  Fourth of July or Thanksgiving  

 Structure & Consistency

 Most larger buildings—specifically high rises, have deck and patio restrictions so that there is a  uniform appearance from the ground, says Angela Falzone, a consultant with  Association Advocates, Inc., based in Chicago. They may also have window  decorating criteria, including documents stating that all windows must be  covered with a certain color or type of window decoration so that the building  will avoid having uneven or incongruous appearances from the outside.  

 And all buildings should have rules that state the date that holiday decorations  can be installed, along with the date they have to be removed, Falzone says.  

 Generally, the time frame states that holiday décor can be put up 30 days before the holiday, and taken down 15 days  post-holiday, says Lisa Evans, community association manager with Vanguard  Community Management, an Associa Company, based in Schaumburg.  

 Those rules should be in the governing documents, but the board has the ability  to create new rules annually as problems or concerns arise.  

 One of the biggest issues residents have is concerning the aesthetics of holiday  décor, Rodriguez says.  

 “I know of one community that has a mezuzah war going on,” he says. “The more prudent way to go is to establish something that allows for that to  take place with a little control. In communities where you have a lot of Jewish  residents, we’d typically recommend that the association pick two or three mezuzahs that will  fit into the overall aesthetic of the community. That circumvents the whole  process.”  

 But when it comes to choosing and creating the aesthetic look of the holiday  season, it’s a lot more difficult than having the boards simply tell the residents that  they have a choice between two colors—and then letting them happily go about their holiday decorating.  

 “Aesthetics are one of the hottest topics because everyone has an opinion as to  how the building should be decorated,” Rodriguez says. He suggests that when it comes to the aesthetics of the holiday  décor, that boards engage the services of several decorators who can do a holiday  decoration project or a lobby.  

 “That’ll keep it at an arm’s distance. Have the decorators put up sample boards, and have the residents  vote on them. That still means that people will be upset, but at least from the  board and management system, you went through a fair process.”  

 The decorators may be able to create an overall aesthetic, but it’s up to the board and the residents to first decide what exactly should be off  limits. Falzone says the first step is to figure out how to maintain the  building while the holiday decoration is up.  

 Candles shouldn’t be allowed in the hallways because they could be a fire hazard, and wreaths  should be hung via over-the-door hangers instead of on top of nails. Live  Christmas trees should be bagged when entering and exiting the property, and  all the needles must be vacuumed. Board should also take note that dry trees  may be a fire hazard, so some buildings have restricted their use altogether or  given deadlines as to when they must be removed.  

 Common hallways usually can’t have an obstruction such as Christmas trees or big statues due to fire  regulations, so boards must speak with their local fire department about what  they can and can’t do to stay within code. “The basic principle that boards should use when designing decoration policies  are aesthetic value, health and safety issues,” Falzone says.  

 There have been many legal battles regarding religious items—most recently the case in Chicago about a mezuzah being removed from a door post  of a Jewish family’s unit—so lawyers recommend that associations don’t attempt to restrict anyone on the basis of religion. The Chicago case that  made headlines was recently settled, but others cropped up around the country.  A similar case in Texas led to a state bill signed June 17 requiring homeowner  associations to permit religious displays on residents' doors, including  mezuzahs. Florida enacted a similar law in 2008.  

 To make sure their grounds are covered, rules should be reviewed by the  association’s attorney prior to adoption so that issues of this nature are within legal  rights. At the same time, the association could strive to make the décor less religious and more neutral so the entire building will be happy.  

 They can do this by using white lights instead of red and green ones, and  wreaths and greenery instead of a massive Christmas tree, Evans says.  

 “Generally, you should keep everything generic,” she says.  

 Don't Go Into the Light

 Flashing lights are one of the big arguments—especially if the lights are in the hallway and their shadows reflect inside a  unit. Some people also get migraines from flashing lights, so they may not be  acceptable in the lobby area either. Also, if the lights are plugged into a  common area outlet in a hallway, then the association’s electricity bills may rise dramatically if it’s a big building and there are extra lights on every floor.  

 “The issue of sound emitting from decorations comes under the heading of  nuisance, and is clearly covered in all declarations and condo laws,” Falzone says. “Therefore, any sound criteria included in decorating rules must comply within  those guidelines as well.”  

 Still, you may want to make an exception to allow for some fun music playing  softly in the lobby on Halloween, some Christmas music on December 25 and some  Hanukkah tunes on the 8th day of Hanukkah. It’s something the board can vote on and decide if it’s a good idea for their building.  

 All the rules in the world won’t do any good if the residents don’t know about them before they buy their decorations, however. So in addition to  being outlined in the rules and regulations, associations should put a posting  in the lobby about two months before each holiday reminding the residents of  the condo’s current rules.  

 “If owners know the ground rules from the beginning, there should be no  ambiguity, which is generally the cause of such battles,” Falzone says. “Clear, fair and legal rules, and quality enforcement are the recommended ways to  avoid battles over decorations while still allowing residents some freedom of  expression.”  

 If communities have competing interests and some residents feel the need to  celebrate every single holiday, or to use flashing lights, noises or bright  colors, the board can tell them that they’re free to celebrate in a fashion that they like—but they must do it inside their unit or in another location, Falzone suggests.  

 When the association starts making concessions for one resident, they’ll start falling down a slippery slope, and everyone will start asking for some  leeway with their own décor. That’s why clear rules are so important, Falzone says.  

 Not Just December...

 “There should be some criteria for all holidays, whether generic or specific,” Falzone says. “I can see fireworks being an issue of July 4. Obviously, they should be banned  in condo buildings, which seems logical, but it’s been known to happen.”  

 These rulings may seem extreme, but holiday décor arguments are becoming a bigger issue than ever before, Evans says. “People may be a little more sensitive these days, and we’ve noticed more of a trend. There’s a lot of things affecting that—and the economy plays a large role. People get a little more sensitive during  sensitive times, and you always want to keep that in mind.”  

 But also be aware that most people do want to celebrate the holidays with a few  decorations, so try not to throw up your hands and ban everything. Remember, as  the popular Biblical-based folk song by The Byrds so eloquently relates, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”   

 Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The  Chicagoland Cooperator.  

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