Keeping up with the Joneses this Christmas requires Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade panache, more than one decorative centerpiece, a potentially larger fire hazard in the house and an extra $115 to burn.

Larger-than-life inflatable decorations -- gassed to stand up or float above -- multiple Christmas trees and lots of candles with open flames -- if you actually light them -- are the decorative order of the season.

With inflatable Jesus Christ balloons, Christmas trees in the bedroom, and candles in the laundry, decking the halls these days could be in for some Bah Humbugging.

Americans will hang mistletoe and holly and a whole lot more to the tune of $8 billion this year, up 5 percent from last year. More than 66 percent of households will spend an average $115 to upgrade their growing stash of holiday decorations, according to "Holiday Decorating Report, 2004: The Who, What, Where, How Much, and Why of Holiday and Seasonal Home Decorating" by Pam Danziger at Unity Marketing in Stevens, PA.

  • Oversized vinyl balloons and lighted inflatables depicting various holiday themes and any character suppliers can get their hands on for licensing are popping up on lawns and rooftops as the latest really big holiday decorating trend. An inflatable Nativity scene offered by a Los Angeles retailer is just in this year.

    "New holiday decorating concepts give people a reason to buy each season," said Danziger, president of Unity Marketing and author of a retail report "Why People Buy Things They Don't Need."

  • Christmas trees, faux and for real, are being planted in more than just the living room, family room or den. Decorated with the approach to commercial symmetry found on Christmas trees in retail displays, Christmas trees in the home are going up in any room where there's space, including personal space.

    "More families are spreading the holiday cheer to the bedroom too, with personal trees placed in each bedroom," Danziger says.

    Who hasn't seen a tiny tree in someone's bathroom?

    The additional demand for trees is, at least, helping boost sales of real Christmas trees and profits for evergreen farmers. For years, the growing crop of new-technology artificial trees were taking over households by the truckload. Artificial tree sales rose from 7.3 in 2000 million to 9.6 million last year while sales of natural trees dropped from 27.8 million in 2001 to 23.4 million last year.

    This year sales of the real thing are expected to move up for the first time since 1990, with sales expected to range from 24 million to 24.5 million this year, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

    Unity Marketing says about one-third of households into decorating are expected to take the politically correct approach and buy a home-grown live Christmas tree this year, while only 11 percent will purchase an artificial tree, typically an outsourced product imported from abroad.

  • Candles are hot too. The top decorative touch for 2004, candles' popularity is followed by paper and party decorations; garlands, roping, swags and ribbons; live poinsettia plants; and collectible Christmas tree ornaments. Christmas lights, the most purchased indoor decoration last year, didn't make the top of the planned purchase list, likely because they are an impulse item, Danziger said.

    Also, it's a lot cheaper to fill inflatables with hot air than it is to power 1,000 twinklers all night for the rest of the season.

Schlock or not, decorating triggers that sugar plum feeling, a celebratory mood that can be emotionally uplifting, especially in today's time of war, slow job creation and economic malaise.

"People today are expressing a growing desire to use seasonal decorations to create a mood to enhance their enjoyment of different holidays. Decorating our homes for a holiday gives us an emotional boost" Danziger says.

Yes, there's nothing quite as uplifting as the image of megalomaniac Sponge Bob dressed in his square pants and Santa cap floating above your home.

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