How to trim the perfect Christmas Tree (without giving yourself a nervous breakdown)

Decorating the Christmas tree might be my favorite day of the whole year. Not only does it make the home feel warm and cozy, but it adds a little sparkle to your life. Plus, every time I hang an ornament that was purchased on a trip, or to commemorate a special occasion, or was made for me by a loved one, it brings back a very precious memory. Here are my tips to make your tree beautiful and evocative this year and in years to come, while at the same time avoiding undue tree-related stress.

1. Go to the lot and select the tree yourself- Don’t just blindly order one off the internet, or grab the first tree you see.  Take the time to find one with a really good shape. Be a little picky because in my experience, they never show you the good trees first. First they bring out the bad ones to try and sell them to someone that is in a hurry. If you ask to see multiple options they’ll start showing the good trees. You want to make sure the branches are evenly spaced and there are no gaping holes. As for the type of tree, I personally prefer a balsam or Fraser fir as you can see the ornaments better. A Scotch pine has denser needles and a better smell. But the ornaments sometimes slip off- that can be irritating. It also depends where you live- different regions in the US generally have different types of trees available. If you’re interested, here is a list of the different varieties of Christmas trees.

Finally, when you purchase the tree, don’t be afraid to bargain. This is particularly true if you purchase your tree when the weather is bad or the lot is having a slow day. In my experience, you get the best deals if you buy your tree on a rainy day.

2. Put the tree in the stand and fill the stand with ample water- Usually when you buy a tree it is a bit dehydrated, so you may need you to fill the stand with water a couple of times in the first 24 hours. Make sure to stay on top of the water levels. It will help you keep your tree for longer and prevent you from burning your house down! Tip: wear long sleeves and leather gloves when you place the tree in the stand so you don’t scratch your hands and arms on the pine needles.

3. Let the tree sit for at least 24 hours before you start to decorate it. This will give it time to rehydrate, and for the branches to relax into their proper shape.

4. Organize your lights- If you didn’t store your lights from last year properly (for example you just took them off the tree and threw them in a plastic bag . . . And if you did this no judgement! I used to do this too before I learned it actually saved me a lot of work to wrap them around an empty paper towel roll before storing them), take them out and untangle them. Keep them in nice, organized loops held together in one hand, or wrapped around a used paper towel holder. If you try and put them on the tree in one long string, the end will become tangled halfway through and you’ll have a big mess and have to start over.

One year I used candles instead of lights. It was gorgeous but only do it on a fresh tree and NEVER leave unattended

5. String the lights on the tree- I like to start at the top and walk around, laying them on the boughs in a descending circular fashion. I know Martha Stewart and other experts out there have some really complicated techniques. I’ve tried them in the past and don’t think they make the tree look any better. Plus they’re a nightmare to get off when you take the tree down after Christmas. I must admit, the year I tried Martha Stewart’s technique I ended up throwing away my lights with the tree (they were from Walgreen’s so were cheap) because I got so frustrated and my hands were hurting from being stuck so much by pine needles.

As for the color of the lights: I find that white lights show off the ornaments best. However, sometimes I use all red lights. I find this works well if you have many crystal, gold or silver ornaments. It has a warm, lovely effect and really makes your house feel cozy. Kids tend to like colored lights. I do not recommend flashing lights as they ultimately give me a headache. Plus they look tacky in my humble opinion and take away attention from the ornaments. Your kids will probably try and talk you into flashing lights but you need to stay strong. An idea is to buy them a little tree for their room and let them decorate it however they want. My sister does this with my nieces and they love it.

Speaking of kids . . . . my single best advice for putting lights on a tree is this: Always Work Alone. When I was little I always wanted to help my dad string the lights and he never let me. I never understood this until the first time I decorated a tree with kids. I decided I wasn’t going to be a Tree Dictator like my dad, and said they could help with the lights: Big Mistake. I almost had a nervous breakdown. This also goes for partners. Single best way to get in a fight during Christmas season: make the light stringing a joint effort. 

Finally, make sure to banish all pets from the room before stringing the lights- especially cats. Enough said.

One of the most striking trees I’ve seen- taken at the St. Regis Hotel in NYC

6. Get out the ornaments- Personally, I have a lot of ornaments as I’ve been collecting them for years. Every time I go on a trip I buy one or two, plus I save things from special occasions and turn them into ornaments (silk flowers are the perfect example. I also have a few crystals from an old, broken chandelier of my Grandma’s that I hang on the tree every year and some ribbons from treasured gifts). I also like to have a color scheme for my tree.

If you’re like me, my recommendation is to first pick out all your favorite ornaments- the ones you have to have on the tree either because they’re beautiful or bring back great memories.

7. Hang your favorite ornaments- Hang all of these first. I highly advise spending a little extra money to get good quality ornament hooks. They look better, don’t get tangled in the package and keep the ornament on the tree much better.




8. Hang the rest of the ornaments- Hanging your favorite ornaments first ensures that you get all the good ones on the tree, and they are hung in the “prime real estate” of the tree. Save the ones you’re not so fond of for the back of the tree and the lower branches. Lower branches are great for that ornament your kid or grandchild made that they would be heartbroken if you didn’t put on the tree but, let’s face it, the thing isn’t particularly attractive. Kids are smaller so the lower branches are more visible to them, but less to you and your friends. This is a much better strategy than what happened to that ornament I made when I was a kid that was a bunch of pieces of dried macaroni stuck to a piece of cardboard and painted gold. It mysteriously disappeared- something I clearly have not forgotten to this day.

Personally I think this is taking things with the ornaments way too far. Less is more . . .

9. Hang the tinsel- Prior to doing this you must answer the age old question: Garland or icicle? Personally I love the old fashioned look of icicle tinsel. It shifts and shimmers beautifully in the light- especially at night. However it makes a big mess while hanging, while the tree is up and and even bigger one when you take the tree down. Plus if you have pets it’s not safe.

If you choose icicle tinsel, make sure to hang it in tiny bunches of a few strands at a time. DO NOT let your kids throw it on the tree in big lumps. That never works. Garland tinsel is easier- string it like you did the lights. I do not recommend making garlands of popcorn and/or cranberries. It is an incredible amount of work and you end up sticking yourself with a needle multiple times. What I do love is using garlands of little crystals- the kind you get at fancy ornament stores. Or you an go to an antique salvage place and look for old chandelier crystals and make your own. I did that and it looks beautiful. It’s a bit of effort but you can use it year after year.

In my opinion, you can never go wrong with birds on a tree. Especially peacocks!
In my opinion, you can never go wrong with birds on a tree. Especially peacocks!

10. Top with a star- Or an angel or a fancy tree topper.

11. Wrap a skirt around the base of the tree- You can buy one but nice ones are shockingly expensive. I always use a beautiful tablecloth instead. Cheaper and it can multi-task as, well, a table cloth the other months of the year.

12. Repeat- If you have the room, you can get a second tree. One for the living room, one for the family room, even one for your bedroom. Nothing is more romantic than a beautifully lit Christmas tree. Enjoy!

Something fun for outside

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