Monday, December 2, 2013

How to Decorate the Tree, Martha Stewart Style

When I was a kid, decorating the Christmas tree consisted of winding a string of lights around the (real) tree, randomly tossing a hodge-podge of ornaments on, then throwing wads of tinsel at it. And it was pretty. I mean, it’s a Christmas tree covered in lights, ornaments, and tinsel; how bad could it be? But as an adult, I’ve learned that there are ways to get that Martha Stewart polish that really don’t take much effort.

So at the risk of sounding a bit snooty and know-it-all, I am passing along the lessons I have learned over the years. Feel free to take my advice or not; I’m sure your tree will be lovely no matter how you decorate it.


Lights Go on the Inside
 Yes!

 No.

When I was first married, my husband and I disagreed on the white vs. colored lights issue. He won, mostly because I had enough colored lights for a 3-foot tree and he had enough white lights for a 7-foot tree. (Honestly, he had enough lights for half a dozen 7-foot trees.) But what I learned from him about Christmas tree lights more than made up for losing that battle. He taught me the trick of burying the lights deep in the branches of the tree rather than simply wrapping them around at the tips. It takes a lot more time and requires a lot more lights, but the results give a depth of illumination that sets off the ornaments and gives the tree a beautiful glow that seems to come from deep within.
If you opt for a pre-lit artificial tree, as we recently did, be sure to get one with lights buried deep inside the branches. It’s well worth the extra cost.

Little on the Top, Big on the Bottom
 Yes!
 No.

No matter what type of Christmas ornaments you use, be it strictly glass balls or everything from kids’ creations to German blown-glass figurines, make sure they aren’t all the same size. Decorating a tree with similarly-sized ornaments all over makes it look disproportionate and top-heavy. If you already have a collection of various sizes, be sure to put the smallest ones at the top and the largest ones at the bottom. Like the magically growing Christmas tree in the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker, this creates an optical illusion that makes your tree seem bigger than it really is.

This trick works best if you have similar types of ornaments in different sizes. For example, we use glass icicles all over our tree, and we have three sets: tiny, medium, and large. The tiniest ones dangle off the top branches, the largest nearly brush the floor at the bottom, and the medium ones fill out the middle. Ditto for our collection of various-sized snowflakes. The easiest type of ornament to do this with is the standard glass balls, which are available in many sizes. But if you have an eclectic collection of styles and shapes of ornaments, just put the smallest at the top and let them grow in size as you move toward the bottom.

Fill the Empty Space, Not the Empty Branch

 Yes!
 No.

This is a trap that is very easy to fall into, especially with a real tree. You see an empty space so you hang an ornament on the branch right in the middle of that space. But unless that ornament is a feather, it’s going to weigh the branch down and hang lower than where you put it. So fill spaces by hanging an ornament above the gap, let it settle, then see if it’s still in the right place. Heavier ornaments, obviously, will dangle lower than light ones; be sure to compensate for this. With an artificial tree, you can often bend the branches to tweak the ornament into exactly the right place; it’s a bit pickier with a real tree. Hanging the heavier ornaments first then filling in with lighter ones can make this technique easier.

Let ‘Em Dangle
 Yes!

 No.

Most ornaments are designed to dangle from a hook or loop of wire or thread; the crucial word being “dangle.” An ornament that’s resting awkwardly against a branch or hanging crooked because it’s bumping into something doesn’t look as nice as one that’s hanging freely. Adjust the placement of dangling ornaments so they aren’t propped against anything else. This is especially important for long or large ornaments, or anything with vertical lines. And it will allow glass and shiny ornaments to move slightly, making the tree's lights seem to twinkle warmly.

Don’t Overdo It

 Yes!

 No.

Finally, don’t pack on so many ornaments that you can hardly see the tree. This can be a hard rule to follow – I know it is for me! Every year we add another ornament or two to our collection, and it breaks my heart to not use any of them. But who says ornaments can only go on trees? I hang a few on the evergreen wreath inside the front door; you can make a nest of small ornaments around the base of a candle; tuck a few in a bowl of candy kisses; put them on an advent wreath; or strew them among some greenery on the mantel.

But however you decorate your Christmas tree, following these rules or not, it will be beautiful. Like babies and brides, Christmas trees are always beautiful by definition.




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