Last year, I posted a blog with a few tips about decorating the Christmas tree that I’d picked up over my years of holiday decorating. I’ve added a few more tips and updated it slightly, but I’m still including last year’s disclaimer: Feel free to take my advice or not; I’m sure your tree will be lovely no matter how you decorate it.
Be generous with lights
No. As the old trash bag commercial said: “Wimpy, wimpy, wimpy.”
Yes! Lots of lights, clustered together and deep in the branches.
Everyone has their own opinions about lights. White or colored? Large bulbs or small? Blinkers or steady? LED or traditional? Wrap them around each branch or just lay them on like a garland? But one thing we can all agree on is that more is better. A tree with too few lights looks sad and tired; a tree with too many lights – well, as long as nothing shorts out and burns the house down, you can’t have too many lights.
The trick to getting lots of lights on your tree is burying the lights deep in the branches rather than simply wrapping them around at the tips. It takes a lot more time and requires a lot more lights, but the result gives 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 lots of lights buried deep inside the branches. It’s well worth the extra cost.
Graduate your ornaments
No. The same size decorations all over the tree make it look top-heavy and clunky.
Yes! Smaller baubles at the top and larger baubles and more large bows at the bottom make the tree look more even and give it added height and grace.
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.
Don’t forget the back
No. This tree has enough decorations in the back, but no glittery ornaments or lights to sparkle.
Yes! Lots of lights and a few glittery gold garlands make the whole room look cozy and inviting through the window.
If your tree faces an outside window, it’s especially important to decorate the back of your tree as well as the front! Go heavy on glass and metallic ornaments that will sparkle in the lights at night – colored ornaments aren’t visible, but reflective ornaments that move with air currents will create a cozy twinkle that will look beautiful to neighbors and passers-by. Plus, when you look at the tree from the side, you’ll notice the silhouetted bare spots if you neglect the back.
Decorate the spaces, not the branches
No. Look at the big star halfway up – there’s a big gap right above it that it’s supposed to be filling. Heavy ornaments always hang lower than you think.
Yes! In contrast, these heavy star seashells are carefully arranged so their weight puts them in just the right spot.
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 above 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 a few inches 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. One of the benefits to an artificial tree is that you can often bend the branches to tweak an ornament into exactly the right place. Hanging the heavier ornaments first then filling in with lighter ones can make this technique easier.
Get the top and the bottom
No. There is at least four inches of bare, barren branch between the tree topper and the highest ornament.
Yes! The ornaments at the bottom of the tree hang just a hair lower than the branches, adding a nice finished “hem” to the tree.
It’s easy to neglect the top branches, especially if you’re short, and it’s easy to neglect the bottom branches, especially if you’re tall. After you’re done, be sure to stand well back and check the overall look. Fill the top by using a few small ornaments that can rest on top of the branches rather than hang down from them – it’s really hard to fill the space at the top if all the ornaments are dangling from a 2-inch string! And don’t be afraid to let a few ornaments dangle down below the lowest branches of the tree. You don’t want a lot of large ornaments hanging below the line of the branches, but the tree looks more finished when a few ornaments show their lower edge past the bottom branches.
Aim for balance, not symmetry
No. It looks like someone measured with a ruler to hang each bauble exactly 6 inches apart, red, gold, blue, red, gold, blue. Bo. Ring.
Yes! There is a similar number of red ornaments on each side, but some are close together and some are further apart. They’re not evenly spaced, but they’re evenly weighted.
I love symmetry. I find it very comforting. But when you’re decorating a Christmas tree, symmetry looks boring and cold. So don’t put a silver star on the right side of the tree and another silver star directly opposite it on the left side of the tree. Instead, have three or four silver ornaments on one side and three or four silver ornaments on the other. They shouldn’t be in mirrored positions, they only need to add roughly the same “visual weight” on each side.
Much like checking the top and bottom of the tree, check for balance by standing back. Is there too much red on one side and not enough glass on the other? Take in the overall impression, but don’t analyze a single area. If there’s a large area that seems to need a glass icicle, don’t put the icicle smack in the center of that “hole;” put it a bit off-set. It will look much more natural. Things should be random, not even.
Let ‘em dangle
No. A number of the icicles aren’t hanging straight down because they’re caught in a branch below, and several stars aren’t showing because they’re tangled in greenery.
Yes! Each angel and star is hanging free rather than leaning against a branch.
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
No. Is there even a tree under all those decorations?
Yes! There are plenty of decorations on this tree, but even though some are slightly overlapping, they’re all clearly visible, as is plenty of greenery.
If you’re like my family, every year you add a few more ornaments to your collection, whether they’re ones your kids made at school, ones you picked up at the after-season sale last year, gifts from someone else – after a few years of 3 or 4 ornaments a year, you’ve got a lot more stuff to hang on your tree! And at a certain point, there are so many ornaments that you can’t enjoy the ones that are there, because you can’t even SEE them.
There’s no reason to use every single ornament you own every year. And there’s no reason to decorate your tree exactly the same way every year. If you have an eclectic collection, try doing a theme tree – use all glass ornaments; or all animals; or only red, white, and green; or only wooden decorations. If you have a lot of similar ornaments, set a few aside by type: only use 2/3 of the glass baubles, or leave off a few macramé snowflakes, or skip the pinecones.
Bonus tip: Ornaments aren’t limited to the tree
If you just can’t bear to not use certain ornaments, add a special collection somewhere. Hang some ornaments on the evergreen wreath inside the front door. Tuck a few around the base of a pillar candle or inside a dish of candy. Grab a few pine boughs off the ground when you buy your tree and tuck them in a bowl with a few ornaments nestled in. Hang a couple of special ornaments from your chandelier or wall sconces.
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.