Everything you need to know to pick out and decorate the best Christmas tree ever.
by Matthew M.F. Miller and Anna Sachse
Few holiday decorations are as symbolic of the season as the elegant Christmas tree. Lush, lovely and aromatic, it’s the focal point of the most wonderful time of the year, and not just because it’s the destination for scads of wrapped gifts.
“Real Christmas trees are symbolic of this season of giving and sharing and family gatherings,” says Tom Dull, a Christmas tree grower from Thorntown, Ind., and president of the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA). “Nothing says Christmas better than the fresh scent, feel and texture of a real Christmas tree.”
According to the National Gardening Association, the most popular variety of tree is the Scotch pine. It’s upward-curving branches, perfect for hanging ornaments, and resistance to dropping needles makes it holiday favorite. Also extremely popular is the Balsam fir, which is tall and slender with ½-inch-long needles, which makes this aromatic tree perfect for tighter space. Other popular choices include the Douglas fir (big and full with longer needles); the Fraser fir (perfectly shaped tree with dark green needles that appear silver underneath); and the Colorado blue spruce with it’s iconic bluish-gray hue.
“Whether you prefer to select a tree as a family at your local choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm, or choose from a variety of trees at your retailer of choice, the earlier the selection process begins the better chance you will have of finding that perfect tree,” Dull says.
When it comes to decorating your fresh tree, start by considering an overall color scheme, says Michelle Workman, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based interior designer who has composed spaces for celebrities like John Travolta and Jennifer Lopez.
For traditionalists, traditional colors like red, green, white, gold and silver never get old. For a bold effect, Workman suggests trying hues such as fuchsia, chartreuse and turquoise. It can also be fun to create a theme, such as an “enchanted forest” with amber lights, pinecone garland, mini gold balls, owl ornaments and faux birds nestled in branches, says Nicole Sforza, freelance writer and former senior editor for Real Simple magazine. Either way, always start tree-decorating with lights, followed by garland and then ornaments, Workman says. Keep real trees away from direct sunlight, air vents, heaters and fireplaces to prevent premature drying and accidental fires.
Before buying a tree, touch the branches. The needles should feel soft and supple, Sforza says. It’s also important that the overall color isn’t faded, the bark of the outer twigs isn’t wrinkled and the exterior needles stay intact when the tree gets gently bounced. Fraser firs are one of the most popular options, Sforza says. “They shed minimally and have a classic, conical shape and strong branches that won’t droop under the weight of heavy ornaments.”
Stars and angels are classic tree toppers. For something more unique, consider faux antlers or a thick satin ribbon tied in a bow, Sforza says. Think birds, too. Workman uses a colorful faux peacock to top off her tree.
“When stringing lights, start at the bottom of the tree and work up,” Sforza says. To make taking down the lights easier, she recommends dividing the tree into three vertical sections, and then running the lights through the interior and exterior of the branches to add depth to the design. Consider using LED lights, which burn up to 80-percent less energy and give off less heat.
An average-sized tree (6 to 7 feet) will typically use 60 feet of garland, Sforza says. She suggests creating homemade garland out of beads, faux pearls, knotted twine or rope, colorful buttons and satin ribbon. Keep the garland approximately half an inch thick for an elegant look that won’t overwhelm the tree, Workman advises.
To give the tree depth, ornaments should be hung toward the inside of the tree and on the branch ends, Workman says. Place them where they won’t touch the branch below. Keep from overcrowding by exercising restraint and occasionally stepping back to see the tree as a whole. Use ornaments that match the theme or color scheme, or personalize the tree with homemade decorations. Sforza likes to create ornaments using a glue gun and string to hang origami, family photos, baby shoes or old toys like Matchbox cars and wooden blocks.
An average-size tree requires a stand with a base of about 20 inches in diameter, Sforza says, and it should hold at least a gallon of water. Only plain tap water is needed; do not add bleach, aspirin or fertilizer, which can actually reduce moisture retention and increase needle loss. Before securing the tree in its stand, cut one-half inch off the base. A fresh cut reopens the pores that take up water, Workman says. Check the water level daily to ensure it stays above the tree’s base. “If the tree looks dry, adding hot tap water to the stand can speed up intake,” Sforza says.
Embellish the base of a tree (and catch wayward needles) by draping the floor with an array of silk scarves in different patterns. Try luxurious velvet, silver organza or gold lamé fabric, Sforza suggests. Don’t forget that presents are the best Christmas tree accessory. “Wrap them in fun colors that coordinate with the tree and incorporate pretty satin ribbons and dangly bits to make them extra special,” Workman says.