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How to Decorate a Christmas Tree

Make the season merry and bright with these helpful Christmas tree decorating tips.

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Artificial or Real?

The first decision you have to make when it comes time to put up a Christmas tree in your home is whether you want the tree to be artificial or real. Real (or “living”) trees offer the full Christmas experience. Traveling to pick one out at the local lot is a great way to establish a yearly, memory-making tradition and support local tree farmers, and once they’re in your home real trees give off a woodsy pine smell that’s sure to put everyone in a festive holiday mood. But real trees are also more work to maintain and only last one season, requiring a replacement every year. Fake Christmas trees, on the other hand, require very little maintenance and can be used year after year. Ultimately, real and fake trees each come with a set of pros and cons and deciding between the two will come down to personal preference.

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Where to Put Your Tree

After your tree has been purchased you need to decide the best location for it in your home. Ideally, you want the tree in a highly visible location with great natural lighting and high ceilings. One snagged branch could bring the whole thing toppling over, so if you have young children or energetic pets you should highly consider tucking your tree into a corner.

It might take some rearranging of the furniture, but try to position your tree so that it is the focal point of a room. If your furniture is typically centered around a television, consider shifting the focus of the room towards the tree for the holiday season to help foster conversation and family time. Also, don’t forget to put your tree near an outlet so that you don’t have to run extension cords across the room to power the lights.

Don’t want the hassle of decorating a full tree or want to try to something new this year? Here are 12 ingenious Christmas tree alternatives.

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Fluff the Tree (If You Went Artificial)

One of the only “maintenance” related tasks that come with artificial trees is the fluffing of the branches. After nearly a year of being stuffed in a box in storage, the branches of your artificial tree are going to be smushed and clumped together. In order to correct this, pull each individual branch out so that it resembles the look of a real tree. Typically, artificial trees come in sections (base, middle and top), and it’s easier to fluff out the branches one section at a time. Set up the base of your tree and then shape the branches of the lowest section fully before adding another section on top. This will give you easier access to the branches near the interior middle of the tree so that no section goes un-fluffed. Also be sure to wear gloves while you fluff- your hands will thank you when they aren’t covered in scratches later.

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Start With the Lights

Once your tree is fully set up in the perfect location, it’s time to start the decorating process. The lights should go on the tree before anything else. Before you put them on the tree, test your light strands to make sure they’re functioning correctly. Start from the bottom and work your way up, weaving each strand between branches without overlapping the cords. A good way to check to see if you’ve got the whole tree covered is to turn off the rest of the lights in the room, take a step back and squint at your fully lit Christmas tree. This will cause any bare sections to stand out as obvious dark spots. Adjust and rearrange the lights, filling in those dark spots until the lights are uniformly spread out across the whole tree.

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Choose a Decorating Theme

It’s fairly common for people to decorate their trees with whatever random assortment of ornaments that have been passed down through family generations and collected over time, giving the tree a personal, homey and organic feel. But if you are planning on decorating a little more purposefully, you’re going to want to select a theme right away. Choosing a theme will help give your tree an elegant and stylish appearance while also keeping it from looking cluttered and overstuffed. Common themes include red and green, red and gold, and plaid- white trees with colorful ornaments have also become popular recently. If you need some inspiration, here are some great Christmas tree decoration ideas. 

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Hang the Decorations (and Check for Bare Spots)

Decorating a tree takes a little more effort and planning than just throwing the ornaments on whatever branches are closest to you. If you’re hanging any beaded garlands or ribbon on the tree, do that before you start hanging any other ornaments.

The decorations should be evenly spaced out around the whole tree, even the parts that are not directly in view. If your tree is located in the corner of a room, pull it away from the wall while you decorate so that you have easier access to every side. Natural trees might have some thin or bare spots where there just aren’t as many branches. Try to fill those bare spots with decorations that naturally take up more space, like larger ornaments, pom poms or bows. If a bare spot cannot be filled in, position the tree so that the empty area is harder to see or at best hidden completely.

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Shutterstock/ Marie C Fields

Edible Ornaments


The gap between breakfast on Christmas morning and your big family dinner in the late afternoon can be a long one. Edible ornaments are a great way to give people something to munch on while they huddle around the tree and open presents. Strand together popcorn, string up Christmas cookies, open up some packages of candy canes and hang it all from the branches on Christmas morning to give people a snack that will help them power through the ordeal of unwrapping gifts.

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Decorate the Base of the Tree

After you’ve fluffed the tree and hung the ornaments it’s time to turn your attention to below the branches. The base of a Christmas tree can be decorated in many ways, most of which serve to cover up the ugly metal stand.

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Top the Tree Off

The crowning jewel of a Christmas tree is the topper you place on its highest branch. The traditional tree topper is a golden star, meant to symbolize the star of Bethlehem that appears in the Nativity story in the Bible. But there are other options, too, from doll versions of angels and Santa to elaborately tied bows. Try to go with the topper that complements the theme of the rest of your decorations the best.

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Don’t Forget the Pickle!

The tradition of hiding a pickle in a Christmas tree is a strange one, and there are several unconfirmed theories as to where, when, and why the practice began. Regardless of how it started, hiding a pickle and then rewarding a prize to the person who finds the ornament is a fun game that can add a little spirit of competition to more laid-back Christmas mornings.