This Cozy Christmas tree I’m creating this year will be our seventh tree. And when I make a new tree I don’t get rid of the old one, as I type I am surrounded by seven Christmas trees. I am bathed in fairy lights.
That much experience with Christmas trees will force you into developing a strategy. If I fussed over the exact placement of every single ornament, I’d be decorating until the new year. I get all those trees up in one day because I have a plan.
The tree obviously has to come first. I actually don’t have a strong preference about variety, I just like a tree that’s full with even branches. I am, however, a fan of the artificial tree. When you do seven trees every year you’d have to be Daddy Warbucks to make them all fresh, but still, having all the branches made out of wire is actually really helpful when it comes to decorating. If you have a bald spot or need something moved over a fraction of an inch, you just do it. Real trees don’t have that luxury. They do, however, look so beautiful and fresh that you don’t need to worry that much about hiding any unsavory spots, so there’s that. Artificial trees will also hold a lot more weight than a real tree, so you can go absolutely nuts with what you decide to call an ornament.
After your tree is picked out, the next step is the lights. What kind I use depends on the theme of the tree and the effect I’m going for, but one thing that is always consistent is how they’re applied. I am a light glutton. That’s what makes me love trees so much, the magic sparkle of all those little lights. So to get the best use out of them we push them all the way back to the trunk, then wind them around the branch going outwards, then push them back towards the trunk, and so on. If your lights are only on the outermost part of the tree, you won’t get any of those beautiful little vignettes of light peeking through the branches, but you also want to keep the wires out of the way when you hang your ornaments. This method of hanging them keeps the wires orderly, but you can still just coat your tree in them. Having the lights all the way back to the trunk also shows off the depth of the tree. It won’t look like a cone with everything just laying flat on top, it will look multi-dimensional and intricate.
If you use a garland, that comes next. Some trees I do and some I don’t, because I like to mix it up. Garlands are great for covering any bald spots, or hiding the wires, I mean branches, of your artificial tree. Plus they bring a lot of visual coherence as it ties the whole tree together, and can even guide the eye down the tree if there’s certain points you want to highlight. But mainly it goes on here so that you don’t have to try and find room for it around all your other ornaments.
Your biggest ornaments and any specialty decorations go next for the same reason. They’re harder to find room for once the tree starts to fill up.
Now it’s time to talk ornaments.
Often when you’re shopping for ornaments, you buy something that looks beautiful all on it’s own. Maybe you’ll get a pack of colored balls, but the rest you normally buy off hangers because they’re pretty. But once you put them on the tree, it’s a different story. I call these ornaments the Superstars. They need a spotlight, they benefit from a close up view, they have a level of detail that would be unappreciated if shoved to the back of the tree. They’re the ones that people fight over at Yankee Swaps.
If you have a tree made up of nothing but Superstars, you can look a little like the lady wearing four kinds of leopard print with a rhinestone belt. It’s a bit much. For Superstars to show off to their best potential, it needs to be surrounded by support staff.
So the first batch of ornaments I put on the tree are the category I call The Workhorses. These are the humble ornaments that exist to contrast, add a little color, fill up the tree with lushness and sparkle, but don’t need a lot of attention. They’re your plain globe ornaments, the larger scale ornaments, or the ones that you just seem to have a ton of. These ones I put on first and push to the back of the branch.
The next category is the Mid-Range ornament. As the name suggests, these are the ornaments that are a little fancier. Maybe they’re sparklier, maybe you have a bunch of them but not a ton, maybe they’re ornaments that are only OK by themselves but make a big impact in a group. Those go on next and are pushed to the middle of the branch.
Then, we go back to our Superstars. These can now get a pride of place on the end of the branch and not get lost amongst everything else. They get their spotlight.
Since I like a tree just dripping in ornaments, I’ll put more than one ornament on each branch – but by describing where on the branch I place each ornament, I’m mostly referring to achieving that look of depth that I mentioned with the lights. It will be more interesting to look at if there are different levels, you don’t want your tree to look like you threw a blanket over it.
So that depth talk covers the horizontal placement, but what about the vertical placement? Or to put it another way, how do I make sure that I don’t have all the same ornaments too close together?
It’s really easy to overthink this part and agonize over where every little ornament needs to go in relation to all the other ornaments. But I’ve come up with a way to overcome that and save myself hours and hours of work.
Imagine your tree is a compass, and divide it up into four sections. Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and Northwest. Take each type of ornaments you have and divide them so they fit as evenly as possible into the four sections. If you’re holding a box of twelve ornaments and you have to put them somewhere on the tree, it’s harder to create some order there. But if you have three ornaments you have to put on one section of the tree, that’s a whole lot more manageable. By narrowing down the area you’re working in, there are a whole lot fewer decisions to make.
I think I hit all of my main points, but each year I find a new one. On instagram my friend Jessica said that her husband accused her of having “too many Christmas rules.” Her retort is now my motto. “You don’t just accidentally decorate a tree this well.”