The dressing of the Christmas tree is perhaps the most universal of all Christmas decorating traditions. Do you have a whole-family event complete with cocktails and Christmas music, or do you prefer to clear the room and work your magic in peace with a drum-roll reveal to all when the decorating is complete? However you chose to do yours, we’re here to walk you through each step of the process so you can decorate your Christmas tree like a pro!
Little did Queen Victoria and Prince Albert know that this tree-dressing custom from Germany would become such a celebrated annual ritual for households throughout the country!
The Illustrated London News in December 1848 shared an image of the tree in Windsor Castle surrounded by the Royal Family. Within a decade, it was the fashion of all wealthy households to have a tree – adorned with candles, sweets and tinsel – under which to display the Christmas presents. Nowadays, of course, we can all enjoy decorating our chosen tree for the festive season, and traditions of ornaments and lights have evolved hugely over the past 170 years.
Then, as now, everyone has their own way of decorating and each tree displays the personality and style of its creator(s). But how do those professional tree designers get their trees looking so lush, opulent and full of festive cheer? We’ve gathered their secrets so that you too can create a Zoom-worthy tree for this Christmas season!
The Perfect Tree
We could write a whole post just on the choice of tree! But we’ll try and summarise the key points for you now.
Whether you are choosing an artificial or real tree, you want to chose the most opulent tree you can find and afford. You are aiming for a tree that is so full, you can’t see out the other side when looking through the branches.
Full trees don’t have to be wide however. Chose a tree that will balance with its location – if you have a larger room, go for a wider circumference to take advantage of the space. Otherwise chose a slimmer tree (pencil trees are quite on trend at the moment) so that you can decorate to your heart’s content without worrying about the tree being knocked.
In terms of height, celebrated artificial tree experts Balsam Hill recommend that there is a 6 inch gap between the top of your tree (or topper if you use one) and the ceiling.
It is worth investing in a really good quality artificial tree to showcase your decorations to best effect, and create a fabulous backdrop to festivities. For this reason, we would suggest buying a more traditional style of tree which won’t go out of fashion and can stay with your family for years to come. Green or flocked (white tipped) are the best options.
If you prefer real trees, take the time to find a symmetrical bushy tree with non-drop pine needles. The British Christmas Tree Growers Assocation have put together a list of the main types of tree which you can download here.
Location, Location, Location
Even when it comes to Christmas Trees, location is key!
Ensure that you place your tree in a place where it will not get knocked and with easy access to sockets for power. And be sure to place your tree in a location where you can regularly enjoy and admire it as well!
This year Dan Cooper, chief Christmas Buyer and John Lewis‘s very own ‘Mr Christmas’, predicts a keen focus on “Zoom Corners” for catch-ups with family and friends we sadly can’t visit. Your tree could make the perfect backdrop for these virtual celebrations, so make sure there are comfy chairs and good phone signal nearby as well.
For real trees, do make sure not to place the tree near direct heat, and keep it regularly hydrated (it’s amazing how much these trees drink!). Ensure that the best side of the tree faces forward and trim the back branches if necessary to allow a perfect fit. (You can always slot the trimmed piece of branch back into the tree to fill gaps, securing with wire or green florist tape, or make a lovely festive swag for a door).
Do make sure your tree stand is sturdy and the tree fixed in place. You don’t want any disasters when the heirloom decorations are on board! We’ll be covering the stands later so don’t worry about aesthetics for this part. It’s all about ensuring the tree is secure. Weigh tree buckets down with pebbles if need be.
Pro tip: Place the stand on a piece of strong cardboard to stop damage to carpet or floorboards.
The most consistent piece of advice offered by all professional Christmas Tree decorators is to invest time preparing the tree if you really want it to sparkle.
Artificial trees need particular attention at this stage (as would we if we’d been in a box in the loft all year!). Take the time to straighten and spread the needles on each branch before inserting them in place in the trunk, and ensure all the joints are concealed. And then shape the branches to give your tree that perfect triangle appearance. Interior Design Info walk us through the process in the video below.
If you have an older artificial tree which is looking a little sparse in places, we love their idea of adding a few stems of real fir. This will help rejuvenate the tree and add a little of that fabulous evergreen fragrance at the same time.
Dan Cooper recommends 45 minutes of tree fluffing (as this process is known in the trade) but even just 10 minutes of pampering your tree can make a huge difference to the end masterpiece.
Pro Tip: Wear gloves when fluffing as those needles can be surprising sharp!
Lights, camera, action!
Well maybe not cameras just yet, but lights are most definitely the next job on the list.
For that professional look, it’s non-blinking clear or white lights that are recommended. For a larger tree, you could consider small round (or capped) bulbs rather than the traditional fairy lights, or a mixture of the two for more interest. And if you can’t resist a bit of twinkle, then Interior Design Info suggests adding 100 – 200 of these lights nestled right in around the trunk to give a slight sparkle effect.
Pro Tip: Ensure that all your lights are in full working order before you start adding them to the tree!
How Many did you say?!
Is there such a thing as too many lights?
John Lewis recommend a minimum of 50 lights per foot of tree height, but double that for trees with a fuller profile. And most other designers would be inclined to focus on the upper end of that scale.
Pre-lit trees can reduce work considerably and remove the issue of hiding the wires but generally these trees will also benefit from a few more lights added for extra sparkle. Consider a different type of bulb for texture but do ensure that the colour compliments the existing lights!
Speaking of Colour…
White doesn’t always mean white in the world of Christmas Tree lights! The softer tone of warm white lights works well for a more traditional trees, whereas the gentle blue hue of a cool white light can create an illusion of icy winter and show off the colours in your ornaments to better effect. It’s entirely personal preference but The Christmas Designers recommend you stick to one brand for your lights as each company will use a slightly different palette.
Try to ensure you chose a light string which will blend in with your tree so that the lights appear seemingly as if by magic around the branches. Green strings work well of course on traditional green trees, but more modern thin copper wires tuck in neatly by the branches and disappear from sight.
Where do we start?
There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on starting position for hanging your lights! The White Company suggest starting at the top and weaving down, whilst Balsam Hill encourage us to start from the bottom so we remember to leave enough slack for the plug to reach its socket. And, as if we weren’t confused already, Designer Francesco Bilotto told House Beautiful that he prefers to hang lights vertically to ensure best coverage of the tree!
Wherever you chose to start everyone agrees that the weaving of lights – both under and over branches, and in towards the trunk and back to the branch tips – is paramount for depth, interest and full festive sparkle.
When you think you’re almost there, plug the lights in and take a look at the tree from all angles. Tweak as needed so that you have an even spread of lights throughout. And don’t be tempted to skip the back of the tree – those twinkling lights in the distance really do add extra impact to the final product.
A Quick Note about Collars
Adding a fabric tree skirt is normally one of the last activities to be completed. However, if you favour the wicker-style tree collar for which your tree needs to be lifted into position, it would be best to add it early as no-one needs the stress of trying to pick up a full-loaded tree! Now’s the time to hide those light cables away.
Colours & Themes
Anything goes in the world of Christmas Tree decorating! Whilst we still find plenty of nods to the candles and edible treats that adorned the trees in the Victorian era, trees have now become extensions of our home design and self-expression. They offer a great opportunity to give way to whimsy and add some festive fun into our world. But we’re talking about decorating a Christmas tree like a pro so we need to have some plan in mind!
Interior Design Info recommend keeping to around three colours (we say anything from 2 – 4 works well). Think about how the colours will go together, as well as how they will work in the room you’ve selected for your tree.
Amara suggest selecting one core colour – a white or metallic tone – and building on this with more daring hues such as some wonderfully rich jewelled colours to really embrace the season.
Alongside the question of colour comes that of theme. Trees can have quite general themes of Traditional Christmas, Rustic Chic or Icy Winter, or they can embrace a more specific concept. John Lewis have shared seven art-based trends for 2020, from the luxe soft palette of Renaissance to the vibrant cheer of Pop Art.
Selecting a few larger ornaments to a theme, and placing them in prominent positions, can really give a focal point to the tree and set it apart.
It’s a Wrap
Well not quite … but, just like with your gift wrapping, it’s time to add the ribbons and garlands to your tree. Tinsel has seen something of a resurgence in the last few years, but there are so many beautiful ways to wrap your tree and give it more texture and colour whilst continuing to fill in any gaps.
If using ribbons, select ones with wire edges, giving you more control over the shape. Try layering ribbons for a really elegant look. We love an thinner organza ribbon on top of a wider strip of hessian or velvet in a contrasting colour.
US-based celebrity florist Brad Schmidt has a whole host of ways to adorn your tree with ribbons so we’ll give the floor directly to him for this part!
Dan Cooper suggests we use 2 – 4 garland, ribbons or equivalent on a 7ft tree. Whether you chose to cascade these down your tree or flow them around in slowly declining circles, this stage in decorating is where you can really start to create that luxurious overstuffed professional tree design.
Time To Top It Off
Whilst it might feel like the tree topper should be the cherry on the already iced cake, there’s nothing that sets a heart racing like leaning precariously over a fully decorated tree to add an ornament to one of the most unstable branches! So we would strongly suggest that now is the time to proudly position your topper.
The jury is out on tree toppers: they are a bit like marmite! We think an eye-catching topper can add balance and proportion to the tree. Ideal Home’s Tamara Kelly is not a fan of the traditional star or angel topper so she prefers to take a favourite decoration and make that the star of the show instead.
Balsam Hill remind us to be cautious about the weight of our topper, as this topmost part of the tree cannot handle much without bending. They suggest placing the topper on an outstretched palm for 3 seconds and see if it stays upright. If it topples, it may need some extra support to stay in position (e.g. green florist tape).
Let’s Get Ornamental
Placing ornaments on the tree is all about layering.
More generic plain-coloured baubles should be placed nearer the trunk to give depth and colour in the background, whilst the more interesting and elegant ornaments should be placed further along the branches so they can be seen and enjoyed.
The White Company recommends adding larger decorations first and then filling gaps with smaller decorations. They say to follow the profile of the tree to maintain visual balance, i.e. smaller decorations towards the top of the tree. Interior Design Info suggest using slightly oversized ornaments for a more professional finish, approximately 10 per foot of tree. Don’t forget to ensure any particularly delicate ornaments are securely positioned and out of the reach of little hands.
If you are using multiple colours of decorations, add one colour at a time and stand back to check for even spread before adding the next colour. And the general consensus is to work in multiples of three for ornaments, placing them on the tree in a Z shape to ensure they are well distributed.
How Many (again)?!
Not sure how many ornaments to use in total? Actuaries at Insurance providers Admiral have branched out and created a bauble calculator! Simply pop in the size and style of your tree and it will tell you the optimum number of ornaments to use.
A technique used by many of the professional tree designers is to add a handful of ‘focal point ornaments’. These are supersized decorations which really add a statement to the tree, add texture and interest and make the tree memorable. They need not be traditional tree decorations at all: John Lewis have added neon light-up shapes to their Pop Art tree and deer & pheasant statues to their Bloomsbury showstopper.
And, last but by no means least, the unique family decorations should always be showcased at eye-line on the tree. Christmas is time of nostalgia and ritual, and the return of these special children-created or family-selected decorations is an important part of the shared experience. You needn’t use all of these decorations each year; pick the ones that match this year’s theme and save the others for a future celebration.
Pro Tip: Place sparkly ornaments near your tree lights and angle the light to catch the ornament and make it really glisten.
Now we’re getting really fancy! For that Country Living Front Cover tree, we need to add some final accents in the form of picks or sprays.
Picks come in a multitude of different forms; from decorated branches, floral picks, berries, pine cones or even feathers. They can be natural items you’ve found in the garden or items selected for an extra pop of colour or texture.
John Lewis suggest approximately 8-12 sprays will do nicely for a 7ft tree. Simply tuck them into the tree branches, securing with clips or florist tape if they need a little help to stay secure.
Skirting the subject
And so the tree is finished! There’s just time to do a final sweep or vacuum of the floor before you add the tree skirt.
This final flourish gives balance to the tree and ensures that any structural support in place is concealed, and indeed protected before the gifts arrive. Chose a tree skirt that compliments your colour scheme and adds one final luxurious texture to the overall finished look.
Now stand back and admire your professional tree. And make sure you get a few Zoom calls in the diary so you can enjoy the oohs and aahs as the video goes live.
For more Christmas decorating inspiration, click here.