The Perfectionist’s Guide to Christmas Trees

Okay, sure:  this post is a bit late.  It’s not too late, though.  The tree yet darkens lightens the living room corner, mocking me with its warm glow and winking twinkle lightbulbs (just two, we’ll get to the rules on those later).  Each year holds the same month-long ritual, ending with the take-the-tree-down-avoidance dance of the new year.

This post is intended to be humorous, sure, but make no mistake.  I am serious about every step.  Strict adherence is strongly encouraged and perhaps direly needed, for American culture is shedding its tree-trimming skills at an alarming rate.

In other words, the older I get, the worse everyone else’s tree becomes.  So, perhaps you are here because you are a regular reader.  Perhaps you actually googled for tips on decorating Christmas trees.  Perhaps you are an insomniac with nothing better to do.  Whatever the case, welcome to The Land of the Perfect Christmas Tree.  It is a frustrating place.

Step One:  Get The Tree.

Sounds easy, no?  Well, maybe.  If your idea of getting the tree involves a trip to the attic, basement or garage, stop!  Or, rather, go ahead and grab the dang thing and chuck it to the curb.  Ugh.

Over the years, artifical trees have gained popularity.  With preset lights, no needles, and multi-year use, these plastic creations are convenient and cost-saving.  Alas, I’m pretty sure they also make Santa cry.

No artificial tree exudes Christmas spirit like a real one.  A real tree dominates the living area with an overpowering presence that cries out, look at me! and leave presents!  An artificial tree sits demurely in the corner, unable to outshine even the light-up robotic snowman you got on clearance at Big Lots last January.

The details are the artificial tree’s undoing.  They are usually too small.  One cannot decorate the artifical tree’s inner branches (this creates depth, see the ornament step below).  One cannot properly light it.  One cannot even hang the bigger ornaments without unsightly “branch bump” (this occurs when an ornament leans on the surrounding branches instead of hanging freely).  Also, they are probably made in China, and real trees are all-American (just ask Mr. G).

And I don’t wanna hear any comments about clean-up.  You don’t have to vacuum much more than normal.  Those pine needles are less dirty than all the human and/or pet dander with which we normally live.  Trust me:  when your sparkling work of art is finished, you won’t notice the needles on the floor.

Have you thrown that plastic tree out?  Good.  Now, when you are wandering the rows upon rows of fresh Christmas trees in the brisk outdoors, it’s easy to lose a sense of height.  Here’s a rule of thumb for tree size:  better too big than too small, as long as you own a decent saw.  Admittedly, when you drag that tree indoors and try to right it, the subsequent gouging of ceiling paint is a pain, but the alternative is worse:  being unimpressed by your tree.  Nobody likes it when something’s too small.

Step Two:  Standing The Tree

When I was a kid, my parents used a massive metal stand with gigantic screws that twist into the trunk until tight.  That thing was heavy duty–a real anchor.  Today, stands have shrunk in size and weight, making this step potentially tricky, especially if you are on your own because hubs is on the boat.  What is supposed to be a festive occasion can turn into a hot mess and a string of profanities if you can’t get the dang tree anchored straight, not that I know from personal experience or anything.

If you don’t have a good old-fashioned heavy stand available, I recommend the adjust-by-pedal type, like the Wonder Stand.  I’m not sure if my 11-year-old model is that brand, because it looks a bit different.  Anyway, the pedal eliminates the old routine my parents went through, which involved my dad anchoring the tree, viewing it from every angle possible, then getting my mom to hold the tree steady while he gets under it and repositions the screws slightly, then viewing it again from every angle, and re-adjusting, lather, rinse, repeat.

Now, all we have to do is anchor the tree, view it from every angle possible, get hubs to hold the tree steady while I get under it and adjust the pedal slightly (it is hard to manipulate by foot), then view it again from every angle, and re-adjust, lather, rinse, repeat.

Hmm, well.  At least the foot pedal is easier to adjust than the screws are.

Ooh, back up a minute.  I almost forgot.  Make sure that the tree seller saws off a bit of the trunk.  Then get it in a stand full of water asap.  If it sits outside overnight, you’ve got to cut it again, because the sap dries and seals the trunk so that it cannot drink water.  Your tree won’t last a week if the trunk is sealed.

Step Three:  Lighting The Tree

Do not, I repeat, do not string lights on the tree until it has stood overnight.  The branches need to lower and spread out.  If you don’t wait, you’ll have to do it over again.  Ask me how I know.

Now as to color:  multi is better, but all-white will do.  Non-white same-color strings are terrible, don’t use them.  Lights that blink or chase or change color along the entire string are right out.  Don’t even think about it.  The big, old fashioned bulbs bring a healthy dose of light to your tree, but they are too heavy and space-consuming.  The little bulbs are light and pretty, but not bright enough on their own.

You’ll need to use both.  String the large bulbs first. 

A modest tree (its tip is close to the ceiling, but it didn’t need cutting to fit) will take two strings of large bulbs and three strings of small bulbs.  A “whoops-I-didn’t-realize-it-was-that-big” tree will need three strings of each type.  Ban your tallest child to the back of the tree, so that he can hold the string when you go around for another pass.  Tell him to hush if he gets impatient back there; it’s character-building.  Ask me how I know.

I could write an entire post on light placement alone.  The hour is late, however, and I don’t want to try your patience.  Just put the larger bulbs slightly deeper in the tree, and allow enough space in between rows for the smaller bulb strings that follow.  Tuck as much wire out of sight as you can, and try to balance between inner and outer lighting.

If possible, buy a pack of twinkling bulbs, and add a few to your large bulb string for that little something extra.  Once the lights are done, stop for the day.  The newly-weighed-down branches will continue to settle.  If you don’t wait, you’ll have to move your ornaments later.

Step Four:  Garland or Ribbon

My dad used gold garland.  I prefer the wire-lined red ribbon available these days.  You’ll need at least three 5-yard rolls, preferably four.  Your eye for symmetry and the branches themselves will guide ribbon placement.  Make sure you’ve banned that child into the back corner again, for the handy hand-off.  Remember, it’s character-building.

Step Five:  Ornament Placement

By this time, your children have been clamouring for three days to decorate the tree.  Let them go crazy, with strict limitation.  Rule Numero Uno:  One ornament per branch.  They may not learn this rule until age 18, but tough.  This rule is strictly zero-tolerance:  move all offending ornaments immediately.

Rule Numero Dos:  Mom may move any ornament at any time.

Aesthetic considerations are more important than the children’s self-esteem.  Anyway, I often move my husband’s ornaments, and even my own.  As the tree gets filled, readjustment is necessary and natural.  Remember, “branch bump” is not allowed, no exceptions.

Each ornament’s placement is dependent upon key factors:  the ornament’s weight, the ornament’s size, the ornament’s beauty, and the ornament’s sentimental value.  In that order, with the beauty and value being interchangeable on a case-by-case basis.  The ornament’s weight is a variable factor, as the branches continue to lose strength.  Keep a sharp eye out for drooping branches.

Ornament hanging generally takes two to three days.  Towards the end, ban that big child to the back corner one more time, so that he may hang the plainer ornaments out-of-view.  Why hang ornaments in the back, you ask?  Well, they aren’t totally out-of-view, just mostly out-of-view.  At certain angles, they are at least kind of visible.

The same visibility theory applies to ornaments hung deep inside the tree.  They may be largely hidden, but peeks and glimmers within the tree create depth.  Moreover, the inside is the only place where branches are strong enough to hold all the ornaments relatives give you because they know you love ornaments but they have no idea which ones to buy.  (Buyer’s tip:  If it feels like a paper weight in your hand, it is too heavy for the branches of a real tree.)

Here’s a few more ornament rules:

There is no such thing as too many ornaments.

All ornaments should be bought on clearance after Christmas day, unless you are on holiday in a place you are not likely to return.

The cheap ornaments are more valuable, especially those little red ribbon bowties you bought for a dollar at the Dollar General when you were twenty years old.

Homemade ornaments are the most valuable and always hang in prominent places.

Ornament breakage is a necessary part of life when you are an impatient spaz like me.

All rules subject to change with experience.  Enjoy your tree.  If you do it right, it should look something like this:

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30 thoughts on “The Perfectionist’s Guide to Christmas Trees

  1. roxannadanna 3 January 2012 at 3:09 am Reply

    You are an artiste, Linda! Beautiful tree and lots of great (and funny) advice!

  2. Cheryl of Alexandria 3 January 2012 at 7:54 am Reply

    Lovely! I like the big/little bulb idea…we use like TEN strings of little lights, and it is never enough. Can I add another rule? No LED lights! My mom used them this year and all you can see are the insanely bright BLUE lights in the string of multi-colored ones.

    Hope you had a wonderful Christmas, my blog friend. I need to get to posting again.

    • nooneofanyimport 3 January 2012 at 10:13 am Reply

      Hmm. Maybe I don’t use enough lights. You can fit 10 strings on? I may be underlighting my tree. Perhaps I should be talking in yards, since some strings are longer than others, but I haven’t the foggiest what mine are anymore, lol.

      • Cheryl of Alexandria 3 January 2012 at 7:18 pm Reply

        Oh, no, your tree looks really pretty. I tend to wrap the branches with the lights–I mean, my husband does it and I tell him where he missed. (LOL I’m only kidding. I lose patience and try to make shortcuts and then neither one of us likes the result.) But I like putting the bigger lights inside, so I’m sharing that.

        It is impressive that your lights last from year to year!

    • Bob 3 January 2012 at 3:20 pm Reply

      LED lights make it look like you’re in the Twilight Zone.

  3. Always On Watch 3 January 2012 at 8:05 am Reply


    There is no such thing as too many ornaments.

    Amen to that!

    We used to put up a big tree. But now we don’t have the room to do so because of Mr. AOW’s hospital bed situated in the living room. Maybe 2012 will bring more improvement in his condition so that he can once again sleep in the master bedroom.

    But when we did have the big tree, so many of my ornaments were homemade and/or gifts from students. Nearly every ornament has a special memory for me! Sadly, most of the ornaments that my parents had are nowhere to be found now. **sigh**

    PS: Your tree is lovely.

  4. nooneofanyimport 3 January 2012 at 10:01 am Reply

    aw, thanks guys. I’ll remember about the LED lights; I’ve seen them in the stores and wondered. And for Mr. AOW, having the ability to sleep in your own bedroom would be a welcome change indeed. Prayers for it.

    I’m gonna edit my post slightly now. Upon reread, I realize it may sound like I don’t like the ornaments that relatives give me, but that’s not the case. They are just often too heavy!

  5. thatmrgguy 3 January 2012 at 8:16 pm Reply

    I hope that’s a Fraser Fir. ;) It looks like one. Beautiful tree and I love the way you decorated it.

    I always recommend the Fraser Fir, not only because we grow them, but because it really is the best all around tree. The most popular sizes, the 6/7 and 7/8 footers are comparable in price to the Douglas Fir and the Nobel Fir, both of which we also sold this year. Don’t get me wrong, any live tree is a better choice over a “made in China” plastic tree.

    Thanks for the link, by the way.

    Mike G.

  6. Yos / Si Vis Pacem 3 January 2012 at 8:28 pm Reply

    YES! Looks great.

    Step Six: TIM-BERRRRR!!!

    Cheers Lin!

  7. bunkerville 4 January 2012 at 3:17 pm Reply

    Lights? You mean those old fashioned ones so that when one burned out, they all went out? There are new ones? Heck, that would not be any fun:))

  8. Freedom, by the way 4 January 2012 at 4:34 pm Reply

    What a great tree! What a fun post! I’m with you on the artificial/live tree debate. Even when we lived in FL and cut trees cost a fortune we never gave in a bought an artificial tree. I’ll have a Charlie Brown tree before I’ll bring an artificial tree in my house.

    • nooneofanyimport 5 January 2012 at 12:18 pm Reply

      that’s right! The Charlie Brown tree will still look better than artificial, once decorated. Even a cedar sapling will do, lol.

  9. [...] you are a regular reader. Perhaps you actually googled for tips on decorating Christmas trees.Via nooneofanyimport.wordpress.com Posted in Chrismas [...]

  10. SDH 4 January 2012 at 7:53 pm Reply

    I almost don’t want to take our tree down. It’s been up since December 9th, and it’s only starting to shed needles now.

    I only use mini-lights, between 600-1000 depending on the diameter of the tree. I’d probably be right around 650-700 on the tree in the picture. I run the lights along the branches (all the way to the trunk) and keep them about 3-6″ from the tips to make it “glow”.

    The most important things are keep the stump damp, water 2-3 times daily for the first couple of days, and let the tree adjust overnight before decorating.

    I let the kids hang all the ornaments, save one. The Montreal Canadiens glass ball is always hung last and is the highest ornament on the tree, save the star on top.

    • nooneofanyimport 5 January 2012 at 12:22 pm Reply

      Ah ha! You too are a live tree aficionado. I love how you know how many lights you’d use on my tree. And I can tell that your preference for all mini lights will not be swayed by my use of both. You should email me a photo if you have one.

      best
      Linda

  11. mom 4 January 2012 at 9:45 pm Reply

    Loved your blog, Sweetie. Very funny. Except Dad’s garland was always silver. We left it off this year. So I could see the ornaments better. And yes I always believe there are never too many. But there is one kind of tree where you can actually line them up in a row on a branch. Now that is a bit much. When you get grandkids to help decorate it does go a lot quicker now,

    • nooneofanyimport 5 January 2012 at 12:28 pm Reply

      Hi mom! You know what, I thought about that later on . . . hey, it was not gold. How very sloppy of me, ha ha. It was definitely silver. And we always had to hang tinsel, one at a time! One at a time! Dad would frown and move offending tinsel strings.

      Do they even sell tinsel anymore, I wonder? That’s the one part of Dad’s tree ritual that I didn’t keep.

      love
      Lin

  12. mom 4 January 2012 at 10:10 pm Reply

    What else can I say? She learned from the best, her Dad :)

  13. SDH 5 January 2012 at 9:45 pm Reply

    I use this tinsel.

    They also have coloured tinsel.

    • SDH 5 January 2012 at 9:49 pm Reply

      Bad link Tinsel, I also have some of the tin stars, but I don’t use them.

      ..and Moms rule.

      • nooneofanyimport 6 January 2012 at 6:15 pm Reply

        LOL yes they do, SDH. yes they do. thx for the tinsel tip.

  14. heathermc 7 January 2012 at 8:46 pm Reply

    after Christmas, into a new year: I’ve discovered a completely lovely choir, from Britain. It consists of a group of military wives (and girlfriends), whose husbands are in Afghanistan. All the singers are amateur, and the choir was less than a year old when it performed for the Queen at the Royal Albert Hall on November 12. The choir master is Gareth Malone, who believes in the healing power of singing. Also, the disc has been at the top of the charts in Britain.
    there are a couple of videos at youtube, one at the Royal Albert Hall, etc. This one, however, is the ‘official’ one, and it so splendid!

  15. heathermc 7 January 2012 at 8:47 pm Reply

    Also, the lyrics are derived from letters written by the wives and their husbands. The soloist is Sam Stevenson.

  16. Quite Rightly 8 January 2012 at 4:50 pm Reply

    Gorgeous tree. Here it is past Epiphany and I still can’t bear to take ours down.

  17. edge of the sandbox 8 January 2012 at 5:32 pm Reply

    Beautiful tree. My understanding is that in the US multicolor Christmas lights are a relatively new invention, at least as far as outside decorations go. DH said when he was growing up in San Fernando Valley, Christians had red white and green lights, and Jews had blue and white. Then everything went to hell in the 90s.

    • nooneofanyimport 8 January 2012 at 6:01 pm Reply

      LOL Missy S, re the 90s. In the 1970′s and 80′s, the suburbs of Nashville TN had multicolored, alright. Also all white, or even some free thinkers who did all blue, all green or all red. Outside decorating was fewer and further between, and the big difference was no outdoor mini lights–they were all big bulb if I remember correctly.

      I don’t recall a division between color schemes, split by religious affiliation. Then again, I also don’t recall meeting a Jewish person during my entire childhood, although I’m sure some must have been there.

      Thanks for the tree compliments, ladies.

  18. Planet Moron 22 January 2012 at 12:17 pm Reply

    I ran blue and white lights in 2005 the year Penn State got a major bowl bid, but then my neighbors are accustomed to my changing the outside light color themes every year.

    And I would like to defend LED lights. There are harsh blueish white ones, which I think aren’t bad for outside, but they also make warm white ones now. Aside from the electricity savings, my favorite thing about them is that you can string 15 and more end-to-end, which is usually way beyond the stated three-string max of most incandescents. I like not having to spend time with multiple extension cords or power strips or constantly having to home run the lines back to the outlet.

    Great post, and if you were late getting it up, I was even later reading it.

    • nooneofanyimport 22 January 2012 at 6:33 pm Reply

      Hi, Mr. Moron! Your readership and compliment humbles me. Now get to bed earlier tonight, kay?

      best
      Lin

  19. [...] Here’s this year’s tree, looking suspiciously like last year’s tree: [...]

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