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: