Thursday, December 03, 2009

How to decorate a tree

Christmas tree 2008

I've been called a lot of things in my life, but this one I will gladly agree to, I am a Christmas Tree expert. It began in my formative years of running through the Fullner Christmas Tree Farm and continued through my years as a visual manager at Nordstrom, and I retired to just doing my own home after doing a few tours of decorating celebrity trees including Richard Simmons.

1.) Start with the tree.

Real or fake? I fall on the side of real. I'm not going to judge you for choosing fake. Okay, I'm going to judge you a little bit.If you have to have fake, don't get the fake tree that goes up and down like an umbrella. Don't commit my mother's sin, don't leave the ornaments on year after year and just store the tree in a plastic bag. There, I called out my own mother. (In fairness to her this was well after all her children had moved out and I stopped being there to decorate for her.)
Most importantly is to get the tree you want. No right or wrong answer there. Some like a Noble Fir with the perfect plateaus for ornament dangle, some like a Douglas Fir that I call a "triangle tree". What matters most is you like it.

You want to get a tree that fits where you are putting it. Measure your space and make sure you get a tree at least one foot shorter than your ceiling height. The stand adds some height and then there is that tree topper. Don't make the mistake my family made on year. We couldn't quite reach the top of the tree so my dad pulled the top over to one side and placed the glass tree topper on it then released the tree, flinging the glass topper against the ceiling and shattering it.

You can't get a tree that is too wide. Push it up against the wall. Trim the branches in the back. Bigger is better. Why are you getting a tree at all if you don't want it to take over your house?

To flock or not to flock? My parents never flocked our tree. My grandparents often flocked their tree. I'm more of a traditionalist and lean towards the non-flocking. I think it shows off the ornaments best. Lyle comes from the hearty northern land and wants to remember snowy Christmases past (while wearing shorts and flip flops), he leans towards the flocked tree.

Flocking is good for that "designer" look of decorating. An all white tree with just one or two colors of ornaments. Non flocked trees evoke that Bing Crosby ideal of having the whole family gathered around a tree with popcorn and cranberries on a garland, singing carols.

2.) Lights! Camera! Action! But mostly LIGHTS.

You get to choose multi color versus single color. There are more advanced combinations but let's begin with the basics. I say you can't go wrong with plain white twinkle lights. I think the plain white show off the ornaments more.
There are also C7 and C9 lights available. You know them as the big lights that go inside and the bigger lights that go outside. Again, those are more advanced combinations.

If I could pass along only ONE TIP for lighting your tree this would be it: CUT OFF THE PAPER TAGS ON BOTH ENDS OF THE LIGHT STRING. Do this when you take them out of the box. Sit at your table with scissors and cut all three tags. Two near the plug in end, one at the other end. They are too hard to tear off and this is why people give up and just leave them on. CUT THEM OFF WITH SCISSORS. Don't cut the cord.

Test each string of lights BEFORE you put them on the tree. Plug it in, give it a shake. You'll thank me later.

How many light strings will you need? As a general rule I think one string of 100 lights for each foot of the tree. 6 foot tree = 6 strings or 600 lights. You use less near the top and more near the bottom so it evens out. If I'm being truly honest, I will tell you that for my own purposes I have 2000 lights on a 10 foot tree. But then again, one year Richard Simmons had to install a dimmer switch on his tree because it was too bright and was overheating the upstairs of the house.
Red & White lights of Christmases past...

It's good to have two extra strings of lights ready when you start. You won't have to s-t-r-e-t-c-h that last string and you won't have to panic when one string goes out suddenly. Target and Rite-Aid often have sales on their lights. Watch the flyers and get them for cheap.

My technique for lighting the tree is a little hard to write out, but it basically involves wrapping the lights out a branch from the trunk of the tree, then back down the branch, moving over to the next branch and repeating. This gives you good depth by spreading the lights throughout the inside of the tree but can be a bit overwhelming. For beginners,start at the top of the tree and wrap your lights down in a spiral, giving coverage to the inside of the tree and the outside. Wrapping the light string helps to hold it close and hidden against the branch. Layer between branches so tree holds this secret electricity contraption that magically illuminates your tree.

6 strings! No more!

If they are the (now) standard 50 , 100, 150, mini-lights, they use a 3A fuse and you COULD use a MAXIMUM of about 750 lights if they are strung together from one string (end to end plugs) before blowing the fuse built into the plug of the first light set. If you plug them into separate outlets (or into an outlet-strip), then you could light about 3750 lights on a (otherwise unused) 15 A household circuit.

I never chance it. I stop at 6 strings and make my way to the power strip at the base of the tree. Drop your cord in by the tree trunk and no one will see it.

If you are going to flock your tree, light it first and let the flock hide all ills. You'll never get enough lights on on top of the "snow".

While you are decorating, you may notice obvious or stray cords, tuck them in, wire them down, hang an ornament in front of it, no one is going to notice those cords after all the decorations go on it.

3.) Ornamentation

When I was 8 my mother came up with a new tradition, each of us kids got a special ornament to put on the tree. When you grew up and left home, you would get to take your ornaments with you. As the years progressed I've added writing the name and the year on each ornament. And I try to buy an ornament when I travel to special locations.

This has led me to have special "collections" of ornaments. The nutcrackers, the dog ornaments, international travel, moose, snowman... okay, they're all special.

First ornaments on the tree plain cheap ornaments of various sizes that get hung inside the tree. This adds depth. The tree is divided into thirds with large, medium and small ornaments placed in the bottom, middle and top respectively. Since I have dogs, there is a special collection of plastic, metal and noisy bell ornaments that goes around the bottom third of the tree. From any room in the house I can hear a bell ring on the tree and shout, "GET AWAY FROM THE TREE!!!"

The top of the tree has smaller ornaments and some "featured" ornaments. This is where the space is most open and you can really see the ornaments.

The middle is a wonderland of memories with all sorts of shapes and colors.

Psst..... here's a secret tip, the back of the tree is where I hide all the ornaments that aren't as showy as I'd like but I just love them and cant let them go. Basically its the "Island of Misfit Ornaments" side of the tree.

I try to group the ornaments. Three white snow globes over here, three Santas over here, Lola ornaments from here to here, Eiffel Towers down the center... Threes. Think in threes.

Christmas Tree 2007

Ribbon is a great filler. Check in at Michael's or Jo-Ann Fabrics and Craft Centers. They often have a 2 for 1 sale. You can make a giant ribbon bow for the top of your tree and then do a maypole effect spiraling down from the top. Or you can use ribbon to replace the look of a garland of popcorn on a string. Put your ribbon on before the ornaments as it should be a background element and not the foreground.

Buy ornament hooks. For $1.50 for 75 hooks, they make a world of difference on getting the ornaments exactly where you want them. They also help you secure the ornament to stay exactly where you want it. You can also place the hook back in the tree and draw the ornament out along the branch to give it placement. Heavy ornaments can sometimes pull a branch down, use an additional ornament hook to hold the lower branch to a stronger branch above.

Christmas Tree 2009

Now you are ready. Remember, cut off light tags, use ornament hooks, and here's a final tip I tell myself every year, it's just a tree and it's just here for one month. ENJOY YOURSELF.


Christina said...

you are the reason all of my light tags are cordless.... I learned that tidbit from you years ago...

We did the best we could with our tree this year - the 2 year old forced us to have shatterproof ones, thank goodness - she shoved the bottom 2 feet of tree full of 'em. :)

Happy Holidays to both of you.

The T-Dude said...

I'm with you...real tree, no flocking. I mean seriously, you go pick out a tree, it's a family event. You don't get the kids around the box and say, "Let's assemble the tree! Weeee!"

Carolyn said...

If it were up to me, the tree fairy would come in the middle of the night and put up my tree and decorate it and then put all the storage boxes away. I do not consider tree decorating fun, although I do try to pretend for my kid's sake. Alcohol helps...

Stephen said...

Thanks for the expert advice.
Our best tree was a giant tumbleweed found in the eastern Washington high dessert. We put tiny white lights on it.

We once decortaed our tree with photos of the 2 of us as kids & they attached to the branches with cloths pins.

Lat yeaer we put a huge tree outside of our biggest window in the back garden. It stayed fresh well into January. We did tiny blue lights & when it snowed it was magical to look at.

jason said...

I'm with you...or was...about the non flocking...until I saw your very own flocked tree in 2009.
So completely beautiful!

Michael Guy said...

I always start out with an idea of how I want things to look, color-wise, theme...

Then I spend half the season with 'tree regret' because I didn't do this or that... It's HELL being creative sometimes.

This was all very helpful! YOU need your own HGTV show!

Rachel said...

Something I learned this year is that if you don't have enough ornaments to cover your tree then hang the Christmas cards you receive on the tree as well.

Frontier Psychiatrist said...

I had never heard of flocking before. At first I wasn't sure--seems kind of like halfway between a real tree and a fake tree. But the picture of your tree has won me over.