My family tree is very well-decorated at this time of year. My mother-in-law has been known to spend up to a week on her Christmas tree’s lights alone, so that each branch sparkles to perfection, illuminating the house (and her father would go so far as to saw off and reattach tree limbs to create the ideal tree shape). My mother’s current job includes decorating a public building toured by hundreds of visitors during the holidays: Starting in July, she works with a team to pick a theme and create a winter wonderland with the help of local artists, school children, government agencies, and corporate sponsors.
These are some pretty big elf shoes to fill, and my current reality includes nowhere near the time, energy, or corporate sponsorship required to live up to this legacy. At this moment, my toddler son is sitting on my lap trying to “help” me type, and I am wearing workout clothes as an excuse for visibly needing to shower and not because I have exercised in the past month. I want my son’s Christmas memories to be full of wonder and beauty, but I could use a healthy portion of simplicity and rest this season. Although our tree may not be picture-perfect and polished, I have found it is possible to cook up a warm and enticing tree for my little family in just an afternoon without a team, a theme, or a recipe.
1. Select your tree. If you have a doctor’s note, a fake tree is acceptable. Otherwise, please show some respect for yourself and get the real deal. Choose the tree that speaks to you, bearing in mind that each variety has certain attributes and your options might depend on where you live:
- a silvery-green Noble Fir or a fragrant Balsam Fir from the Pacific Northwest
- a long-lasting Fraser Fir with its upturned branches, hailing mainly from North Carolina
- a fluffy, bluish Scotch Pine from the eastern United States
- Colorado's famed Blue Spruce, known for excellent needle retention
- the extra-large White Pine, grown in Maine and Michigan, is barely scented if the smell bugs you
- a common Douglas Fir with its dark green, soft branches, is shipped everywhere during the holidays
With the right trimmings, a scrawny, little Charlie Brown tree can hold just as much magic and majesty as an eighteen-foot Douglas fir. Don’t forget to buy a tree stand, if you don’t have one already.
2. Set the mood and get in the spirit(s). Preheat your Christmas playlist and fix a seasonal cocktail or cup of peppermint tea. Nothing reconnects me to childlike wonder as much as an adult beverage and Amy Grant’s A Christmas Album, but whatever your holiday tune of choice, this step becomes absolutely essential when you are attempting to set up and straighten the tree. In my experience, I need some music to drown out any foul words that slip out while wrestling with a sappy, nine-foot fir.
3. Choose a vibe. Although I am not advocating for themed trees or anything but good vibes, I think it is worth pausing to consider your general aesthetic before launching into decoration mode. Think of your tree like a recipe: What flavors do you want to highlight in the melting pot of collected ornaments? Do you want to cook up a natural and rustic, a vintage and nostalgic, a homespun and handmade, or a glam and glittering Christmas?
Whatever your desired style, the easiest way to start pinpointing how it will come together is to see what ornaments you have on hand. Set aside the must-use box, and then consider what could be added to those pieces to complete the intended vibe (ribbon bows? DIY garlands?). Poke around your house before proceeding.
4. Light it up! Whether you opt for colored or white, big glass bulbs or blinking LED, lights are an essential ingredient for Christmas tree magic. To add depth, wrap lights around and down each branch towards the center of the tree (the more individual twigs you wrap, the more vibrant the effect will be). Hanging the lights can be a tedious, scratchy job, so be sure to refill your cocktail during this step.
5. Choose a unifier. Yes, I made up the term “unifier” here, but if you look for it, this concept is in all of the best Christmas trees. A unifier is something that either wraps or is repeated throughout the tree, giving the tree a sense of unity, rhythm, and visual cohesion.
This can be as simple as several dozen pinecones hanging from twine, a collection of gold ball ornaments peppered throughout, or a thick red ribbon swirling around the tree. Stringing popcorn and cranberries creates delicious and classy effect, but if you are afraid of mice, I recommend looking for a knobby yarn out of which you can knot into your own faux-popcorn chain. When I was growing up, my mother draped a chunky strand of wooden, cranberry-colored beads in swags around our tree, and on my family’s tree, I hang my collection of monogrammed silver bells given to me each Christmas by my aunt (yes, I am from the South). Whatever your unifier, it can help support the overall vibe of the tree and adds just a teaspoon of intentionality and design.
6. Mix in the ornaments. If you have pets or little ones, remember to hang the breakable ornaments high and safely out of reach. Place some ornaments deeper within the branches to add texture and fullness, and the daintiest pieces on the most visible limbs.
The best ornament collections are built over a lifetime. I love the rush of joy that comes when I unwrap mine each year: the heart shaped ornament my husband gave me three years before he ever asked me out, the ornament a family friend made from our wedding invitation, the stained glass ornament we bought together one Christmas in Paris, the picture of my sister’s face glued into a disposable ashtray and decorated with glitter that we love to ridicule..
But if you are just starting your collection, there are ways to fill the tree without spending much money or rushing out to buy impersonal decorations. As long as you have a decent enough relationship with parents or older family members to avoid a drawn-out custody battle over ornaments, I recommend stealing back some of your favorite childhood ornaments. If you have young children, just wait: After just two weeks of school in the month of December, you will have ample reindeer made of clothespins, wreaths made of pom-poms, and angels made of doilies. If you don’t have children, start hanging out with your neighbor’s preschooler and you can copy his crafts. Tie ribbons around small toys or household objects like ribbon spools to fill in the gaps on your tree. Consider hosting a Christmas cocktail party and having each guest make an ornament for the tree. Then, make a New Year’s resolution to start building your ornament collection in 2016.
7. Garnish. Like all great ladies, a tree needs a hat. Buy or make a star or angel for a traditional topper, or simply tie a big red bow on the highest branch. With a little paper or fabric or wire, you can make a simple star to top your tree, or consider breaking with tradition and using a shiny gold paper crown or a cluster of flowers as a topper. A tree skirt , a quilt, or a few yards of fabric can hide the tree stand, or simply go ahead and start stacking the presents under your now magnificent tree.
I hope that when my son is grown he remembers his grandmothers’ breathtaking Christmas trees, but I also hope he appreciates the ragtag beauty of a tree that is slightly crooked, missed a branch with the lights, and occasionally used a paperclip to hang an ornament. I want him to know that, like our tree, it is better to be humble than perfect as long as you are surrounded by laughter, love, and the greatest holiday albums of the 80s and 90s. For me, that is enough this Christmas.