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O Christmas Tree, How to Decorate your Christmas Tree

Michelle Jackson has studied art and interior design since 1983. She attended design school and has worked as an artist/visual artist.

Tree Inspiration

Christmas time is almost here and if you are anything like me you are already thinking about your Christmas tree. Many of you dread the holiday decorating. In our home we have a tradition of decorating the tree Thanksgiving day (usually in the afternoon) while watching Christmas Movies. This tradition always allowed everyone to help in the decorating and as the saying goes “many hands make light work”. While I will admit that my ‘affinity for elf culture” is useful in holiday decorating. The truth is anyone can have a spectacular Christmas tree on any budget. Today I am going to break down some tips and tricks to get your tree to the next level and get you through the “Happy Holidays”.

We have all been somewhere during the holidays and seen a tree that excites us. Now with the miracle of the internet you can have thousands of inspiration trees at your fingertips. This is the time to be ambitious, to push your creativity. Money is not what stands between you and a great tree. Some of my best trees were in years when I could barely afford gifts. Hopefully in this article you will see something that gives you an idea.

Theme Tree: Blessed from 2019

Theme Tree: Blessed from 2019


Flocking the tree can be done either before you put anything on it, or after everything is on the tree. If you flock the tree before you decorate it would be to almost cover the tree in flock. I recommend leaving the tree over night to dry before you continue decorating. The flock will still flake off but it won’t stick to your arms and hands like it will if you decorate it wet. In my mind it is sacrilegious to flock a live tree. At that point just get a fake tree. I prefer to lightly flock the tree after everything is on it so it looks like the snow came through and lightly dusted the tree.

Tinsel is a no, no. The original idea behind tinsel was to reflect the lights of the tree to make it appear that there were more lights. During my formative years my father covered the tree in so much tinsel that it looked like a tinsel beast with glowing eyes. There might be a childhood nightmare in there somewhere. The 1950’s way of distributing tinsel is to put it a few strands at the end of the branches. The 50’s method allows the tree to show and still gives off the reflection of the lights. Please do not use tinsel to fill in open spaces on the tree. Doing so will make it look like the tinsel bird has come to nest. I have a package of tinsel unopened, every year I get it out, look at it, laugh, and then put it away.

Lighting the Tree

Pre-lit artificial trees are common these days. While many of you will be heading into the woods to cut down a tree, most of us will be un-bagging a tree from storage. I always work in odd numbers so I have three types of lights that I put on my tree. We have the standard white lights that came with the tree, two strands of round bulb lights, and fairy lights. Together these three types of lights create dimension. Basically think three different sizes of light. If you use colored lights on your tree, consider using a strand of the older larger bulb lights to add dimension. Play with combinations of lights until you like the result. If you have a pre-lit tree and not a lot of money, hit the thrift store and look for just a few strands of another type of light (don’t forget to test them before you pay).

Tree of Vintage Christmas Ornaments

Tree of Vintage Christmas Ornaments

Three Color Tree

Your tree decoration should work just like your house decoration using the 60/30/10 rule. The 60/30/10 rule is that 60% main color, 30% secondary color, and 10% accent color. Choose your three colors before you decorate the tree. If you are on a tight budget, get out the decorations you have and separate them by color including the metals. This also includes your ribbon and any natural elements you wish to use. When you separate by color it helps you to choose more carefully the colors. It also inspires new color combinations for your tree. If you have a mesh-mosh of items that don’t go together, still separate them because I’m going to give you a couple of ideas for inexpensive ornaments.

Spirit of Christmas tree 2018 (I removed the bear sign it wasn't working for me)

Spirit of Christmas tree 2018 (I removed the bear sign it wasn't working for me)


Every tree I’ve done in the last ten years has started with three large items. What am I talking about? The first year I put Nutcrackers in my tree by simply tying ribbon around them and using them as ornaments. Some of these nutcrackers were two feet tall. Those large ones I placed carefully in a triangle pattern to give a bigger impact on the tree. One year I did the same thing with my snowmen collection. Last year I had three large brown paper mache deer that I put on the tree, again just tying ribbon around the necks. These were $1 each at a thrift store. The cool thing about using random Christmas items on your tree is that you get a bigger impact. I also went into my yard and got all my metal stars and painted them and put those on the tree. You can even use tree toppers like angels as ornaments. Remember to use them in odd numbers. Here is the list of ideas I have for larger items to place on your tree:

  • Nutcrackers
  • Snowmen
  • Buckets
  • Lanterns
  • Dolls
  • Stuffed animals (I like bears, but you can use anything you have an odd number of)
  • Fruit (real, fake or sparkly fruit, people use to use orange slices)
  • Toy trucks
  • Photo frames (think oval dollar store frames with family or Christmas pictures)
  • Boots (how fun is this idea, stick some poinsettia coming out of it)
  • Christmas tins
  • Mason Jars
  • Metal signs (advertising?)
  • Tree branches
  • Dried flowers
  • Large plastic dollar store items like flamingos, Butterflies, Birds (these can also be spray painted)
  • Origami (folded paper of snowflakes)
  • Cardboard ornaments (use the corrugated side)
  • Wrapped boxes (I to this on my front porch but it would be cute on a tree)
  • Cut shapes out of used plastic bottles (recycling is always good)

Glitter is an inexpensive way to glam any ornament. I recently picked up some large dollar store ornaments and put glitter on them, the result was amazing. You can also spray paint anything you want to put on the tree to change the color. If you are a more modern person, you can pick up things like pine cones or Nutcrackers and spray paint them all one color to get a more modern look.

You get the idea, go big! Look around your house and see what you have a lot of, maybe you collect something that could be put on the tree. Don’t forget to stay in your 60/30/10 color scheme. A friend of mine use to do for walks out in the desert with her dog. Over a year she collected all kinds of rusty junk from the desert and eventually put it all on her Christmas tree. I know what you are thinking… that is crazy. It looked amazing when she was done. I think she even had an old muffler on that tree.

There are many schools of thought on ornament placement. If you are staying within your three color scheme then place your ornaments on the tree one color at a time. Just like with the ribbon, back up and look at your tree to make sure you are not color heavy in any one part of the tree. Some designers like to group ornaments in threes for impact. Grouping ornaments works if you have a lot of the same ornaments. An example would be silver ball ornaments; if you have a lot of them you can place them in groups of three randomly around the tree. Grouping doesn’t look good when you use character ornaments.

Let it snow Tree 2011 Red, white, and Teal

Let it snow Tree 2011 Red, white, and Teal

Nature vs. Saving Nature

One of the things I hate about having a fake tree, is that it’s fake. I’m morally opposed to intentionally killing trees. That said, I’m not opposed to collecting dead limbs, acorns or pine cones to put on my tree. These items are free in most cases. If you don’t have a forest close, find a neighbor who has a pine tree. They shed pine cones and most people don’t like having to pick them up. Make sure you put your pine cones in the oven to bake for a while to kill any critters in them.

Ribbons and Garland

I have a love hate relationship with ribbon on Christmas trees. Too often the ribbon looks like it is either an afterthought or a ribbon snake trying to eat the tree. Most trees do not need ribbon. If you are a ribbon tree person then make sure that the ribbon adds something to the look of your tree. Ribbon should add color, dimension or both. The other good use for ribbon is to hide bare spots in older tress. NEVER PAY FULL PRICE FOR RIBBON. Use your craft store online coupons and buy them one at a time. Obviously any ribbon can be used on a tree. The popular ribbon I’m seeing this year is a red and white candy stripe. Keep in mind that your ribbon should fit into your color scheme.

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Types of ribbon/garland:

  • Satin
  • Jute (same material as coffee bags)
  • Tulle (the stuff used for wedding décor)
  • Grosgrain Ribbon (this is the ribbed ribbon)
  • Leather (eh, it’s a thought)
  • Paper
  • Wire (looks like chicken wire)
  • Beaded
  • Tinsel garland

There are many things that you can use as ribbon. Tulle is not just for wedding veils anymore. Tulle allows light to come through and it comes in every color you can imagine. Tulle is also great for making a tree look fuller. If you are trying to cover the trees imperfections, consider a wide green tulle that will blend in with your tree. White tulle can create a snowy effect in your tree. Pastel color tulles are reminiscent of the Nutcracker ballet or Victorian design.

Jute is another great ribbon to consider. Using jute became popular when people started repurposing coffee bags into décor items. This country looking ribbon is perfect as a neutral to balance out tree colors. A few theme trees that would use jute are; farmhouse, northwest woods, or country. Now jute comes in many colors and sizes.

Ribbon should be put on the tree in a pattern. It will take two spools of ribbon to cover most trees. Ribbon goes on the tree right after the lights. There are a few patterns you can use to put ribbon on the tree; spiral, cascade, tuck, and edging.

  • Spiral: The most common way to add ribbon is to spiral the ribbon around the tree starting at the top.
  • Cascade: You can also find the center point of the two ribbons, and attach those center points to the top of the tree, then cascade the ribbon down the tree, tucking it in at equal intervals.
  • Tuck: The last option is to randomly tuck the ribbon into the tree around the tree. The last option takes more ribbon, probably twice as much as the previous two examples.
  • Edging is when you wire the ribbon to the edges of the tree instead of tucking it. This requires discipline because it has to be done symmetrical to look right.

Once you have completed the ribbon, back up and look at the tree. Make sure your ribbon has an even coverage. Also make sure you like it. You might choose one way to go and end up doing it completely different. I’ve never seen anyone cascade beaded or tinsel garland and it might be fun to try. You can also mix these, one year I used beaded and ribbon running them together around the tree. There are lot of options!

Dollar store "Merry Christmas" signs

Dollar store "Merry Christmas" signs

Tree Topper

Tree toppers can be expensive unless you acquire them secondhand. I made an angel from scrap fabric and used it as a tree topper for the first tree I ever decorated. I still have her. The first year I was married I bought a Santa head for $2 at the craft store and glue gunned together a Santa for the top of our tree. Last year I used a metal star from our yard. Just like with the ornaments you are only limited by imagination. Here is a list of possible toppers for your tree:

  • Star
  • Angel
  • Santa
  • Floral décor such as tinge, ribbon, twigs, feathers etc,)
  • Nutcracker
  • Doll
  • Stuffed animal
  • Metal objects (like yard butterflies)
  • Hat (top hat, baseball, victorian hat)
  • Snowman

Don’t spend a lot of money, just find something you like.

Rookie Mistakes

Social media has been around for a long time. Every year I see friends post up pictures of their trees. Regardless of if they sat down and had a careful color scheme or not, I’ve never seen a tree I didn’t like. Most Christmas trees are lovingly assembled with children who put ornaments on them in a drunken sailor pattern even though you tell them to spread them out. Those are the best trees, the trees that make memories. Our first family tree started a tradition of making paper snowflakes. It’s our family memories that really matter. Take pictures of your children grouping ornaments, laugh when they run ribbon all over the tree in a zig zag and then tell you they love it. Then leave that tree in it’s perfect mess because, these times only last so long.

If you are still trying to achieve a magazine cover tree try to avoid these rookie mistakes:

  1. Too few ornaments (it shouldn’t look like you are afraid of ornaments)
  2. Too many ornaments (does it look like you robbed a store?)
  3. Conflicting themes (the everything tree that has everything on it)
  4. Too much of one color (this could be any color, even white can weight your tree)
  5. Too many dark colors (please don’t use a lot of black, Halloween is over)
  6. Trying to be too perfect. Have fun! It’s Christmas!

Final Touches

You get the tree done and something is just off. Maybe there is too much of one color or too many ornaments. Stand back and look. Is your tree missing something? I find my trees tend to have too many natural elements and I often have to balance that with something that has a sparkle. Last year I used chandelier crystals to balance it my tree. You might find that you have too much of one color and can break it up with a little flock. Don't be afraid to make changes last minute. Have a very Merry Christmas!!

© 2020 MD Jackson MSIOP


Lakshmi from Chennai on November 19, 2020:

Hi,its really fun to getting ready for the festival

Liz Westwood from UK on November 19, 2020:

This is a very timely article. One or two trees in houses in the UK have already gone up. Most wait at least until December. You give some good tips.

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