How To Decorate a Christmas Tree: A Step-by-Step Guide

A step-by-step guide to your most festive tree ever.

While the idea of decorating your Christmas tree may bring feelings of merriment and excitement, the actual task can be pretty daunting and can feel a bit overwhelming. From picking your Christmas tree, whether it be real or artificial, flocked or not flocked, all the way to topping the tree with your favorite adornment, every step of the process is equally important. To make this process a little less daunting and a little more dashing, we have put together a complete step-by-step guide on how to decorate your Christmas tree.

Christmas Tree Farm
Getty Images / Douglas Sacha

How to Pick a Christmas Tree

Your tree sets the tone for its decorations, so be sure to choose one that suits your personal style: Real or artificial? Flocked or plain? Green or pink? Scale matters, too: A teeny tabletop tree may be better suited for a small apartment, while a grand living room can play host to an equally grand tree. Should you opt for a larger tree, be sure to keep height in mind: There should be at least six inches of space between the top of the tree and the ceiling—more if you're planning to include a razzle-dazzle topper.

Christmas Tree Decorating Ideas
If you have small kids, we suggest a tabletop tree to keep fragile ornaments and alluring packages out of reach. A wide burlap ribbon festoons this tree, cascading down the branches with casual elegance. Photo: Laurey W. Glenn

Choose the Best Base for Your Christmas Tree

While we'll always love a classic tree skirt, there are plenty of ways to get creative with your tree stand. A Chippendale planter will give your Christmas scape a shot of preppy, Palm Beach flair, while a woven basket will ground the decor in no-fuss, traditional vibes. You can get especially creative with smaller tabletop trees: Think painted pots, galvanized buckets, and burlap bags tied up in ribbon.

Couple Stringing Lights on Christmas Tree
JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images

How to String Lights on a Christmas Tree

While tinsel or flocked trees don't necessarily need lights to make a statement, big green trees can almost always benefit from strands of lights. Lights add depth, plus they keep ornaments from disappearing into the shadows. White lights win on a traditionalist's tree, while multi-colored lights amp up the fun, retro vibes.

If you're struggling to determine just how many boxes of lights to buy, a good rule of thumb is 100 lights per foot (a seven-foot tree, for example, would need 700 lights). As for actually stringing the lights on the tree, there are a couple of different camps you can be in: Some swear by hanging them vertically, while others stick to the old-school bottom-to-top approach. If you hang your lights in a base-to-topper spiral, take care to pull the lights out to the edge of the branches in some places, and tuck them back into the tree in others, in order to give the tree depth and texture.

One final tip: Plug the lights in before you start stringing. This will identify any dead spots before you begin, plus it'll be easier to see your progress as you go; every few minutes, take a couple of steps back to make sure your lights are twinkling everywhere you want them to.

Blue Christmas
Many of us love to decorate with blue, so why not incorporate it into a holiday palette? "The gorgeous shade of this wallpaper (Jute Grasscloth in Dungaree by Twenty2; twenty2.net) inspired this shimmery tree," says Lindsey. "To offset the rich colors with plenty of sparkle, I piled on the silver—glass ornaments, disco ball-esque garlands, and a quirky topper." Get this look. . Photo: Laurey W. Glenn

How to Put Garland on a Christmas Tree

As with lights (and perhaps even more so), the garland is purely a matter of preference. If you're going all-out with lights or ornaments, garland may carry your tree into too-much-of-a-good-thing land…or not. But if you opt for garland, there are a number of different options to choose from, from old-fashioned popcorn and cranberries to something a little more newfangled. Wired ribbon makes an especially easy and effective garland: It's how The Greenbrier's Director of Social Activities Betsy Conte manages to deck each of the hotel's 75 trees in just 20 minutes (she uses 10-inch thick ribbon and recommends going easy on decorations on the wall-facing side of the tree to save time and resources).

If you're looking for a more natural look, try burlap ribbon or shell swag; for something more playful and kid-friendly, try felt pom poms. Whichever you choose, be sure to trim the tree in garland after the lights and before the ornaments. Then, you can tuck the ornaments in and around the garland for a full, layered look.

Load on the Trimmings
For a glamorous, eye-catching tree that's as fabulous as you are, load up the evergreen with sparkling ornaments. We love the glitzy combination of turquoise blue, warm cranberry, and radiant silver on the tree pictured above. Use several different-shaped ornaments in coordinating shades for layers of charm. And make sure every ornament sparkles so that your tree lights up the season. Find the glitziest beads you can – we used silver mica foam balls – and string them together with a needle and monofilament, or fishing line. Wrap white Christmas lights around your tree, and allow your sparkling ornaments to reflect the radiant holiday light. This stunning holiday tree design idea will make you smile every time you come home. Photo: Laurey W. Glenn

Deck the Halls with Christmas Tree Balls

Simple Christmas ball ornaments are an inexpensive way to fill out your tree and rev up the color. Choose globes in a variety of sizes to give the tree texture and dimension, but stick to just two or three colors (or ombré shades of just one hue) in order to make this first layer of ornaments feel like a cohesive base for the rest of your more colorful ornaments. If you're more of a traditionalist (red only!), hanging ball ornaments in different finishes (think glossy or matte), but the same color, also makes for a more interesting tree without introducing competing hues.

Personalized Gingerbread House Ornament

Add Personality with Ornaments

Macaroni-noodle wreaths, hand-me-down Santas, a porcelain bride-and-groom for "Our First Christmas"—it wouldn't be the holidays without the nostalgic ornaments you've collected over the years. While they may not be the most beautiful, and though they don't necessarily go with your chosen color scheme, these are the ornaments that make your tree your tree. We say, "Hang them with reckless abandon!"

Now, if you just can't bear to clunk up your otherwise attractive tree with a motley assemblage of ornaments (and we understand this too), it's still fun to layer in unique ornaments that give your tree a little more character and personality. Choose a theme, and decorate accordingly…Hummingbirds and butterflies anyone?

Suspend the Tree Topper
Add an unexpected detail to a monochromatic Christmas tree by hanging your tree topper from the ceiling. First, choose a shape that plays off your Christmas ornaments, as this round paper lantern mirrors the round ornaments on the tree. Attach a ceiling hook right above your tree's tallest point. Float the lantern by hanging it from a bow attached to the hook. For added impact, attach cascading ribbon or garland from the bottom of your hanging tree topper. This modern Christmas tree decoration idea makes a big impact without appearing over-decorated or tired, and will stand out among the rest in creativity and originality. See the rest of this tree. Laurey W. Glenn

Top It Off with a Unique Christmas Tree Topper

Finally, crown your glorious Tannenbaum with your preferred topper: Go glitzy with a shining star; think traditional with a sweet angel; or design-minded with a big bow made of wired ribbon. Or try hanging your tree topper from the ceiling, like the one shown above. (And if you think of any other dynamite topper ideas, let us know. We're always on the lookout.)

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