How to Decorate Your Christmas Tree Like a Professional

Ornaments or lights first? These experts have the answers

multiple white and chic christmas trees in front of decorated mantel

Elizaveta Starkova / Getty Images

The ghosts, goblins, and skeletons have been put into storage for next year, and store aisles have been turning red, green, and white for a while now. As the song says, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! Putting up a Christmas tree is a treasured tradition for many families, and yours might even have a tried-and-true method for decking the halls. Avoid frustration this year with a few helpful tips from expert decorators. 

Ana Isaza Carpio likes to enjoy the beauty of her tree for as long as possible. She puts it up just after Halloween has wrapped, but she doesn’t put on all the ornaments and accouterments right away. “ I just love seeing the simple tree with the twinkling lights,” she says. 

Meet the Expert

  • Ana Isaza Carpio is the founder of the blog Modern House Vibes and an Instagrammer.
  • Jacqueline Hempel is an interior decorator, founder, and content creator of the blog Finding Lovely.

A Forest of Trees

Carpio is a fan of using multiple artificial trees around her home to get into the holiday spirit. “This year, I got a new flocked tree for the living room and will use it for years to come,” she says. “Last year, I had a simple artificial tree that I still plan on using in the dining room. I also have smaller, snowy slim trees that I use around the faux fireplace. You can never have too many trees!”

Jacqueline Hempel goes with a real tree for her family. “For the last three years, we have driven a few hours north of Boston to cut down our tree in White Mountain National Park. You can purchase a Christmas tree permit from the park ranger for $5. It has turned into such a nice memory-making moment with our kids as we hike around and try to find the perfect one. So we usually do this the weekend before Thanksgiving or the weekend after.” 

She also decorates multiple trees each Christmas season, buying from a local farm to adorn her kids’ rooms and playroom. Not to mention all the artificial ones she keeps in the attic to put up in other rooms of her home, such as the master bedroom.  

So what is the best method for getting your tree, artificial or real, looking its best? First, scout out the best place for the tree to live. The tree will be a focal point for several weeks, minimum, and moving it once it’s completely trimmed is a dicey prospect. Find a spot where the tree will shine. 

“I place my tree right next to our sectional, which happens to be by the front window of the house,” Carpio says. “I love that you can see the tree when you look at the house at night with all the twinkling lights. Placing the tree in a spot where it can be a focal point and have plenty of space around it is key.”

Your home’s layout might dictate the general area where the tree will go up, but don’t be afraid to rearrange furniture if need be. Hempel puts her two living room accent chairs in the dining room so her family’s tree has room to show off. “We have an area in our family we affectionately call 'the window nook,' and that is where we put our tree. You can see it from the road, so it's the perfect 'welcome home' beacon every time we pull in our driveway.”

Fans of Fluffing

Next, don’t underestimate the force of the fluff. For your artificial tree, put the sections together according to instructions and let gravity do its thing, allowing the branches to settle. The process will be similar to a real tree since they're generally tied up with the branches pushed toward the top for transporting. 

“Fluffing the tree is such an important part, and I take my time doing it,” says Carpio. “I always start at the bottom of the tree and work my way up no matter what type of tree I have. I try to do each branch and take my time with it.” You might notice a blank spot later on, and if so, go ahead and fluff it then even if you have already added lights and ornaments. “Since the tree is always folded up, I try to push each branch down a bit so there’s a minimal gap between the tree collar and the bottom of the tree,” she says.

One thing to consider if you bring home a real tree is that its design will be less uniform than what you might see with an artificial tree. Don’t consider this a problem; work with it. “With the real trees we find on our hikes in the White Mountains, there are often gaps and varying branch sizes on the tree just as a result of nature,” Hempel says. “The irregularity of it is something I've really come to love. However, when we get the tree situated in the window nook, we find its best side and then hang the bigger ornaments in those gaps. They then feel purposeful, like mini stages where the branches part like a theater curtain to showcase ornaments that you really love. I try to use my big ones in these spots and ones I really love because they don't 'hide' or blend in but rather have a chance to shine.”

Both designers agree on the order of Christmas tree operations: Lights first—always. From there, the process depends on what you are using to decorate. Hempel has a mercury glass garland that she puts on next, always from the bottom up. After that, she artfully places her collection of vintage mercury glass ornaments. “I use ribbon for the bigger ones and wire hooks for the small ones so I can tuck them close to the branches. I then work my way into other colors and various styles,” she says.

Carpio’s main tree comes pre-lit, but whenever she is adding lights to her woodsy displays, she says one trick for creating a different kind of a glow is to mix smaller and larger light bulbs. If you plan to add garland or ribbon, she suggests putting those on after the lights and before the other tchotchkes. “Then continue with the largest ornaments and place those,” she says. “I make sure that I’m not leaving any gaps and swap ornaments around so they are all spread apart evenly. Then I add any medium-sized ornaments and the smallest ornaments at the end. I always take a couple of steps back in between to make sure it’s all filled evenly.”

End at the Top

Last, but definitely not least, add your tree topper, if you use one. Both designers go with a traditional star to cap off their looks, with Hempel sticking with a family favorite. “We have a rusty metal star that is easy to wire on,” she says. “I love how it feels simple and unique all at once.”

For Carpio, the final finishing touch for the family tree has become a tradition. She is a big fan of stars and has collected a number of varieties through the years. “Stars are just so classic yet you can find them in different styles,” she says. “The star always goes last and my husband has always placed it. It’s our little tradition and the icing on the cake!”

Once you have your tree exactly how you like it, you are going to want to keep it that way. That is no small feat if you have young children or pets running around the house. Taking a few preemptive steps can help avoid accidents that might put people in a Grinch-y mood. Carpio suggests taking a look at ornaments’ makeup when you buy. “Shatter-free ornaments are a must if you have pets (or children). That’s the only type of ornaments I use, along with felt and plush ornaments,” she says. “I also keep our dog’s bed away from the tree so his tail doesn’t hit the tree as he walks by.”

Once the kids are older and your furry friends have learned to leave the tree alone, you might be able to branch out into more delicate ornaments. However, you still can adjust things just to be on the safe side. “I was concerned when we got a puppy for Christmas, but she wasn't much interested in the tree,” says Hempel. “We cut the branches a bit higher, so there is less accessibility to the curious sniff—I avoid putting my favorite ornaments down low.”

Lighten the Mood

With real trees, you will want to be mindful of how long you leave the lights lit, especially as the branches dry out a bit over time. Make things easier on yourself by keeping the outlet as accessible as you can. “We invested in one of those extension cords with the step-on and off button. This makes turning the tree on and off a breeze,” Hempel says. “When I'm home it's always on but we usually turn it off if we are leaving the house.”

Carpio uses the tree as a mood booster when the weather gets gloomy, leaving the lights on all day to enhance the cozy feel of her home. Otherwise, the tree goes on around dusk, and it's lights out just before bedtime. “I do leave it on all day and night the last week before Christmas since by then, I usually have gifts under the tree,” she says. 

In the end, your Christmas tree should reflect your style and the way you and your family live. As long as you keep safety top of mind and follow some basic steps to reduce frustration, anything goes!