How To Decorate Christmas Trees

Here's how to decorate a perfect Christmas tree with your kids.

7 Steps to Perfect Christmas Tree


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It's an exciting day! The annual Christmas tree is brought in, set up, and ready to decorate. And if you might have been one of the couples who had different ideas on how to decorate the Christmas tree, there's nothing like having younger members of the family who have opinions on how it ought to be done. With just a little planning, this can be an activity the entire family enjoys.

You likely have discovered that kids are quite eager to start decorating. Before the lights are even taken out of the box they are trying to put cherished, heirloom (and breakable) ornaments on. A maxim for tree decorating is: Don't worry, a few minutes of planning will get your tree chosen, placed, beautifully decorated, and your kids happily involved the whole time (nap time not counted.)

Choose the Location

Some homes have one location that seem to cry for the tree to go there. If you are just getting started and short on lights and decorations, you might want to take that into account when chosing the location.

Location Determines How Many Lights Are Needed

Decorating Your Christmas Tree

As the picture demonstrates, one half of your tree does not need to be decorated if it is in a corner. If it is against a wall, one quarter of your tree remains unseen and undecorated.

On the other hand, a tree in the center of a room is decorated all the way around. This type of decoration is more common in commercial locations or large foyers. But it is also used if you place your tree in front of a picture window.

Set Your Tree Up

This is a bit on the obvious side. But what to do with the little tykes whose help is truly not wanted at this critical stage?

Have Them Photograph the Tree Raising
Yep, times have changed from when I was young and pictures cost money (hey, we had to pay to buy the film them pay again to have them developed.) There's no cost to handing a phone to the kids and asking them for a few pictures.

Check the Strings of Lights
Yes, ideally you should have done this the night before. Three brownie points for you if you did. Since there is a good chance you did not, this is a good activity for your elementary aged kids. Let them check to see which strings still work. They can untangle them and lay them out up and down the hall way as well.

Pick Up Stray Needles
It's a messy job, and someone's gotta do it, right? They probably won't be a terrible lot of help, but again, at this crucial moment we are trying to harnass their short lived energy in some other way than standing alongside the tree when its being hoisted upwards.


If you happen to have an artificial tree that is pre-lit, you can skip this session. Otherwise, you are going to want your lights to shine - in more ways than one.

A genuine, professional tree decorator will tell you the tree should have a chance to set upright and drop its branches for several hours BEFORE adding lights and decorations. If you have no kids and are a planner, that is the best thing to do (it's the next step below.)

Got kids? We want to put those lights on now for several reasons. One, they just layed the strings of lights out in your hallway a few minutes ago, and they aren't going to stay that way unharmed indefinitely.

Second, while I believe in the power of teaching kids patience and self-restraint, you can't hold then back from the box of ornaments FOREVER (definition of "forever" = more than five minutes.)

So let's go ahead and get those beautiful lights on the trees.

Choices of Lights

The choices are obviously: Of course you also get to choose between flashing, non-flashing, chasers, etc. If you go for the flashing lights, you probably want them all from the same company as lights that flash in different patterns can be irritating. If you have a mismatch of different lights (and who doesn't - unless you buy them all new every year) you may want to keep them non-flashing if they don't match.

For instance, you might keep all your colored lights non-flashing, but have several strings of white lights from the same company that flash. Or vice versa.

Spacing Out Your Lights

Decorating Your Christmas Tree

Remember those lights you already checked to make sure they work. Now is the time for a little math. Half your lights go on the bottom one third of the tree.

There's two ways to do the math and they both work out to the same thing:

Alternative Way of Dividing the Lights

Decorating Your Christmas Tree

Don't Waste Lights in the Unseen Parts of the Tree

Instead of going in a circle and wasting lights in the back of the tree, you can curve the lights back and forth in the areas that are shown. See the diagram at the top of this page on the parts of the tree not decorated.

Put the Topper on the Top

Since many of the stars or angels are lit, they are often put on at the beginning or the end of the lights. If your topper is not lit, it can be placed at any point.

However, it is probably better to put it on at the beginning, so ornaments are not brushed off with the topping of the tree.

Kids Activities

Hand Painted Nativity Set
Kids can put up nativity set or do other decorating while lights are being strung on the tree.

Okay, the kids are still heading towards the box of ornaments as soon as 1/10th of the lights are up. What can they be doing now? The sky is the limit for what Christmas festive activities your youngsters can be involved in. The idea is to have a plan. Of course, things don't always go according to plans, but the alternative is stepping on little toes that are getting in your way.

Let the Tree Settle For A Few Hours

Or Longer

Yes, you need to let your tree settle a bit. As mentioned above, it can be done after putting on the lights if you have kids in the house. A few lights may slide as the branches open up after having been tied up, but they are easy to adjust if you haven't put the ornaments on yet.

If you have an artificial tree, it's still not a bad idea to give the tree time to stand before decorating, but for different reasons. When you take the scrunched up branches out of the box you need to "unscrunch" then (not really a word, but it works.) Go ahead, put the lights on, walk away, and come back a few hours later and finish unscrunching your tree.

Yes, at least a few hours, but here's a way to keep the kids from driving you nuts.

Leave the House

Go out to eat, go for a drive looking at decorations in the neighborhoods, go Christmas shopping, volunteer with a community organization, or go replace the string of lights that didn't work.

Let the kids know BEFORE the tree gets drug through the door (or up the stairs, or down from the attic) that you are going to take some time to let the tree settle.

Spend the Night Under the Tree

This is a family tradition in our house, to spend the night in the living room using the entire tree as a giant night light the night it goes up. Pillows and blankets get brought into the room, popcorn and stories are shared, and Christmas music is played. It's a memorable holiday tradition.

Add Your Garland


If you are going to do garland, it will be the first decoration to go up after the lights. See below about special effects on your Christmas tree to decide if you would like to use garland or not.

Putting the Ornaments on the Christmas Tree

Now it's time to let the kids start hanging the ornaments. Open the boxes and let the fun begin.

I store my ornaments in large zipped plastic bags that are then kept in sturdy plastic tubs. It's a better space saver and does protect them. Valuable, breakable ornaments are given additional wrapping, but the ornaments are stored in such a way that they protect each other.

At the end of the year, I pack them away in the reverse order so that they are ready to go as they are unpacked. But if your ornaments aren't so well-organized, you can start to organize them as you and the young crew are putting them on the tree.

Putting the ornaments on in the most logical manner gives you a few advantages over a tree that has been randomly decked: You announce the order that ornaments will go on the tree. If you have not previously sorted them, the kids can help sort as they hang them up.

1. Deep Ornaments

Have 12 to 20 ornamaments set aside (I have them in two zipped bags) to be placed deep inside the tree. The natural inclination is to start by putting favorite ornaments on the surface of the tree. But those inside the branches give depth to your ornaments and will reflect the lights on their outer-facing surface.

2. Large Ornaments

Cardinal Christmas Ornament
Large ornaments fill gaps and empty spaces.

Your big, bulky ornaments and dangling ornaments go next.

Use them to cover gaps and flaws in your tree. If you have a perfect tree, try to hang them semi-randomly just like the lights:

3. Figurines and Ornaments that are Not Balls

Spread these ornaments out evenly across your tree as well. You want to do this before the balls because some of these may be heavy and need special placement on thick branches that can hold their weight.

Teach your kids to pinch the small wire hanger around the tree branch. This significantly decreases the chance they will fall or slide off.

4. Christmas Balls in Large Sets

If you have a set of many ornaments (6 or more) you will want to divide them approximately as you did the lights: 1/6 in the top third, 1/3 in the middle third, and one half in the bottom third of the Christmas tree.

Yes, I know not all sets can be divided into one sixth, but it will give you an approximate guideline to space things appropriately.

You might be able to assign your kids into "zones" as well, depending on their height:

Spacing Christmas Tree Ornaments

5. Christmas Balls in Small Sets

3 large Christmas balls
Three peach balls are spaced eight inches apart.

Often beautiful glass ornaments are sold in sets of four or less. Such small sets are kept in the same general area, often spaced four to six inches apart. This allows the viewer to actually see the set of ornaments.

Sometimes a set specifically go together: like this set of girl and boy gingerbread that our friends' kids made for us.

Ginger Bread Ornaments on Tree
Keep a pair of gingerbread together.

6. Small or Miniature Ornaments

Small, miniature, and delicate ornaments are the last of the regular ornaments to be placed.

Some of your smaller ornaments will be placed at the top of the tree on those fine, thin branches.

Miniature Ornaments
Miniature and Small Delicate Ornaments Go On Last

Christmas Tree Decorating Ideas

Special Effects to Make Your Tree Dazzling

There are a decorating touches that will bring the decorations together and create a beautiful, unique tree that can be changed year to year.

Decorated Christmas Tree

A family tree is a conglomeration of new and old ornaments. A variety of special effects will bring everything together in a unique and unified tree.


A variety of different garlands can be purchased or made. These are usually draped horizontally across the tree in a circular pattern.

One of the most beautiful garlands I remember was the gold rope my mother used to drape on the tree with red velvet roses at each loop.

Natural Garlands

Cranberries, nuts, popcorn, and pine cones are some of the natural garlands that stand in contrast to the tinsel and blinking lights preferred by others.

Garland Balls

Garland Balls

Garland balls can match your room's decor or create a theme on your tree.

One year I had to decorate quite a few trees and had minimum time or money to spare. That's when I made garland balls made by cutting apart commercially available garland.

Garland balls are less expensive. You can use a splash of color of a thick garland to dramatize the effect of a thinner, less colorful garland.

Because it is less expensive, you can change it year after year while still using the same collection of ornaments that are specific to your family. The effect is an ever-changing tree that continues to showcase your family memories.

Tinsel Icicles

These beautiful silver strings of tinsel are not as commonn as they were a few decades ago. But they are still available, and in a variety of colors (I still prefer the silver.)

While well-placed tinsel is indeed beautiful, it is also quite time consuming. Often used with short needled trees, every branch should ideally have three or four strands neatly hung over individual needles.

Tinsel Toss

What started out as kids throwing tinsel because they didn't have the patience or inclination to hang it strand by delicate strand, the tinsel toss developed into a phenomenon of its own. Some people actually LIKE the look of the tinsel icicles thrown in bunches at random all over the tree.

Silver Bells

Silver Bells on Christmas Tree
Small silver bells hanging from each branch reflect the lights on your tree.

Perhaps my favorite effect is the silver bells we use on our main family tree.

I first started using them quite a few years ago when I found a garland of miniature silver bells at Christmas time. Now I'm a big, big fan of buying ornaments on clearance after Christmas (75% off thank you - the 50% off just doesn't tempt me.) However, I bought a few of those garlands, took them home, cut them apart, and hung them individually as miniature ornaments all over the tree.

When I saw what a beautiful effect they had, I went and bought several more garlands (ouch, even paying the regular price.) It was worth every penny as we have used and reused these little bells over and over. Whenever I can, I purchase more of the silver miniatures because tree ornaments don't last forever.

Every branch that doesn't have an ornament (and some branches that do) have a small bell hanging from the tip.

If you can't find silver bells another similar alternative is candy kisses in silver foil. See the description under Candy Cane Theme below for directions.


Instead of garland, tinsel, or bells, many modern trees are adorned with ribbon. These ribbons usually are strung vertically on the trees instead of horizontally.

Like the garland, the variety of colors, sizes and textures of ribbon give you multiple options for adding the crowning touch to your tree.


Artificial or real flowers can be used on your tree as well. Below in the picture of the candy cane tree, you might see the red and white pointsettas and zebra striped pointsettas that are positioned through out the tree.

Some newly-weds use the floral theme from their wedding to decorate their tree and continue the celebration of that special day.

Themed Trees

Instead of (or in addition to) the family tree which is generally a conglomeration of the ornaments collected over time, some people like to have themed-trees. Trees with a single theme are found in many businesses, as well as in homes.

With a themed-tree, the regular ornaments as well as the special effects are dedicated to a specific theme.

Some families have a themed tree that they create by adding ornaments that fit the theme each year. When the tree is complete, they may donate it to a charity.

Candy Cane Tree

Candy Cane Themed Christmas Tree

Candy Cane Tree In The Family Room

Our candy cane tree has been a work in progress. Red and white striped garland (not put on this year when the picture was taken) is usually wrapped around the tree. Red and white satin balls, red and white teddy bears, candy cane colored hearts made from Sculpey clay, and a variety of other ornaments keep the candy cane theme prominent.

A red and white stuffed giraffe is on top (couldn't find a candy cane angel or star.)

Candy Cane Kisses on Christmas Tree

The finishing touch is a Hershey candy cane kiss on every branch.

Like the silver bells and tinsel described above, the foil wrapped kisses reflect the lights and make the tree sparkle.

Directions for Putting Candy Kisses on Christmas Tree Hooks
Kids over eight can help put the kisses onto the ornament hook. It does take fine motor control. I found the easiest way is to unwrap the tip of the kiss, put the bottom of the hook into the foil and rewrap. Then take the small paper strip, and wrap it over to the opposite side of the hook. Pinch the foil around the hook. About half the time we add a tiny bit of tape to make sure the hook stays on.

Visitors to our house get a kiss as they come in, and a candy cane as they go out. (Ha, that order is quite deliberate!)

Special Memories Tree

Special Memories Tree Special Memories Tree
Clear beads cause the white lights to shimmer

In our dining room I have a white, artificial tree that is adorned with homemade ornaments that my mother kept.

In addition to those ornaments, I have added pink balls and maroon miniature ornaments. Pink icicles tie the theme together.

Small white wreathes made from clear beads have added a special effect. I made these last years from a kit and was surprised how the white beads reflected the white lights on the tree.

Other Themes

There are other themes that I have done - or plan to do someday. These include:

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