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Christmas Checklist: Trimming the Tree

Lights, ornaments, action! Believe it or not, there's a trick (or several) to this beloved Christmas ritual. Here’s how to get a beautiful tree with minimal mess.

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Step One: The Setup

  • Get your tree situated. A few preparatory measures can make this sometimes daunting job easier: To keep needles from dropping everywhere, wrap the tree in an old sheet or canvas tarp as you carry it through the house. Avoid placing the tree near a source of heat or ventilation, which causes the needles to fall off and poses a fire hazard.
  • Or store your tree properly for a later setup. If you don't put up the tree right away, wrap the stump in a damp towel and leave it in a cool, but not freezing, place.
  • Prep the tree. Before you bring in the tree, make a fresh cut on the bottom of the trunk to remove any dried sap. Get it into a stand right away, and water.
  • Take a stand. A stand with four spouts is ideal because the stand can adjust to fit any tree.
  • Make cleanup easier. Using a plastic tree bag will streamline cleanup when the time comes: Just pull the bag up over the tree to carry it outside after the holidays.
  • Embellish the stand. The tree and stand can be placed in a metal basin or a terra-cotta pot. Get creative -- we’ve used pinecones, twigs, birch rounds, and more to create an attractive display. Just make sure the resulting setup isn't top-heavy, or it could tip over. 
  • Use a tree skirt. It's another way to pretty things up. Try our basic felt skirt how-to, or go for a more ornate scalloped or pleated version.
  • Water properly before decorating. Freshly cut trees absorb as much as a gallon of water a day. Check the stand daily, and make sure the bottom of the trunk is always immersed.

Step Two: Lights

  • String your lights first. You'll avoid disrupting or breaking the ornaments.
  • Get enough lights. For a 6-foot tree, you'll need about six strands with 100 lights each. Wear protective gloves and a long-sleeved shirt as you work -- the needles can be sharp.
  • String your lights safely and strategically. By individually wrapping branches with strands of lights, you can minimize exposed cords. Run an extension cord from an electrical outlet to the tree. Plug in the first strand of lights, and run it to the top of the tree. Wind the strand tightly around the topmost shoot and down to the nearest branch, then wrap the lights back around the same branch. Start another branch the same way, near the same level. Continue with this method, working your way down and around the tree, plugging in additional strands of lights as necessary.
  • Think about whether you want your tree to look fun and youthful or classic and elegant. Lights come in all-white, colored, and multicolored strands, with settings that brightly twinkle or softly glow. Changing the color or programming of the lights will change the whole vibe of the tree.
  • Get unplugged. Don't forget to unplug the lights when you go to bed each night.

Step Three: Ornaments

  • Drape garlands and tie ribbons before hanging ornaments. This will ensure that they’re evenly spaced, and will help you avoid knocking fragile pieces loose from the branches.
  • Pick your topper. Most Christmas trees are topped with an ornate star or angel. You may find it easier to affix your topper before filling in the rest of the tree.
  • Have enough hooks on hand. Most ornaments can be attached using hooks, which affix to the top. You can purchase boxes of these inexpensive hooks at any hardware store.
  • Hang ornaments securely. Instead of hanging a fragile or antique ornament from a hook (far too easy for curious children or pets to knock loose), secure it with a length of 28-gauge wire. Thread wire through hanging loop, wrap around a branch, and twist ends. Your ornament won't go anywhere. Bonus: You can hang each decoration at exactly the height you desire.
  • Decorate from all sides and up and down the full length of the tree. Do this as you go along to keep ornaments evenly distributed.
  • Spotlight your stars. Favorite ornaments should go at eye level for maximum visibility.
  • Care for ornaments before, during, and after Christmas. This will keep them in tip-top shape. See our tips here.
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