How to Set Up a Christmas Tree, According to the Experts

From choosing a stand to knowing when it's time for decorations, this definitive guide will make the daunting holiday task a cinch.

Man setting up a Christmas tree in the living room with golden retriever dog looking out of the window

One of the most anticipated holiday traditions of the season is choosing your annual Christmas tree. The evergreen serves as the focal point for the rest of your joyful décor, so selecting an option that looks great in your home is no small feat.

But this is just half the battle—the next step is getting your tree into its stand, where it'll be on full display until the end of the season. Setting up your Christmas evergreen properly isn't just important for aesthetics: It also contributes to the overall longevity of your tannenbaum.

A few preparatory measures—like trimming the trunk and proper watering—can make this sometimes-daunting job a success.

Prep Work

Have Your Stand Ready

Your tree stand should be purchased and ready to be used by the time you get your tree home. "The biggest factor to consider in choosing a stand is water capacity," says Bert Cregg, tree physiology expert and professor at Michigan State University. "The stand should hold a quart of water for each inch of trunk diameter."

Beyond water capacity, look for a wide base to keep the tree more stable in the stand. Most stands will indicate which size tree they can handle, so keep that in mind when picking out your greenery.

Choose a Healthy Christmas Tree

Selecting a healthy tree will prevent your home from filling with needles as you drag the evergreen from your car to its stand. "Look for a deep green color," Cregg says. "Give a gentle pull on the shoots with your thumb and forefinger—you shouldn't have any needles coming off your hands." Also check the trunk before bringing your tree home to ensure it's free of splits or cracks.

Trim the Trunk

Have the farm trim the trunk of your tree or trim it yourself before you bring it inside. "A cut trunk saps and dries over time and will not drink water,'' says Sean Duffy of Stone Mill Gardens in Northern New Jersey. "You want a fresh cut. That way, it will soak up and drink the water." If you do plan to trim the trunk yourself, use a pruning saw or hand saw and take about an inch or so off the bottom (or more if your tree is too tall for your home).

Choose a Location to Set Up Your Tree

You'll want to set your tannenbaum up where you want it to live for the remainder of the season to avoid unnecessary movement. "Keeping the tree away from heat sources, especially fireplace and wood stoves, is critical," Cregg says. "If you can avoid placing the tree by a heat vent, shut the louvers to reduce warm air flow around the tree." Also, consider if there are any power outlets nearby to avoid the need for an extension cord.

How to Set Up Your Christmas Tree

Employ help when setting up your Christmas tree—be it a neighbor, friend, or family member—to avoid any accidental injuries. It's easier to set up a tree that's been netted, then take the netting off once it's securely in the stand. However, this method typically leads to more needle shedding in your home. Alternatively, you can take the netting off outside before setting up. No one way is better than the other; it's simply a matter of personal preference.

  1. With the tree lying on the ground near where you will display it, place the stand on the cut end of the tree.
  2. Tighten the adjustment screws enough that they'll hold the tree in place, but leave some slack so it can be adjusted.
  3. With your helper holding the stand in place, lift the tree upright and and place the trunk into the stand.
  4. Have your helper hold and straighten the tree while you tighten the adjustment screws.
  5. Instruct your helper to let go of the tree—it should stand on its own now—and check for straightness from a few different angles.
  6. You may need to repeat steps 4 and 5 a few times until the tree is positioned the way you want it and is completely straight.

Fill the Stand With Water

Getting your tree in water as soon as possible is essential. If you don't have a stand yet, you'll need to keep your tree in a bucket of water until you're ready to set it up. Once in the stand, fill it with a generous amount of water.

"Never let the water level get low enough to expose the bottom of the trunk," says Tim O'Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association. "Think of it as a vase of fresh cut flowers; if you let the flowers run out of water they will deteriorate quickly, same for your Christmas tree."

During the first week or so, a fresh cut tree will drink a lot of water as it gets used to its new environment. Check the stand in the morning and night throughout that period to ensure the stand has enough water for your tree.

Let the Branches Fall

While we understand the urge to immediately decorate, it's best to give the branches some time to fall before adorning it with heavy baubles. "You want to let the branches open up after being bundled up in the netting," O'Connor says. Letting it sit overnight should be enough time, but you can observe the branches as an indicator and decorate when they appear to be more open.

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