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Designer Tips: How to Decorate a Christmas Tree

Updated: Mar 9

by Lindsey Wenzel, Co-Founder of Hem Collective

Christmas tree decorating with Scandinavian ornaments, holiday decor by interior designer, Hem Collective

At Hem Collective, we love the holidays. We love the twinkling lights, decorations, holiday baking, and Christmas movies. We even have an annual tradition where we get together for a sleepover and watch Hallmark Christmas movies. It is so much fun to embrace the magic and beauty of the season. At the center of the holiday magic in my home is the Christmas tree. We love how the glow of the tree transforms our house into a festive, cozy space. The tradition in our home is to get a Christmas tree the weekend after Thanksgiving and then decorate it while listening to Christmas music. While the primary goal is to have fun, relax, and create memories, as a designer, I can't help myself from wanting the tree to also be beautiful and cohesive. If you have a similar goal in mind, the designers at Hem Collective are here to help. We are sharing our step-by-step guide on how to decorate a Christmas tree, along with our best designer tips.

Step 1: Choose a Theme

The first step to creating a cohesive Christmas tree design is to choose a theme or overall style. To get started, look for images that inspire you. They can be pictures of trees, ornaments, materials, or even scenery. The goal is to find images that capture the mood that you want to create rather than find specific elements that you want to include on the tree itself. Once you have a set of images, see what they have in common. What colors, materials, textures, and motifs do you notice? Take note of these common elements, edit your images down to a handful that best represent your theme, and if you would like, give your theme a name. This will be your guide when it comes to making selections for your tree.

holiday and Christmas decorations by Portland interior decorator, Hem Collective for Hem Holidays

Scandinavian Organic Glam

Step 2: Choose a Tree

The first decision you will need to make is what kind of tree that you would like - artificial or real, and which species. The debate between artificial and real all comes down to personal preference. The advantages of an artificial tree are that they don't drop needles, you can buy them pre-lit, they are generally more uniform in shape, and you save money in the long run. The advantages of a fresh tree are that each one is unique, they smell wonderful, and if you're like my family, picking out the tree each year and bringing it home can be a lovely tradition. If you decide to go with an artificial tree, there are two key things to remember. The first is that you get what you pay for. Don't be tempted by the cheapest option you can find on Amazon. If you want your tree to look realistic, you will need to spend some money for a quality artificial tree. The other thing that you must remember is to fluff up your branches. When you pull it out of the box and put it together, it will initially look a little sad. Spend the time to fluff and jeuje each branch and it will be looking gorgeous and full in no time.

Next, whether it's real or fake, you will need to decide which species of tree to go with. Popularity of tree species varies by region. Here in the Oregon, one of our favorite varieties is the Noble Fir. It's a gorgeous variety with silvery, blue-green needles and sturdy branches, perfect for heavy ornaments. It is the go-to variety in my home. We also love the Silver Tip Fir. It also has silvery needles, but the branches have a more layered look, leaving lots of room for ornaments.

Finally, you will need to decide whether or not you want a flocked tree. So what is flocking? Flocking is using a product to make it look like your tree has snow on it. If you are using a real tree and want a flocked look, you will need to do it yourself. You can buy a canned product to spray on the tree or there are various methods to make a homemade flocking solution, using ingredients such as soap. If you want to go this route, a simple YouTube search will pull up a lot of tutorials for you. Word of warning - it can be a messy process. Make sure you flock the tree outside and let it dry before you bring it in. If you are going with an artificial tree, the good news is that you can buy them pre-flocked. So you can get the wintery wonderland look without all of the mess.

Christmas tree types by Portland interior designer, Hem Collective for Hem Holidays

Pre-lit Faux Pine, Arhaus Fresh Noble Fir, Pronzini Farms Flocked Faux Spruce, Arhaus Fresh Silver Tip Fir, Pronzini Farms

Step 3: Choose a Tree Collar or Skirt

Tree stands are often not part of the aesthetic that you are going for when it comes to a Christmas tree. To hide it, the two main options to go with are a tree collar or tree skirt. A tree skirt is a round piece of fabric that covers the stand and floor below the tree. A tree collar is a sturdier product that surrounds just the tree stand. They are often made from metal, wood, or wicker. You can also get creative and use baskets, buckets, or other containers as tree collars. That being said, a nice tree stand can be fitting for a more rustic style.

Step 4: Add Some Lights

festive Christmas tree, lights, and cocktail by Portland interior decorator, Hem Collective for Hem Holidays

Nothing feels more festive than the warm glow of twinkling lights on a Christmas tree. Getting the lights right is probably the most important part of your Christmas tree design. They set the mood for the tree and ambience for the whole room.

The first thing to consider is bulb shape. There are a lot of different shapes out there from big round bulbs, to tiny fairy lights, to clip on candle lights. Look back to your inspiration images to give you guidance on where to start. One of our favorite tips is to combine and layer bulb shapes. Using more than one type of bulb shape gives your tree dimension and interest and takes your design to the next level. Even if you are using a pre-lit, artificial tree, you can still layer on another type of light to elevate the look.

The next thing to consider is color. Colored lights can be really fun and can be the right choice for many different aesthetics. For most applications though, clear or white lights are the way to go. However, that doesn't mean that your decision-making ends there. When it comes to choosing white or clear lights, you also need to decide on a color temperature. Color temperature is a measure of how warm or cool the light is. Lower numbers are warmer and have more of a yellow glow, while higher numbers are cooler or more blue. For reference, 1900K is dim, warm light that is close to candlelight. 5200K is the approximate temperature of daylight. Our favorite color temperature range for Christmas tree lights is around 2000-3000K, for a warm, inviting glow. And if you are using more than one type of light, it is important to make sure that the temperatures match or are within the same range.

Finally, the last thing to consider is how to actually apply the lights to the tree. You can go down quite the rabbit hole on YouTube watching videos on how to light a tree. There are a lot of different methods. So we're going to share our tried-and-true method with you. This method balances ease of application with impact. The first thing you want to do is light the tree from within. To do this, wrap lights tightly around the trunk, starting at the top and working your way down. The best type of light for this is the traditional mini bulb string light. Our suggestion is to use white lights for this even if you are going with a colored light look. This will create a nice warm glow emanating from the center of the tree. Next, instead of wrapping the lights around the tree horizontally in a circular pattern, we like to hang them vertically in a zigzag pattern. This gives you really nice coverage and allows you to not light the back of the tree if you don't need to. We also find that it is so much easier to put them up this way and also makes removing them a breeze. To do this, hang your lights by starting the strand at the bottom of the tree, bring it up to the top, and then back down again. Make sure you don't do this too tightly. You want a little slack. Continue to zigzag up and down the tree until you have all visible sides of the tree covered. Then, go back and sporadically tuck the strands farther in on the branches to give the lights a more dimensional look and to create room for decorations. The result will be a tree that looks like it was done by a professional.

Step 5: String a Garland (or Two)

wood Christmas tree garland for Hem Holidays, by Portland interior designer, Hem Collective

Wooden Bead Garland, Lulu and Georgia

Now that you have a great base for your tree, it is time to add some more personality with decorations. The first layer of decorations that we like to start with is a garland, or a mix of a few garlands. Garlands can be made of everything from wood beads to sleigh bells. There are so many beautiful options. You can even make your own with materials such as dried orange slices for a natural look, or popcorn for a traditional, kitschy look. To string a garland on the tree, our favorite method is to use the traditional, around the tree approach. Start at the top of the tree and wrap the garland around as you move down. The key is to keep it loose. You want the garland to swag from branch to branch. You don't want it to look like it's tightly wrapping around the tree.

Using ribbon instead of a string garland is another option and a great choice if you are on a budget. You can hang ribbon in a similar fashion as a string garland. The key difference is that you will want to secure the ribbon to the branches periodically using wire so that it stays in place. Alternately, ribbon also looks great when hung vertically. Start the ribbon and the top and secure it using wire. Then let it cascade down the tree, periodically tucking it into the branches so it weaves in and out. Then, cut the ribbon at the bottom of the tree and repeat until you have enough strands for the amount of coverage that you want. If you are using a ribbon with wire in it, make sure that you fluff it up and make adjustments as needed to get beautiful, rounded shapes.

Step 6: Create Fullness and Texture with Picks or Bows

pampas grass for holiday decor by Hem Holidays, by Portland interior design firm Hem Collective

Pampas Grass Pick, Crate & Barrel

Before going straight to ornaments, we like to play with texture by adding picks or bows to the tree. Picks can be natural materials, such as dried pampas grass or pinecones or they can be more decorative in form, such as bursts of stars or tinsel. They are super easy to hang. Just tuck the long pick portion back into the branches. They also work great to fill in any sparse sections of your tree or cover areas where you can see a little too much of the wiring from your lights. Bows are another great way to add fulness to your tree. We find that the best way to secure them to the branches is by using wire. Though you can also just tuck them into your branches if you don't have young children or dogs with wagging tails around to knock them down.

Step 7: Hang Your Ornaments

Christmas tree ornaments by Portland interior decorator, Hem Collective for Hem Holidays

Ornaments are the jewelry of the Christmas tree. They often hold the most sentimental value and add a lot of character and personality to the overall look. There aren't really a lot of design "rules" that we follow when it comes to choosing ornaments. The main criteria is to choose ornaments that you love. That being said, we do have some tips. First of all, refer back to your chosen theme and inspiration images. If you are going for a look that is inspired by nature, a bunch of cartoon character ornaments may prevent you from achieving the aesthetic that you want. So try to stick to your chosen color story and theme. Second, try to get ornaments in various sizes. Combining oversized ornaments with small, delicate ornaments and everything in between, will give you the richest look. Next, spend your money wisely. Simple ornaments like glass balls, are great filler ornaments and perfect for stretching your budget. There is no need to go high end with these unless you want to. Save your money for the more unique ornaments. We also recommend staying away from cheap materials like plastic unless you really can't tell that they are plastic. Cheap looking ornaments will cheapen the overall look of your tree. While it may be tempting to go out and buy 30 inexpensive, plastic ornaments instead of a few well-crafted ones, we recommend the latter. Build your ornament collection over time as you can afford to. The end result will be more unique and special. Finally, when you hang your ornaments, start with the largest ornaments and work your way to the smallest ornaments last. This will ensure the best placement and make sure that smaller ornaments aren't blocked by larger ones.

Step 8: Choose a Tree Topper

The final step is to finish your tree with a topper. Like ornaments, there are so many options out there. The main goal is to find one that suits your personality. It could be a traditional star or something quirkier like a feathered bird. The possibilities are endless. And since you only need one topper, our tip is to spend the time and money to find one that you will love year after year. When it comes to actually placing the topper on the tree, floral wire can be your friend. Sometimes getting the topper to sit straight can be tricky, so you can use wire to secure it in the position that you want. You may also need to trim the top branch of your tree if it is too long, especially if your topper is heavy. Otherwise, you may have an issue with the branch bending, making your topper crooked. Once your topper is in place, your tree is complete, and you can now sit back with a cocktail or mug of hot cocoa and enjoy the wonderful ambience that a Christmas tree brings to your home.

Hem Holidays logo by Portland interior design firm, Hem Collective

Do you need a little additional help getting started with your tree selections? Let the designers at Hem Collective curate a selection of Christmas tree decorations for you. Our Hem Holidays Boxes are a selection of heirloom quality decorations chosen by our designers. First choose from a selection of themes, and then choose the Christmas tree setting. We will ship the box of goodies right to your door to make decorating your Christmas tree a breeze. Or you can contact us to have us create a fully custom look just for you.


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