Tree Nazi

My favorite part of the holidays is the tree. And the fact that it coincides with Dungeness Crab season. But seriously, some might say I get a little bit out of hand. That I’m a Tree Nazi. And I do, occasionally, feel as if I’m living in a Seinfeld episode when I get in the holiday spirit.

So I’m a little bit type-A about, well, everything. I can’t help it if I like things to be perfect. Or at least, as close to perfect as they can be given the constant flow of children, pets, people, muddy boots, etc. around here. And, being a professional designer, I usually have a method to my madness. Particularly when it comes to a Christmas tree.

Maybe you’re searching for a Better Way to decorate your tree, and you have the patience to read through my rant. Otherwise, skip back to the cheese or something because you’re about to find out all about my Christmas Crazy.

The key to a gorgeous, dimensional tree starts with selection. If you choose a very fluffy, full tree like a Scotch pine, there’s no room for large ornaments to hang down between layers of branches. Redwoods have lots of space between branches, but they make terrible Christmas trees because the branches are so weak and so long. They’re delightfully inexpensive, because around here you can go cut one out of your yard, but one lightweight ornament can cause a branch to go from perky to weeping. One particularly broke year during graduate school, I used a 6′ redwood top for a Christmas tree. I decorated it with cocktail parasols, the only thing I had on hand light enough not to weigh it down.

Personally, my favorite is the Noble fir. Nobles smell great and have strong, luxuriously velvety layered branches with plenty of space for large, drippy ornaments.

Once you’ve selected the perfect tree, and set it up securely (if you have a cat, cable it to the ceiling, consult any engineers in your family, or get a fake tree like mine–otherwise I foresee tree tragedy in your future), you’re ready for lights. What color lights, you ask? WHITE! This is an ongoing discussion in the family, on the order of the Barbecued or Oven-Baked discussion that occurs every Thanksgiving. Personally, I think colored lights are distracting. One exception might be if you decided to go with an all-white or all-silver theme, in an all-white studio apartment, and you don’t have many ornaments. The color might be fun. But the minute your feature ornaments include odd color combinations of clay, pipe cleaners and clothespins, or glue-on sequins, the colored flashing lights are just going to be over the top.

Now, lights are not garlands. They are not meant to be artfully dripped around the tree. First, I start by wrapping the lights around the trunk of the tree near the base, with the plug hanging out wherever convenient. Wrap up the trunk, then out around each layering branch, then in to the next branch, and so on until you have worked your way up the tree. You should have lights close to the trunk around the interior of the tree, as well as wrapping around each major branch layer, out nearly to the tips. Definitely test each string before you start wrapping, and wrap with one string at a time before connecting the next string, or it’s way too difficult to handle.

I was so proud of myself last year because I finally got all my lights organized into bins like these, so I could work with one set at a time. My current inside tree is a pre-lit fake thanks to our dearly departed Izzy (aka “The Cat Who Loved Christmas”) but I also like to light some of my outside trees. Older camellias, japanese maples, and other open-branching garden specimens are gorgeous subjects for holiday lights. Same thing, wrap from the inside to the outside, and from bottom to top.) So much easier now!

Once the lights are in place, lay out your ornaments. I know, here’s where you’re thinking “she is so type-A!” but seriously, if you unpack all of the ornaments you want on the tree, and lay them out on trays or a desk where you can see them, it is SO much easier to (1) color-coordinate; (2) start with the larger ornaments first; (3) hang them evenly around the tree; (4) find the heirlooms to feature them and (5) save room for the unbreakables around the bottom. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


First, arrange your garlands if you have any. THESE can be dripped around artfully, remembering to keep them about 1/3 of the way back on the branches, saving the outer tips for feature ornaments. This is one of the problems with scotch pines and cypresses, they’re so full that garlands will sit on the outer tips of the branches, and ornaments will have to fight for space. If you still love the ribbon look and you want one of these full trees, try the trick of starting at the top and running ribbons or garlands vertically to the bottom. Use wired ribbon so it will stand up a bit from the tree, and hang the ornaments between the bands. Do you need garlands? NO. But particularly for trees with large open layers, a wired garland that stands up a bit or smaller beads that droop down can fill in some of the gaps or fluffy sections where ornaments don’t hang as well.

Next, begin with the larger main color ball ornaments. The easiest way to color-coordinate a stylish, rockin’ Christmas tree is to pick a palette and stick with it, then collect around that palette. (Or if you’re crafty and have time, make some in your custom color palette.) My parents’ tree (which I have been decorating since I was about 9) has evolved to a main palette of copper, with acid green and deep purple accents. The theme is basically fruits and vegetables. Gold and silver are effectively neutrals for holiday decorating. I’ve always loved blue and silver, which is SO not a traditional Christmas color scheme, but I really can’t stand the whole tartan plaid thing, it just makes me think of the tree dressed in pajamas or something. I start looking around for antlers on the wall. I really like sparkle during the holidays.


The point is, everyone has their thing, just pick a general scheme and stick with it. The tighter and more consistent the color scheme, the more organized the tree is going to look, and the more your unique heirloom ornaments will stand out and be noticed. If your tree is LESS than four feet tall, stick with one color and a neutral, like silver or gold. Not that you want your tree to look exactly like the department stores, but you’ll notice that’s what the display designers are doing. Each tree has a strict color scheme and theme. Now, the department stores do not have any handmade or heirloom lovelies, so they tend to look a bit bland and commercial. But it doesn’t mean we can’t be inspired!

The large ball ornaments should be in your primary color scheme, maybe just a few in your secondary color, more depending on how large your tree is. Here’s where I start to go super Christmas Crazy on you: hang them in triangles. When you stand back to look at the tree (you should be doing this from several angles, wherever you can see the tree in your room) the large ball ornaments should create triangles of your primary color. One down, one up, one to the side. Lots of intersecting, unequal triangles. With trees like the Noble fir, where there is enough space between branches, be sure to hang some of these larger balls farther inside the tree, toward the trunk. These are going to create a deep background for your feature ornaments.

Since you have done such a nice job wrapping the interior branches of the tree, these ornaments will be lit from the back as well as the front, creating an intensely sparkly effect.

Now start hanging the smaller, single color ball ornaments. Some should be in your primary color, some in your secondary color. Stand back and make sure the color is spread evenly around the tree. Again, make sure some are hanging farther back inside the tree as well.

Once you are totally happy with the spread of the single-color ornaments, you can begin with your feature ornaments. What is a feature ornament? All of those fantastically special little picture ornaments of you as a toddler in the seventies, the little plaster handprints, the copper car my grandfather made, or the Sculpey star your third grader made. Assuming they’re not too heavy, hang them on the outer tips around the middle third of the tree, where they can be seen and appreciated. If you’re enough of a control freak, you will make handmade future heirlooms with your general color scheme in mind (or with an emphasis on neutrals, like silver and gold.)

Now, usually I leave the bottom third for last, and hang the unbreakables there (solid sequined ornaments are good for this, wired and painted pine cones, fruit or birds or felt things, etc.) so that you’re not holding your breath every time your inebriated cousin or the two-year old goes for a present under the tree. Or the Cat. However, there comes a time to begin training the next generation in your own brand of crazy.

So if you hear yourself saying “no, don’t touch, let Mommy do that!” one too many times, pour yourself a stiff shot of whiskey, garnish with Egg Nog, and let your kids do the bottom third.

And breathe deeply.

Now confess, what’s your Christmas Crazy?


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