Create an amazing tree by following a simple order of placement for your decorations!

If you're waltzing through your home, literally giddy, it's probably the Christmas season. It's the one time of year when you can turn your home into an extravaganza of lights, ribbons and sparkle. You can indulge to your hearts delight, more is certainly better this time of year and excess is eagerly welcome. My children used to say if they stood still long enough while I was on a whirlwind of Christmas decorating, that I would decorate them! I firmly believe they both would have been stunning with wreaths around their necks—such Scrooges those two! Anyway, let's talk Christmas trees, usually the focus of your design talents and the centerpiece of your home for the holidays!

Adopting a German Tradition

Where did this lovely interior element come to us from? The first documented Christmas tree in the United States was in Pennsylvania in the 1830s. At the time, people who lived among German immigrants in Pennsylvania began to enjoy some German traditions, including the Christmas tree. When the telegraph was invented, news spread about the enchantment of the of Christmas tree and it become part of the American holiday. By the 1850s, having a Christmas tree was very fashionable on the East Coast. In fact, in 1851, Mark Carr brought trees from the Catskills to the streets of New York City and opened the country's very first Christmas tree lot.

By the 1870s hand blown glass ornaments crafted in Lauscha, Germany, were being imported from Britain, and they rapidly became a status symbol. The more glass ornaments you displayed, the higher your status and the better to showcase your wealth. They are still loved and enjoyed to this day since manufacturing has never stopped. By the 1880s, these ornaments were being imported and could be purchased at the dime store, F.W. Woolworth. How delightful!

Soon after came the invention of electric Christmas tree lights to take the place of a significant home fire hazard: candles affixed to tree branches. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge introduced the first national Christmas tree and installed it on the lawn of the White House. Here ends my history lesson. Now let's talk Christmas trees in the 21st century, shall we?

Perfect Tree Placement

For many people, placing the Christmas tree in your home is one of the most anticipated events of the year! Finding just the right location to truly honor the tree deserves serious consideration. I bet most of you are like me in this respect: You could be shopping for a new home in July on a sweltering 105 degree Kansas day and you will think out loud, "Where can we put the Christmas tree in this house?" The joy this tradition brings to our family is significant. Childhood memories of the family Christmas tree can most certainly bring a spontaneous smile. My mother-in-law smiles every time she shares that her family decorated their tree on Christmas Eve when she was a child. These are delicious memories, regardless of your age!

One practical placement tip: If the tree is positioned in a corner so that only about two-thirds of the tree actually gets decorated, be mindful of the weight imbalance. I've heard horror stories of trees that went down—taking family heirloom decorations with it—and the loss of all those memories is heartbreaking. Here is a trick I came up to keep this from happening. Attach wire to the top of the tree trunk at two points and then secure the wires to each wall with nails, screws or hooks. This braces the tree and keeps it from toppling over. Take a sponge brush and paint the wire and nails, screws or hooks the same as your wall color for a support system that is magically undetectable!

Step-by-Step Guide to Decorating

Create an amazing tree, just like a pro, by following this simple order for placing decorations on the tree:

Plump: If you are using an artificial tree, first you must plump it. Please don't just pull the tree out of its box after a year's rest, pop it in a stand and decorate it. No, no, Gorgeous you must pull down every branch and reposition it from top to bottom! Convince the world this beautiful spruce is alive and well. Sorry, but this is an absolute must! So plump, plump, plump my dear!

Lights: When placing the lights on the Christmas tree plug all your Christmas tree lights into a power strip with a button you can step on to turn them on or off so you don't have to crawl under the tree. Easy-peasy! Or even a light strip with a timer, making the task even easier!

Garlands: It's time to adorn the tree with garlands. This would be strings of glass beads, pearls, strung popcorn and cranberries, metallic garland, etc. Start at the top of the tree and swag you way done, tuck the finishing end into the tree.

The Generic Balls: Next, hang your plain balls. Hang the ones without scratches near the ends of the branches, and tuck any older, seen a few Christmas' balls deep into the tree near the trunk. This gives your tree a full, lush and well-dressed look! This year, maybe tie narrow pieces of ribbon on the ornaments that would typically hang from hooks—much prettier!

The Decorative Ornaments: Once the generic balls are up, move on to all those special ornaments such as the nativity scene, angels, Santa, reindeer and snowmen. Once again, use ribbons—so very elegant!

Ribbon: Next, twist, tuck, turn, and drape ribbon on the tree. I find starting at the top and working my way to the bottom works the best! Wired ribbon does this brilliantly and is easily found in a variety of stores.

Icicles: Toss silver or gold foil icicles on the branches for the old-fashioned glitz of days gone by! Use tons of it or opt for a restrained placement here and there. It's completely up to you gorgeous, even if you prefer none at all.

Pinecones: Consider tucking some pinecones into the branches. The cinnamon-scented ones are a delightful touch if your family can handle the fragrance, and huge sugar cones can be lovely as well, a touch of nature.

The Tree Topper: It's time for that special star, angel, or even wonderful bow at the top. The scale of the bow will depend on the size of the tree—huge tree, huge bow! Hey, it's Christmas—bigger is better at this time of year! Use two bows, one for each side, so it looks full and breathtaking. (One bow looks like the tree is missing half its topper!)

The Tree Skirt: Conceal those light cords and the base of the tree with a skirt. Before you add this final detail, plump some plastic trash bags around the base of the tree for volume and to protect gifts from water if you're using a real tree. Feel free to look beyond the classic tree skirt. Try a vintage tablecloth, yards of felt (perhaps in a couple of colors), yards of Christmas fabric or burlap, which is finding its way into incredibly chic designs lately.

And there you go, a Christmas tree that is spectacular from top to bottom!

Lighting Tips

To create the best experience—for both the installer and viewer of the lights, follow these tips:

Number: For best results, plan on 100 mini-lights per foot of height of the Christmas tree. For example, the rule of thumb for a 7 foot tree is 700 lights.

Color: For a wonderful rich glow from within the tree, tuck some canary yellow lights up and down the trunk. You can use these in addition to the 100 lights per foot—yes, your lumens just went up! (What can I say, I am the daughter of an electrical contractor, the late great Stanley Robinson! Lumens, Dad, I'm talking lumens here!)

Age: Every year it is best to start with fresh lights. Having a string burn out before your big holiday party will bring you to tears. (Plus, you won't have to untangle last year's mess—just donate them! Or, tuck those old lights into places where they can be replaced without a lot of effort.)

Extensions: When plugging the string of lights together, follow the manufacturer's guidelines regarding how many strings you can join. This is one of those live-and-learn lessons: You go beyond the suggestion and the lights flutter and go out. If this happens on a completed tree, finding the strand of lights that is the culprit is virtually impossible. Crying won't fix it, but following guidelines will prevent it.

Power: Use a power strip and extension cords in brown or green so the color blends in when wound through the tree.

Funny story involving my husband: While living in Denver, we resided in a high rise for a time. One year I volunteered to decorate the building' lobby. As I was completing my holiday display around midnight, my husband came down from our unit to help me finish and kindly offered to vacuum for me! The tree—a whopping 12 footer—was decked out in a million mini-lights, wound up, down and all around the tree. As I was picking up, I noticed the lights flutter and blink a few times and then go dark. My husband looked like a deer in the headlights! "Please tell me you did not plug that vacuum into the Christmas-light socket!" I exclaimed without hope. Word of advice: Christmas light cords cannot be used as extension cords!


Maybe this year you decide to place a wonderful petit fresh Christmas tree in your kitchen. The fragrance is absolutely breath taking. Recently, you had a visit with your kitchen, spruced it up, and it has become a delightful primitive but friendly place to cook and have a good long visit with a dear friend. To complement the space, this precious little tree must have that same inviting personality. Envision a 1940s Christmas tablecloth wrapped around the bottom. Then, for decorations, some soup cans (labels removed) turned into little tin buckets and hung by red-and-white checked ribbons. I am squealing with delight here, my dear friends. Now fill those buckets with striped candy canes of red/white and green/white. Use an assortment of ornaments that say kitchen: Maybe a cup of tea, Mrs. Santa at her stove, ham and eggs on a plate. Yes, you can find these, I swear to you! String some popcorn, drape it around and then finish it off with cookie cutters hung with your enchanting checked ribbon! A cup of hot chocolate never tasted as delicious as in the presence of this little darling.


For your main tree, placing packages at the foot is an absolute must. I do have suggestions for this (oh, I always have suggestions!). First, tuck larger packages into a bin meant for firewood or maybe a copper boiler or a wooden crate. Think about using a collection of baskets in an assortment of sizes and place some of the packages in them. Adorn the baskets with some spruce and bows. Or, maybe line a wonderful old galvanized washtub with a wool tartan blanket for a Classic Kansas Christmas and position the packages in the tub. Or, an old sled placed at the bottom of tree to stack packages on says Currier and Ives! An interesting chair placed alongside the tree with packages stacked three high could be charming. Tie a wreath to the back of the chair for a new spot for those "stockings hung with care," especially if you don't have a fireplace. My point is this: It is more visually appealing to place packages in collections and make sure the base of the tree is as significant as the top of the tree!

Great Gift Wrap

Your fabulously decorated tree, placed in the perfect spot, deserve stunning packages, too. First, limit yourself to three different papers and maybe two different types of ribbon. If you want that classic prairie affair look, try brown paper, maybe a solid red paper and a playful plaid for a timeless and celebratory combination. Choose a pleasingly simple ribbon such as raffia in natural color along with a rich Christmas green grosgrain tied in a simple bow. Consider tying peppermint sticks to the packages, provided you can keep the dogs, cats and kids from indulging. If you prefer a sophisticated look, consider this delightful combination: white pearlized paper, a crisp white paper with opulent gold Christmas trees dancing across it, and an emerald green and brilliant white stripe. Absolutely smashing! Tie it all up with red satin ribbon and gold twine! Well-dressed packages!

Allow yourself to be a bit childish to truly experience the magic of Christmas. Let that little kid inside of you come to visit this holiday. I assure you that being playful has its rewards. So take a few deep breathes and say, "This is the only Christmas I get in the year 2012, and by gosh I am going to have a splendid time!" Please make sure to follow "Through the Front Door" the month of December as we visit about: Decorating the Mantel!, Tantalizing the Senses!, Your Holiday Table!

Jan Colvin has been a professional interior designer for over 25 years (Allied ASID). She welcomes questions, which will be answered in her columns. Send your questions to: