My favorite childhood memories most often revolve around Christmastime… My dad loved picking out the perfect tree, bringing it home, caring for it and preparing it to become our magical centerpiece for the holiday weeks to come.
It was the quintessential “hunt for a Christmas tree” situation every year. The four of us would load up into the station wagon and venture to the tree farm, where we’d search for what seemed like hours for the perfect Christmas tree. We’d all walk around choosing trees and marking them in certain ways like with scarves, random mittens, sticks, orange twine, etc. Mom, Jesse, and I would get tired and sit near the entrance waiting for Dad to look at all of the ones we’d narrowed down form our choices until he picked which one he liked best. We’d then head over to the winning tree so Dad could saw it down while Mom held it at the top and Jesse and I pushed it over when it was time for it to fall to it’s holiday fate.
We’d string it to the top of the car, and bring it home to be put in a bucket of water while Dad prepped the corner of the living room with cinder blocks and a wooden board so the tree would stand up from the ground a bit, making more room for gifts between the bottom branches and the floor. The tree would drink from the bucket after dad sawed off the bottom of the trunk, and pass the sappy wooden disc around to us all saying, “smell that?? Mmm..”
It was a whole ordeal, setting the tree up. Sometimes it would be big enough where he’d have to tie it to screws in the wall. His friend Jerry (I believe “Rig” was his last name..) would come by and they’d make it work together. Once the tree was standing perfectly, it was time to decorate!
Dad would turn on Christmas music and string the lights onto every single branch, alternating years of what kind because he preferred white lights and mom loves the colored ones… And then mom would come in to decorate with the beaded garland, intricately looping it evenly spaced all around each layer of branches, until it was good and ready for ornaments. That’s where Jesse and I came in… :)
See, my parents are professional Christmas tree decorators, and I’ve happened to inherit every single trait, striving to make each year’s tree perfect in it’s own way, just as they did. They got married in their early 30’s, so they’d had several years living on their own to have their very own trees in each of their own apartments. So when they got married, they had two trees in their tiny little 800 sq. ft. house. Mom said each tree was like a beautiful piece of candy, adorable and full of magic…
“He’ll ask you to marry him after he sees your tree…”
- My moms’ sister Aunt Nina said to my Mom in the early 1980’s (an sure enough… he did).
When Tyler and I got married, it was non-negotiable that we would always get a real Christmas tree, chop it down, haul it home, set it up, bring all of the boxes of trimmings down, and decorate it while listening to Frank Sinatra and sipping hot chocolate, just as I did growing up all my life. It was a special time when we’d get the tree and I wanted to implement that into our own family…
Live trees present a magic and wonder unlike artificial trees could ever do, in my opinion. The scent, the texture, the look and feel, and the tradition of a real tree is just irreplaceable if you ask me. Sure it’s a bit more work but in the end, it’s worth every once of effort.
So I wanted to share are a few of the tips I remember learning from my professional Christmas tree decorating parents as I grew up… Take these very seriously, as each tip will greatly influence your experience, and in turn, your holiday as a whole…
TIPS FOR CREATING THE PERFECT “LIVE” CHRISTMAS TREE EXPERIENCE
CHOOSE YOUR TYPE OF TREE - There are many types of Christmas trees, as you well know. My dad always loved a Blue Spruce because of their color and scent, but their needles are like DAGGERS. If you have kids or a pet you don’t want near the tree, get a Blue Spruce because one touch and they’ll never go back. That said, it makes for tough decorating… But they are pretty. I’d say the most popular is a Fraser Fir. The needles are short, soft yet bushy, and typically hold up firmly to ornaments for several weeks. White Pine’s are beautiful but their needles fall and brown very quickly.
ENSURE THE TRUNK IS STRAIGHT - The branches may look perfect but if the trunk is not straight, your tree will look crooked and cattywampus. Stand back and look at the trunk through the branches, and try and choose a tree with a trunk as straight as possible. This way, your tree will look nice from all angles of the room, not just one side. It’ll stand nice and straight.
CHECK FOR NESTS, BUGS, PODS, ETC. - Trees do grow outside for goodness sake, so you can’t be upset with it if it’s go a few critters inside. But try to rid your tree of any questionables you may not want inside your living room. This may sound obvious but we’ve all heard someone tell a story about how they woke up Christmas morning to a room full of something flying, crawling, or buzzing…
CUT 1” OFF OF THE BOTTOM OF THE TRUNK - Especially if your tree is pre-cut, it’s important to cut about an inch off of the bottom of the trunk because the sap hardens and makes it harder it to soak up water. We save our 1” discs from our tree every year! We’ve got 9 so far, one for each year we’ve been married… :)
DRILL HOLES IN THE SIDES AND BOTTOM OF THE TRUNK - If your tree is pre-cut, the hole might already be drilled up the bottom of the trunk for the kind of tree stand with the screw up the middle that most of us have now, but you can also drill small holes in the sides of the trunk, a few inches up from the bottom, to make it easier for water to soak in. You want your tree to be well hydrated, especially if your house has a dry heat source like a wood stove or radiators.
HYDRATE - Be sure to get it in water immediately once you bring it home, whether it’s in a bucket outside or in the stand inside. It’s used to being attached to the ground where it's got a consistent source of hydration and nourishment so you want to make sure to keep it that way as best you can while it’s living in your home.
STRAIGHTEN - Is it straight? Sometimes growing up we’d put an old book or wedge under one of the sides of the tree stand if it was a little “off”. Do whatever you need to do to make it perfect if it isn’t already!
BUY A TREE BAG - This is a tip Tyler and I discovered on our own. Tree bags are life savers when it comes to taking your tree out at the end of the season. They’re so cheap and wonderful! Make sure to get the kind that go around the base of the tree and envelop the tree from the bottom rather than the top, which will catch the dry needles while you’re bagging it up. It’s a life saver! We hard wood floors growing up so it was easier to sweep up the needles, but our house now is carpeted so we definitely make sure to use a bag.
LET THE TREE “FALL” A BIT - You want your tree to settle and get acclimated to it’s new climate before decorating it. Give it a day or two to breathe, for the branches to fall (especially if it’s been wrapped up at a pre-cut stand), and adjust to the temperature of your home.
GIVE THE TREE A TRIM - Seriously, does it need a hair cut? We usually snap a few branches off the bottom and use the greens for a wreath or to decorate the mantle. Tree Stands will often have their pre-cut trees trimmed, but if you get it from a farm, chances are high that you’ll have a few random branches sticking out and, depending on how OCD you are, you may want to tidy it’s look up a bit. I’m a perfectionist for sure, but I have to admit I like a tree with a little whimsy. But typically the bottom will need to be trimmed back to make room for gifts! However, it’s all about your personal preference.
USE A REMOTE TIMER FOR YOUR LIGHTS - Huge game changer! We have a timer so that the tree goes on and off automatically so we aren’t climbing back underneath of the tree to unplug and plug it in every day, but this year we found a timer at Target ($15 or so) with a remote and it is SO FREAKING BOMB I love it!
NEXT COMES THE LIGHTS - We like white lights, and every once in a while will add a string or two in of colored ones, but typically we just go with white. Whatever kind of lights you like, go with it! Start from the bottom back of the tree, inside the tree, working your way towards you, and then back into the center trunk, then back towards you, then back in the center, wrapping each branch once or twice with the wire. This will ensure you have no “black holes”, which are hard to fix once all the lights are on.
GARLAND - Everyone decorates in a different order, but doing garland before ornaments is nice because it gives you room to make changes to the garland placement without disturbing the ornaments. I love felt garland and one I made of old fabric square scraps several years ago. You can even make your own with popcorn, cranberries, colored paper rings, or anything you can think of! Garland helps to add visual interest, and horizontal lines to a liner vertical tree. If your garland doesn’t sit nicely on the branches or is too heavy, Mom says that you can attach the garland to the branches with little ornament hooks!
STAND BACK AND ASSESS - How does it look? Any “black holes” where the lights need to be fixed? Is the garland draped nicely? How does the tree look from all angles around the room?
ORNAMENTS - Now’s the fun part. Turn your favorite Christmas music on, some Egg Nog, Hot Chocolate, or a Hot Toddy, and just enjoy reminiscing with each piece that you pull from the box. Christmas trees are truly time capsules… and decorating them is such a special time.
ADD A TOPPER AND SKIRT - Tyler and I actually don’t have a topper yet! We’ve been through 9 trees together and no topper. We’re sort of on the hunt for one so we’ll see if we can find something we like this year. But the skirt we have was given to me on Christmas Day a few years ago by Tyler’s Grandmother, “Nanny”, and was handmade - I don’t believe by her, but it’s the skirt she used for years. I cried when I got it, and we’ve used it every year since, and will of course continue to. Skirts add the most precious finishing touch to the tree, and hide the tree bag perfectly!
DIMENSION - Don’t just hang ornaments and garland and all on the outside of the tree’s branches, you have to remember to tuck things inside too! This creates interesting depth and more of a magical look and feel to the decorated tree.
APPRECIATE - One of my absolute favorite memories as a child at Christmas was sneaking back downstairs after we’d decorate and go to bed, to find my dad sitting on the sofa admiring the tree while listening to old Frank Sinatra Christmas music. He’s as nostalgic as they come on a typical Tuesday so during the holidays, it’s like nostalgia at it’s max… which I’ve now also inherited… so he’d be sitting thinking about his own dad, childhood Christmas memories, and admiring the beautiful tree. We’d sit on the sofa together and look at each ornament… with incense lit and the fire burning in the wood stove. I can still smell and feel that memory and hope I always will.
LAY UNDERNEATH - Dad told us he would do this as a kid, so of course he encouraged us to do it too, laying underneath of the tree and looking up through the branches at the twinkling lights, colors, shapes, textures, and wonder of it all…
WATER! - Don’t forget to water your tree! You can get those spouts that tuck in through the branches to make it easier. We just have a nice watering can with a skinny spout to easily dip it into the base every few days. Again, it depends on the heat in your home but you can also mist your tree with a spray bottle of water every few days too, not too much because you know - electric and stuff - but it’ll help keep the tree happy.
Any Christmas tree decorating tips you’ve learned in your experience?? I’d love to hear them so please feel free to post in the comments!
The Next Generation of Tree Decorators
Now that Tyler and I have solidified our own traditions, we like to support a local tree farm stand in town each year. It’s worth it to us to pay a few extra bucks to have the tree pre-shaken, trimmed, cut down, and prepped for us! They’re so nice and always cut the bottom off for me to save, give it a last good shake, and load it up for us. It’s a time saver too. We have our routine now with the tree bag, the stand, and how we decorate… which entails me doing the lights and garland, and he comes in to help with the ornaments and we enjoy reminiscing about each one together. We’ve collected so many over the years!
Jesse and his new wife Karlie have also gotten a real tree this year! They’ve carried on the tradition of cutting off the bottom and saving it too… I love how we’ve both carried on the special wonder of Christmas into our families that will hopefully continue on for future generations of professional decorators too! :)
What are some of YOUR Christmas traditions???
I want to see all of your Christmas trees! Sometimes it’s easy to miss a post on social media so when you post a pic, please hashtag #kspsharemytree!
Hope all of you have a Merry Christmas and a cozy holiday season!