A mother and daughter decorating a Christmas tree in their living room
A mother and daughter decorating a Christmas tree in their living room

Decorating a Christmas tree seems like it should be a no-brainer—put up tree, string lights, add ornaments, done! But when a tree isn’t quite right for the space or is decorated with too-small ornaments or by children who can only reach halfway up, it can quickly become a bit of a mess. So, the question is, how do you choose the right Christmas tree and decorate it without breaking the bank, ruining the fun or having to start over after the kids go to bed? We’ve got the goods.

Christmas tree buying and decorating questions

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1Should I get a real tree or an artificial tree?

The first decision to make is real versus fake and it really comes down to your home, your budget and how much upkeep you’re willing to take on.[1]

Real Tree Pros and Cons

Pro Con
They’re nostalgic for many people, and the annual outing to choose a real tree is steeped in tradition. It can be expensive to purchase a tree year after year.
Most varieties smell incredible. They need to be watered throughout the season so they don’t dry out too quickly.
They’re biodegradable and recyclable. They can be a fire hazard if they become too brittle.
Purchasing a real tree grown in Canada supports the local economy. They will drop their needles, which can be messy.

Artificial Tree Pros and Cons

Pro Con
They’re convenient and low maintenance. They’re made from plastic, which means they’re destined for a landfill one day.
They won’t make a mess. They may not look very realistic.
They’re often treated with flame retardant. They don’t have the wonderful aroma of a real tree.
You may save money in the long run if you use the tree year after year. You’ll have to find room to store them in the off-season.

2What else should I look for when choosing a tree?

If you’re Team Real:

  • Colour: Not all greens are created equal. For a blue-green hue, go with a Balsam fir. For a deeper green, a Fraser fir is a good bet. Douglas firs and Scotch pines are often deep green as well but can veer toward yellow as they dry. Blue spruces have powdery blue needles.[2]
  • Branch strength: If you have an extensive ornament collection, or heavy ceramic or glass ornaments, look for a tree with sturdy branches. The Fraser fir is a great option with a winning combo of strong branches and soft needles. Scotch pines are also sturdy, but they have sharper needles.[2]
  • Longevity: Some tree varieties retain their needles better than others. The Scotch pine is the winner in this category, managing to hold on to its needles even if you don’t get around to watering it as often as you should. The Fraser fir also isn’t too shabby in the retention department.[2]

Our Favourite Real Christmas Trees (yes, Walmart sells fresh trees!)

If you’re Team Faux:

Your choices are vast with an artificial tree and it’s hard to go wrong. Since you may use this tree for years to come, make sure you like the colour and any other features such as flocking and the hue of the lights on pre-lit models.

Our Favourite Artificial Christmas Trees

Whether you go real or artificial, you’ll spend more for a big tree. Here are a few more guidelines to follow for size and width:

  • Height: Leave at least six inches between the tree and the ceiling, including a topper of any kind.
  • Width: It’s personal preference. Some people like tall, skinny trees—especially in an apartment or condo—while others go for a fuller look. For a traditional, proportionate aesthetic, the tree should be 1.5 to two times as tall as it is wide.
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How to Dispose of a Real Christmas Tree
Most municipalities designate a Christmas tree pick-up day in early January or set up drop-off locations. Remove all lights, ornaments and tinsel from the tree and follow instructions for your area. Many communities ask that trees are left loose, unbagged and free of twine to make mulching easier.[3]

3Which tree smells the best?

If you’re after that classic Christmas-tree scent of yore, opt for a Balsam fir or Fraser fir.[4]

Still wondering which tree to get? Print or Pin this handy flow chart

Flow chart to help you decide which type of Christmas tree to get

4How long does a real Christmas tree last?

With proper attention, a real Christmas tree can last at least four to six weeks.[5] Here are a few tricks for keeping it fresh as long as possible:

  • Check branches: Run your hand down a branch. If the needles come away easily, move along. It’s already drying out.[5]
  • Trim the trunk: Ask your local tree seller to cut off the bottom layer of the trunk before you take the tree home and put it directly in a water-holding tree stand. If you feel comfortable, you can also use a saw to trim the bottom yourself. Keep an eye on the water level each day.[5]
  • Watch for heat sources: If you can, station the tree away from direct sunlight and your home’s heat sources, as they’ll speed up the drying process.[5]

5How do I make an artificial tree look fuller?

There are a few ways to help an artificial tree look more real. Here are some easy tips for upping the authenticity factor:

  • Get fluffing: The wired branches of a fake tree get flattened in storage so the tree will look sparse when you first put it up. Spend a good chunk of time separating the branches and positioning them to fill empty spaces.
  • Add extra oomph with garlands: Purchase a few garlands that match the colour of your tree and weave them along the inside of the tree for fullness. Just make sure you have enough garland to fill out the whole tree.
  • Give it a boost of real: Buy real swags of evergreen and tuck them into the tree. Not only will they help with authenticity, but you’ll also get a dose of that amazing Christmas tree scent. Just keep in mind that they only last about two to four weeks.

6How do I put lights on a Christmas tree?

There are a few common guidelines where lights are concerned, for both your home and your tree. If you’re wondering how to choose Christmas lights or how to install them properly, check out our full Christmas Lights Buying Guide.

  1. Buy lights: Make sure you have at least 100 for every foot of tree. If your favourite part of the tree is the lights, you may want to double or triple that number.
  2. Check the bulbs: Plug in each string of lights to make sure the strand works and all bulbs are lit. If any have burned out, replace them.
  3. Start from the bottom: Plug in your lights to make sure they reach, then begin looping around the tree, zigzagging back and forth from the outer branches to the trunk and back again. If you stick too closely to the outside of the tree, you won’t get that inner glow you’re after.
  4. Attach strands as you go: Wrap one strand at a time and then join the next strand before wrapping further. That way you’ll ensure each strand links properly and is connected to the power source.

Merry and Bright Christmas Tree Lights

7How do I put ribbon on a Christmas tree?

Adding garland or ribbon to a Christmas tree is an affordable way to decorate because you’ll need fewer ornaments to fill space. Look for thick, wired ribbon. You want it to be visible and moldable so you can shape it however you choose. Now, pick a look:

  • A cascade: Light and decorate the tree first. Then clip four-to-six lengths of ribbon a little taller than the tree. Secure it to the top and arrange it in curls down the tree. Tuck it into the branches so it stays put. Check out this helpful cascading ribbon video tutorial for more tips.
  • A gauzy effect: For an ethereal look, light the tree with as many strands as you can manage and then decorate. Next, with rolls of sheer ribbon or mesh, loosely wrap the tree, leaving room between the branches and the ribbon. The tree will look like the ribbon is swirling around it. Watch this easy gauzy ribbon tutorial before you break out your supplies.
  • Artful bows: Once the tree is lit and decorated, take a step back and look for sparse, dark spots. Tie large bows from lengths of ribbon and wire them to the branches where the tree has holes. Make your own tree bows with the help of this DIY video.
  • Traditional garlands: Light the tree but don’t decorate yet. Starting at the top, wrap the tree beaded garlands or tinsel, an inch or two in from the tips of the branches. Once the garland is in place, decorate the tree with some ornaments in front of the garland and some behind.

Festive Ribbons and Bows for Tree Decorating

8How many ornaments do I need?

You’ll have to take into account a few different things: tree height, tree width and your desired amount of coverage. Some people prefer a minimalist look, while others love to weigh down the branches with as many ornaments as the tree will hold.

Larger ornaments anchor the look of the tree, while medium and small ornaments fill holes. Try to avoid overly large ornaments on small trees and super small ornaments on big trees if you’re trying to create a pro effect.

Have a narrow tree?

Tree Height Minimal Covered
3 feet 15 25
4 feet 25 40
5 feet 40 65
6 feet 60 95
7 feet 85 140
8 feet 115 190
9 feet 145 240
10 feet 175 290
11 feet 210 350
12 feet 260 430

Have a wide tree?

Tree Height Minimal Covered
3 feet 30 50
4 feet 50 80
5 feet 75 120
6 feet 100 170
7 feet 140 230
8 feet 175 300
9 feet 220 370
10 feet 270 450
11 feet 320 540
12 feet 380 630

For another perspective, try this ornament calculator where you can plug in tree height, bottom diameter and preferred density of baubles to find a more specific ornament number for your tree and aesthetic.

Print or Pin this ornament shopping guide

Chart to help you decided how many ornaments to get for your tree based on height, width and look
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Opt for a narrow tree and a minimal look to save money. If you want to cover more real estate without spending a ton, add ribbon or garland.

9What final details should I consider so my tree looks professional?

Christmas is supposed to be fun, so don’t stress so much about the tree that you stop enjoying the decorating process. It’s okay to want a pretty tree but take it in stride (especially if you have kids who want to help!). That said, there are some easy ways to get the look you want:

  • Choose a theme or colour scheme: Pull together the overall look by buying ornaments, lights, garland and ribbon in the same style (like rustic or retro) or colour palette. If you have an eclectic collection of sentimental ornaments that don’t really match, stick to one or two colours for garland, ribbon and filler balls.
  • Work from top to bottom: Starting at the top, where the tree is the smallest, allows you to easily check your work as you go. Decorate a foot of tree, then stand back to see where you might need to rebalance ornaments.
  • Consider using tree picks: Tree picks are sprigs of branches, berries, florals or pinecones that can be tucked into the finished tree to add interest and fill in any ornament gaps.
  • Choose or make a showstopping topper: Buy or craft a topper that fits your theme or colour palette. The bigger the tree, the larger the topper should be.
  • Don’t forget the tree skirt: A tree skirt hides the tree stand and completes the effect. Source one that fits your aesthetic, or one that completely blends with the carpet or floor.

Top Christmas Tree Decorations

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