Sorry, Santa, but the real star of the season might just be the tree. It simply doesn't feel like Christmastime until you've selected, put up and decked out that all-important evergreen. This guide has advice to help you with each step of the process and tips on keeping your tree looking beautiful until the big guy arrives--and beyond.
Choose an evergreen
Before you hop in the car, find out how to spot a winner at the tree farm or lot.
Don't buy too early. Shop for a tree no earlier than three weeks before Christmas--that's the maximum length of time a just-cut evergreen can stay fresh indoors. For a list of retailers in your area, visit christmastree.org, click "Go" under "Find My Christmas Tree" and enter your zip code. Before you go shopping, learn more about the most common varieties.
Get out your yardstick. Determine what size tree to get before you leave home. Choose a spot that isn't in direct sunlight or near a heat source. Measure the height and width of the area. A 6- or 7-foot tree is a good bet for 8-foot ceilings, but remember to take into account the height of the decoration you plan to put on top as well as the height that the tree stand will add. Christmas trees are typically trimmed to an 8- percent taper. Translation: If you choose a 6-footer, you'll need almost 5 feet of space to accommodate the width at the base of the tree.
Ensure it will last. The freshest possible tree is one you chop down yourself at a nearby choose-your-own farm. If you prefer to buy a precut tree, ask the retailer when shipments come in and plan your trip accordingly. Avoid trees that have been sitting in the sun, which can dry them out. To test for freshness, gently grasp a branch and pull it toward you; very few needles should fall off. Then bend a few branches, if they snap easily the tree is probably too dry. Other signs that you should move on: a lot of brown needles, a musty odor and wrinkled bark.
Inspect it carefully. Look for a tree that is uniformly full on all sides and has a straight trunk that will fit easily in a stand. When selecting a precut tree, have the salesperson trim half an inch off the trunk. That helps the tree to take up water when placed in a stand at home.
Make sure your tree stays green and your floor clean.
Offer a drink. Place the tree in water as soon as possible after you get home. (If the trunk wasn't trimmed at the tree lot, make a fresh cut with a saw first.) If you prefer not to set it up in the stand right away, place the trunk in a bucket of water and store it in a cool place such as your garage.
Protect your floors. Put down a plastic drop cloth where you plan to display the tree and place the stand on top. The stand should fit the diameter of the trunk (never whittle the trunk to get it into a stand, as that can hinder the tree's ability to drink.) For trees 6 feet tall and larger, you want a stand that holds at least a gallon of water. Make sure the tree is straight and the best side is showing.
Tweak the branches. Survey the tree to see if any areas need pruning. If the foliage around the base seems bushy or scrawny, remove a few branches with gardening shears. Also trim any small growth that juts straight out from the top or bottom of branches (as opposed to sweeping gracefully to the sides) to make more space for ornaments to dangle. Also, prune any branches that extend too far. If there are bare spots, tie a couple branches together with green floral wire to create fullness.
Care For It
Keep your tree looking fresh and festive all season long.
Hydrate often. This is the key to making the tree last and keeping it healthy. A cut tree can absorb between a quart and a gallon of water per day. Check the stand daily; add water as needed.
Stay cool. To help slow the drying process, considering lowering the temperature where the tree is displayed. At the very least, turn down the thermostat when you leave the house or go to bed. As a safety precaution, switch off the tree's lights, too.
Remove promptly. Dry, brittle trees are more than unattractive--they can be a fire hazard.
Use these tricks to create a dazzling display.
Check the lights. Plug in each set and weed out any strands that are cracked or frayed or have broken or burned-out bulbs. Leave the lights lit when you are hanging them so you can see dark spots in the tree.
String them wisely. Instead of wrapping lights all the way aroud the tree, which usually results in a tangle, divide the tree vertically into three sections and string the lights by section. Starting at the top, weave a strand back and forth across that triangular area, taking care not to cross the cord over itself. Repeat to fill in the remaining two sections.
Start high. Attach the tree topper next, before hanging ornaments. This way you won't lean into decorations you've already placed in the tree. If you have trouble getting the topper to sit straight, you might need to trim a little off the tree top. You can also wrap aluminum foil around the top to create a tighter fit.
Add the garland. Working from the top down, drape strands loosley around the tree to create pretty curves and avoid the "sausage effect": boughs bulging between tightly wrapped strands.
Organize your ornaments. Lay them all out on a table. If you have a lot of one type, such as metallic balls or a dominant color, hang those first, spreading them evenly all over the tree. Place the largest ornaments next, dispersing them as above. Fill in the gaps with smaller decorations. Mixing up the ornament sizes, rather than putting all the big ones at the bottom and small ones at the top, creates balance and draws the eye through the whole display.
Dress up the base. Finish the display with a tree skirt. If you don't ahev one, you may subsititute a pretty blanket, tablecloth or fabric remnant instead. A Christmas tree can look lonely before there are presents underneath, so consider arranging potted pointsettias or large pinecones around the trunk.
Photo credit: Tumblr/Santa's Working Overtime