How to decorate a Christmas tree – simple steps to a showstopping design

It should be the star of the show in the holiday season. Discover how to decorate a Christmas tree the expert way

How to decorate a Christmas tree
(Image credit: Future)

Knowing how to decorate a Christmas tree the way the experts do can make the difference between a tree that’s festive and fun or one that’s festive, fun, and fabulously stylish and impactful.

You’re likely already full of Christmas tree ideas whether you have many years of experience of decorating for the holiday, or this is the first time you’re putting up a tree for the season. But getting the look you want needs the right approach as well as beautiful tree ornaments, string lights and more.

The best approach to the task is one that’s step by step, as undertaking the individual tasks in the right order will result in the most pleasing finish and one that’s achieved without having to go back and tweak to create a balanced and effective display.

These are the guidelines from the experts that will allow you to make the tree the worthy star of the show.

How to decorate a Christmas tree – a step by step guide

‘I believe your Christmas tree, as with all designs, should be a reflection of your personality,’ says April Gandy, principal designer of Alluring Designs Chicago. ‘It can be simple traditional décor, all the ornaments made by the children in your life or even a fun character theme. It’s a season of joy, so have fun with it!’

Whatever your preferred style these handy tips will ensure your Christmas tree looks its best.

1. Choose the right tree

Living room with decorated and illuminated Christmas tree

(Image credit: Katie Davis Design Photograph: Kerry Kirk)

The very first step is ensuring you choose the right tree for your space and your style. Size matters – if you’re going big, ensure you know how tall your ceilings are so you can make sure there’s enough space to fit in your Christmas tree topper ideas. It’s also becoming more and more important to source trees sustainably, so look out for suppliers who do so. 

‘If purchasing a natural Christmas tree, choose a tree with extra weight in places so it can be trimmed back,’ suggests Holly Gannon, design manager at Milc Interiors. ‘This will allow for extra foliage to make a wreath or mantel from.’ 

The type of tree is, of course, a personal choice. ‘I always go traditional on the tree: Douglas fir with white lights,’ says Katie Davis of Katie Davis Design. ‘We pile in decorations that are handmade from the kids, and more precious ornaments like my glass Radko santas, which my mom gifts me every year.’

2. Position your tree

Living room with Christmas tree and neutral furniture and walls

(Image credit: Future/Chris Everard)

Choose the position of your Christmas tree – and prioritize somewhere where it won’t get knocked as people squeeze past. If you’re concerned about keeping a Christmas tree alive, avoid standing it near direct heat, especially if it’s a fresh tree.

An artificial tree will need putting together (most trees come with branches that are color-coded or numbered so it’s clear what goes where). Once it’s built, take your time to fluff the branches, separating each one to add volume and cover as much area as possible. 

The branches are the foundation for your overall scheme, so it pays to put in the effort – keep stepping back to look at the tree as a whole to see if there are any areas you’ve missed. 

For a fresh tree, set it up securely in a tree stand. You can fluff a real tree, but do it very gently so as not to knock off the needles. You can also trim any stray branches with secateurs or pruners for a neater look.

3. Pop on the lights

Decorated Christmas tree in front of painted paneling

(Image credit: Future)

‘When it comes to festive lighting, everyone knows that your tree is the highlight of your living room during the holiday season, so focus your efforts here for the best results,’ says Michael Meiser, president of Lumilum

Lights are an integral part of pretty much all Christmas tree themes. If you don't have a pre-lit tree, you’ll need to add string lights. First up, plug them in to check they’re working – it’s much better to find out if they don’t work before you’ve wasted time putting them on the tree, plus it’s easier to get the lights properly positioned when they’re lit. 

‘It’s important to light your tree correctly with Christmas lights,’ says Meiser. ‘Before you’ve added any decorations, be sure to start from the top and wind your way down – making sure you tuck any excess around the back of the tree.’ Ensure they’re also nestled deeply closer to the trunk than the branch tips so the lights peep through. 

Again, keep stepping back to check the positioning of the bulbs – you’re aiming for an even distribution of lights across the tree. Use lights with a green cable so that the cable blends in with the tree foliage.

4. Add the tree topper

Top of Christmas tree with topper and ornaments

(Image credit: Future)

Forget adding your topper right at the end. If you leave it until the last step when the tree is fully decorated there’s a danger you’ll knock off precious decorations when you’re trying to get it onto the tree. It’s much more straightforward to position your topper at this stage. 

A simple star is a classic choice, you may have an heirloom angel that’s been part of your tree decorating tradition for years, or you could craft a different topper each Christmas. If you’re embracing some alternative Christmas tree ideas this year, think about a topper that reflects your personal passions, from your pets to your hobbies.

5. Fill with picks and sprays

Branches of Christmas tree with ornaments and berry picks

(Image credit: Future)

Think of these as the ‘filler’ you’d often find in a floral arrangement – if you’re wondering how to make a Christmas tree look fuller, picks and sprays will add texture to your tree and fill any spaces between the branches for a fuller, more luxurious look. 

They could be faux or dried flowers, or natural branches sprayed white for a frosty look. ‘Try adding some dried flowers to your tree to give that added layer of nature. You could use dried grasses, heather or eucalyptus to lay on the branches of your tree,’ suggests Rebecca Stanton, stylist at Dobbies Garden Centres

Dried grasses such as pampas grass have been big news in interiors lately, and these would look fantastic for a natural look.

6. Hang your core tree ornaments

Christmas tree branches with tree ornaments in silver and glass

(Image credit: Future/Chris Everard)

Start hanging your baubles in your chosen base color (limit the color scheme to three or four shades max unless you’re going for an all-out maximalist look), using larger ones at the bottom and medium sized baubles in the central area and top of the tree. 

Choose baubles in different finishes – such as glittered, matt and shiny – to add depth and visual interest to the scheme. These will form the base layer for your showstopper Christmas decor ideas

‘Carefully place your larger baubles first to ensure your tree feels balanced then work around those to add in smaller baubles,’ says Stanton.

 7. Add your feature decorations 

Living room with decorated Christmas tree, neutral sofa and armchair, fireplace and dark painted walls

(Image credit: Future/Dan Duchars)

These extra-special decorations add character and wow to your tree. Whether heirlooms, collectibles or homemade ornaments, position the heaviest decorations towards the inside of the tree first, so the weight is supported by the larger branches. 

This step also means you’re filling any gaps inside the tree for a more three-dimensional and interesting look.

8. Take time on the finishing touches

Christmas tree branches with ornaments and pine cone decorations

(Image credit: Future/Polly Eltes)

Look at your tree from a good distance back so that you can take in any holes, gaps or areas in need of extra twinkle. Smaller decorations such as mini baubles, bells or small hanging stars are the ideal fillers. 

For a sparkly, winter wonderland scheme, glass (or acrylic) icicles on the tips of branches fit the brief perfectly, introducing extra shimmer, and visual interest. For farmhouse Christmas tree ideas, try embracing natural materials like pine cones and winter foliage. 

9. Finish with a tree skirt

Christmas tree on mantel with chair and piled up presents alongside

(Image credit: Future)

The tree stand isn’t something you want on display, so use Christmas tree skirt ideas to cover it up until it gets hidden behind a stack of beautifully wrapped gifts. It doesn’t have to be a readymade product – try disguising the stand with fabric that ties in with your theme such as burlap, linen, faux fur or sheepskin. 

For a smarter look, buy a wicker or linen tree skirt that acts like a collar to slot over the stand.  

10. Think about the surrounding area

Living room with Christmas tree and piled up presents below

(Image credit: David Brittain/Emily Brittain Delgardo)

The festive spirit shouldn’t stop at the tip of your tree’s branches – ensure it filters out gradually into the rest of your Christmas living room decor ideas by adding some coordinated decorations and atmospheric touches around your tree. 

‘To create a cosy feeling try stacking a basket with logs and wood around the tree and spray them with pine to give a festive scent,’ says Gannon. ‘Alternatively a mix of blankets and throws can give the festive feel.’ Consider also taking excess tree decorations and using them in your mantel decor with a festive pine garland to continue the design across the rest of the room. 

11. Lay out your presents

A Christmas tree isn’t complete without a layer of excitement-inducing presents tucked in at its base. Whether you like to lay them out early to ramp up the anticipation or leave them to the night before, you and your household may want to consider tying in your wrapping to the decor theme of your tree. Color-coordinated presents are the ultimate stylish finishing touch to a dazzling Christmas tree. 

Do you put lights or ornaments on a Christmas tree first?

Put the lights on a Christmas tree before the ornaments. It’s much easier to check that string lights are positioned evenly – from top to bottom and around the branches – when there is nothing else on the tree. 

Adjusting them as necessary will be easier, too, as you won’t be in danger of dislodging other tree decorations.

‘Work with the lights switched on to check the distribution as you go,’ advises Lucy Searle, global editor in chief of Homes & Gardens. ‘You may need more than one string of lights for the tree, and you can mix clear lights with colored lights successfully. Try using clear lights as the overall illumination with the colored versions around the outer parts of the branches.’

White, gold, and red are enduringly popular Christmas tree colors, although there are plenty of other palettes you could adopt for a beautifully decorated tree.

‘We like using similar colorways for ornaments and garlands on trees we decorate,’ says Jennifer Walter, owner and principal designer for Folding Chair Design Co. ‘If you like silver or gold, stay with those complementary colors or go with other metallics like pink and blue. We always love an all-white tree, too. It seems not to matter as much what the décor is as much as how the color translates on the tree. It makes for more forgiving labor in the end.’

Ailis Brennan
Contributing Editor

Ailis started out at British GQ, where a month of work experience turned into 18 months of working on all sorts of projects, writing about everything from motorsport to interiors, and helping to put together the GQ Food & Drink Awards. She then spent three years at the London Evening Standard, covering restaurants and bars. After a period of freelancing, writing about food, drink and homes for publications including Conde Nast Traveller, Luxury London and Departures, she started at Homes & Gardens as a Digital Writer, allowing her to fully indulge her love of good interior design. She is now a fully fledged food PR but still writes for Homes & Gardens as a contributing editor.

With contributions from