How to decorate a Christmas tree – our step-by-step guide to festive success

Follow our handy advice and tips on how to decorate a Christmas tree to help you create your very own festive showstopper

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

Whether you’re well-versed in how to decorate a Christmas tree, or the job has fallen to you for the first time in a while, a little refresher never hurt. 

You may have planned the decorations for your Christmas tree ideas to perfection, but if you don’t bring them together carefully and correctly, the impressive overall effect you were going for will almost certainly be lost. 

Whether your Christmas tree is up for the whole of advent, or you ramp up the excitement and anticipation levels by holding off until closer to the big day, putting up your tree is a surefire way to welcome Christmas into your home.

So if that perfectly decorated, Instagram-worthy tree is on your bucket list for this Christmas, follow these stylist-approved steps and tricks to help you make your tree the star of your celebrations.

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

Follow these handy tips on how to get your Christmas tree looking its best for the big day

Choose the right tree

How to decorate a Christmas tree

(Image credit: Future)

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 (opens in new tab). ‘This will allow for extra foliage to make a wreath or mantel from.’ 

Position your tree


(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.

Pop on the lights


(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 (opens in new tab)

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.

Add the tree topper


(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.

Fill with picks and sprays


(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 (opens in new tab)

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

Hang your core baubles


(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.

 Add your feature decorations 


(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.

Take time on the finishing touches


(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. 

Finish with a tree skirt


(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.  

Think about the surrounding area

How to decorate a Christmas tree

(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. 

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. 

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.