I mentioned yesterday that I have decorated a lot of trees over the years. A few hundred, in fact. It used to be my job. Most of them were decorated for a purpose— either to sell goods or create a home-like atmosphere in a non-homey location (example: an insurance broker’s lobby). To be clear, I never designed the trees – I was just a worker bee. Very few of those trees were anything special. Budgets were tight and time was precious, but, after all those trees, I picked up a few tricks along the way. A lot of people would be surprised how fast, easy, and inexpensive it can be to fill a very large and otherwise-empty Christmas tree.
Before we go on any further, let’s be clear; there is no right way to decorate a tree. There is no wrong way either. I'm not trying to tell anyone how to do it. I’m just showing a few ways to thicken up a tree to bolster whatever decorations you already have. I like my trees big, thick and abundant. You might like something different. To each his own!
There are a lot of ways to thicken a tree, but the basic concept is this: repeat a pattern.
Pick one element and polka-dot it all over the tree. Lay that pattern under or over your regular ornaments and you will give a tree dimension. If you have the patience and pocket book to sandwich your regular ornaments between two 'webs' of pattern, even better. What I propose below are five ways to create inexpensive, high impact patterns. There are thousands more out there (I just couldn't fit them in for demo photos last weekend).
Tinsel Poufs ($3.00 a strand)
I think a lot of people are aware of the concept of ‘base ornaments’ (the first layer of ornaments that go on the tree, usually a series of solid colored mercury balls or some other repeating element that is impersonal or slightly less show-stopping). If you can afford to buy three dozen reflective gold or silver balls, go for it. The dollar store sells plastic ones cheap and plentiful. But....for a super-sparkly (and dirt cheap) alternative, buy a single strand of tinsel garland and snip it into small poufs. I like to buy the fattest garland I can find, cut it into 4” lengths, and then hot glue the tips together to form a doughnut. The little doughnuts slide nicely on to inside branches, providing a lovely, sparkly base for other ornaments.
Note: The hot glue is important, not only because it forms the loop doughnut shape, but because it melts the tinsel in place and prevents it from falling off in little bits, which is critical for anyone who has children or animals in the house. Tinsel can cause considerable pain and damage if ingested – keep away from kiddos and fur babies at all times!
Pinecones. Pinecones. Pinecones. They make for great base ornaments for folks who like a natural/rustic/ less is more look. One of the prettiest trees I ever saw was nothing but a beautiful spruce with white lights and pine cones. But for people like me who need some glitz, there is always the glittered pine cone. I make a batch each year. They look good in a basket on the table, or on the tree, or in a garland. Do I really need to tell anyone how to glitter a pinecone? If you answered yes, it means you are past due. Watch this video. Now get going.
Note: If you hate glitter because it gets everywhere, stick to fine glitter and mix it into the glue before you brush it on. It won’t sparkle quite as much, but it will lock in place for good.No shedding.Note: Why not scent the pinecones before turning them into ornaments?
Sausage Ribbons ($2.99 per 10 yard roll)
Big fabulous bows are great on a Christmas tree. The problem is they are crazy expensive. Making big fat loopty-loos is awesome, but they use up so much yardage that it’s easy to spend $10 or more on a single bow. Honestly, did you ever notice how the craft and fabric stores hold bow-making demonstrations for free? Why—because they know as soon as it’s done you will walk over to the ribbon aisle and drop $50 in five minutes. Smarty pants!
Sausage ribbons are nice because they use far less ribbon and cover a lot more real estate. To make them, buy French ribbon (the stuff with the wires in the edges), cut into 20” -30” lengths, then wrap around a big fat marker (sort of like you would to curl your hair). Grab in the middle , twist on a hook or small piece of pipe cleaner, then latch on to the underside of one of the branches. Tada. One sausage curl looks pretty wimpy, but 10 or twelve scattered on a tree looks fabulous. The curls give the tree a sense of motion. Almost perky looking, like someone curled its hair.
Note: To store, curl them up around your finger and secure with a bobby pin until next year.Note: If you can’t find a good deal on French ribbon, many other kinds of ribbon can be curled using a hot curling iron. Some people even cut fabric on the bias to make their own ribbon. You tell me if it works.
Feathers ($2.00 a bag)
I am crazy about feathers on Christmas trees. Let’s be honest, I like feathers on anything, but white feathers on a Christmas tree are just about the most gorgeous thing under the sun. I stole this idea from a tree that used to stand in one of the lobbies of the Four Seasons in Chicago, only they used big fat ostrich plumes (cost about $2-$5 a piece) whereas I buy regular craft store feathers for $2 a bag. Just wrap the bottom 1” of the stem with a 3” pipe cleaner, then wrap it around the tip of a branch. You would be shocked how much dimension the feathers give to the tree. Between the base coat of ornaments on the bottom, a handful of favorite/unique ornaments all around, and a coat of feathers on top, any tree will look like a million bucks.
Note: I like to point the feathers upward because it makes the tree look happy. But if you use lots of white feathers and point them downward, it honestly looks like snow. Big poufy, magical, Liberace snow.
Asterisk Ornaments ($1.99 bag of 50 white pipe cleaners)
For the hipster George Jetson type, there are always asterisk ornaments. Just take 5 pipe cleaners, cut them in half, bundle nine of the stems together, then use the tenth to twist them all together. One by one, pull each leg down in a different direction. That’s it. They will stick to any tree without hooks, but if you want them toward the tips, fold a crook in one of the stems and use it for a hook. It doesn’t get any easier than this!
Note: I like all white, but I have seen these done in silver on a sparse tree and it looked pretty amazing. I’m also thinking these would be fun for kids to make in many colors. Cindy mentioned in the comments on Facebook yesterday about a skinny Christmas tree covered with stuff her kid’s made – 1) WHAT A GREAT IDEA and 2) wouldn’t it be fun to accent a kid’s art tree with a bunch of multi colored asterisk ornaments? Too fun. TOO FUN I SAY.Note: These will bend in storage if you aren’t careful. It takes less time to flatten them nicely than to individually straighten each leg.
A lot of people avoid the stuff because they don’t know how to hang it. Here is the thing, don’t just balance it on the branches or wrap it around the tree; lay the stuff out on the floor and twist a wire hook every 20” (30” or longer if you like the big swoopy Victorian look), and hang the hooks from the undersides of branches. Cheap and effective. A little goes a long way.
If you like a rich, abundant look, get a smaller tree. The thicker you lay on the ornaments, the more copious your ornaments will appear. Likewise, if you take the less-is-more approach, get the biggest, fattest tree your room and wallet can afford.
The way people put lights on a tree is a highly personal matter, but I saw this tip about vertical strands in Real Simple a few years ago and it totally rocked my world.
Christmas trees have a lot more presence when you set them on a small table. You can make a small tree seem HUGE by placing it on top of a 30” dresser. This also makes it easier to access presents Christmas morning, but we are just talking decorative stuff today. If you have an old end table in your basement (or can pick one up at the thrift store), think about using it under the tree. Just cover it with a tree skirt or a lovely quilt and call it a day.
Okay, that’s about all I know. Now I want to hear what you have to say; what is your favorite tip for decorating the tree?