Christmas tree, done right

My childhood Christmases weren’t always very merry. My parents’ divorce, frequent financial struggles, and neverending family strife often put a damper on the holiday season.

But one tradition consistently redeemed the unhappy Yuletide: our Christmas tree. It sits at the center of my holiday memories, cheery and bright. To this day, a good tree can make or break Christmas for me—so I’ve assembled my list of requirements for the Tannenbaum tradition:

  • Use a real tree. You wouldn’t feed your family imitation ham for Christmas dinner. Don’t give them an imitation tree, either. If erecting an eight-foot Fraser fir feels overwhelming, scale things back. Even a Christmas bush trumps any plastic alternative.
  • Visit a tree tree farm. On the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, we make our annual pilgrimage to a local Christmas tree farm. This ritual marks the start of the holiday season for us. Of course, the visit itself isn’t always pleasant: think cold rain, blaring novelty music, and bratty kids brandishing saws. But it’s worth braving the “festivities” to have an opportunity to cut your own tree.

    If the nearest farm is too far to justify the trek, you’re stuck buying from a local tree lot. Make the best of your tree-shopping visit, but realize that an overlit grocery store lot may not deliver the tree farm’s romantic atmosphere. At least try to track down a reputable outlet that receives frequent deliveries of fresh-cut trees. You want a tree that was felled yesterday—not on Halloween. Know that you’ll pay a markup—to cover the cost of delivery and staffing the lot.

  • String your Christmas lights the right way. Trimming the tree can be dangerous. I’m not talking about disastrous tree accidents (although we’ve had those, too). The real risk is to your holiday spirit. Every family member has opinions on how best to hang Christmas lights—and they’ll likely wait till halfway through the project to chime in. No matter what technique you choose, you’re likely to be frustrated and irritable by the end of the ordeal. Take your time, and don’t be afraid to split the decorating over multiple days.

    As for the right technique… Too many tree decorators take the lazy way out, feebly laying the strands along the very outermost branches. This method is quick and easy, but the end result is less-than-ideal: a flat-looking tree with an unlit core.

    Here’s a better approach. Take your first strand’s “female” end in hand. Starting at the top of the tree, loosely wrap each individual branch from the trunk to the tip and back again. Then jump to a nearby branch and repeat. Don’t circle the entire tree; instead, divide it into thirds and light one section at a time, moving from side to side and from top to bottom. Once you’re done, you’ll have three male strand ends to plug into your power strip.

    This technique gives you a well-lit tree, featuring intriguing depth and interesting shadows. Your ornaments catch and reflect the light from every direction. More importantly, divying the tree into sections prevents you from daisy-chaining too many strands together (and creating a fire hazard).

    How many lights will you need? The short answer: “More than you think.” Hand-wrapping every tree branch eats up a lot of length. My general rule of thumb is 150–200 lights per foot of tree height. In other words, a six-foot tree requires about a thousand twinklers to light properly. That may seem like overkill, but it’s hard to overlight a tree.

  • Decorate the entire tree. One side of your tree will likely face a wall, but don’t skip decorating the hidden branches. You want your tree to look great from every angle—from the back deck, from the kids’ vantage point, from the side as you walk by. Hang your favorite ornaments out front and use cheaper, less sentimental decorations for less-visible areas.

    Hang ornaments at every depth—not just on the branches’ tips. Shiny baubles—like those ubiquitous red glass balls—look fantastic when hung near the trunk.

  • Leave your tree up a long time. The post-holiday season is long and dreary; why rush into it? In this case, procrastination should be encouraged. No Christmas tree should ever come down before January 6th. That’s the official end of the Christmas season (remember the “twelve days of Christmas”?). And it’s perfectly fine to leave your tree up till mid-January—as long as it’s still drinking water and holding onto its needles.
  • Save a memento. Once you finally do take down the tree, it feels almost sacrilegious to set it by the curb. This central fixture of the celebration, now brittle and brown, gets compacted with eggnog cartons and ripped wrapping paper.

    One way to remember the season’s centerpiece? Create a Christmas ornament. Saw a slice off the trunk and set it aside. Once the chunk dries out, sand it lightly and wood-burn a message into the smoothed surface (e.g. “Jill’s first Christmas tree, 2015”). Drill a hole for the string or hook. Finally, seal the wood with stain, polyurethane or gloss to help prevent rot.

Every family has different priorities for the holiday season. Maybe you’d rather dedicate your extra time to baking Christmas cookies, reconnecting with long-lost relatives, or just watching TV. But if your Christmas traditions—like mine—always revolved around the tree itself, it’s worth taking the time to do it right.