How to decorate a Christmas tree – expert tips and ideas for decorating like a pro

Want the insider knowledge on how to decorate a Christmas tree? We've asked the experts for their top styling tips

Christmas dining room with Scandi style
(Image credit: Layered Lounge)

When it comes to learning how to decorate a Christmas tree, it seems simple right? Throw on the lights, disperse the baubles and stick whatever tradition you have on top, whether that be a star or a drunken-looking homemade fairy. And yes, while this technique may have seen you through Christmases past, there's always a section that remains lightless, an ornament that sticks out, or a bald patch that you can't seem to fill. So this year, we think it's time to take it up a notch and decorate your tree like a pro, to create a spruce that looks so beautiful, so perfectly proportioned, so evenly twinkly.

How to decorate a Christmas tree step by step

We've taken it back to basics with a step-by-step that will ensure you nail your Christmas tree decor this year, plus we've asked the experts for all their insider tips and our favorite designers have shared how they like to approach the Christmas tree too.

What goes on the Christmas tree first?

The age-old question, what goes on the Christmas tree first? Unless you have a pre-lit tree the first thing to go should be the lights, then once you are happy with how they are arranged go in with the larger baubles, keeping the majority of them closer to the trunk of the tree. Then hang the heaviest to ensure they get the strongest branches. Then layer up the medium-sized and small ornaments before saving the best till last so all your favorites go pride of place. Just follow our step-by-step and you won't go wrong...

1. Choose a theme

christmas tree trends red baubles

(Image credit: Annie Sloan)

Before starting to hang anything on your tree, you should first decide on a scheme, something that brings everything on the tree together, that could be a color palette, a certain shape of ornament or an overall theme like woodland or disco, a white Christmas tree, or the weirdly popular theme of under the sea.

And whilst a theme might sound like it doesn't leave room for more personal, sentimental decs, make those the theme – nostalgia and vintage style is a huge theme this Christmas so you're decades old dough ornaments have never been more on trend.

If you are looking for inspiration for color schemes, we agree with Abigail Ahern that you can never go wrong with a classic gold. She told us that, 'oddly enough I am super minimal when it comes to decorating Christmas trees, ornaments are burnished gold with simple white tree lights. I think sparkle goes such a long way so it feels glamorous but not overpowering. I like to think it's chic yet curated so tend to keep trees quite clean.'

Of course red and green are always going to work too and this combination is the perfect backdrop for your homemade decorations too if you like to go down the... eclectic route. Picking a strong color scheme to start with will mean no matter what mismatch of decoration you throw at it you'll still have a cohesive feel to the tree. 

And don't shy away from going bold either, rainbow hues and maximalist decoration have been a Christmas tree trend over the last few years and we personally love the more is more approach. 'For Christmas this year, I'm absolutely loving the idea of colorful yet calming décor.' says Jane Rockett, Co-founder of Rockett St George.  With this in mind, I will be choosing marvelous patterns, pops of color, and subtle hints of glitter when it comes to decorating my tree next month. Think Japandi wallpaper murals but as charming Christmas tree decorations, with beautiful bird, blossom, and tiger patterns peeking through the branches. Keeping the color palette pared-back, ultra striking yet harmonious, and peaceful is the look I'm going for with my Christmas tree this year!' 

2. Ensure your tree is looking full and fresh

California style Christmas living room decor and large Christmas tree by Laura Butler-Madden

(Image credit: Laura Butler-Madden)

Next, you'll want to make sure your tree is looking at its best and is in the right position before you start adorning it with decorations. Christmas trees are used to the cold outdoors, and in order to keep your Christmas alive and looking fresh throughout the festive season, you'll want to make sure it has plenty to drink so pick a Christmas tree stand that can hold water. We know these often aren't the prettiest but you can always cover it with a Christmas tree skirt. 

Alternatively, why not be more sustainable and opt for a potted Christmas tree? Make like Russell Whitehead co-founder of 2LG Studio, 'Try something different this year. Potted trees can’t live for years outside and are happy to come indoors and be decorated for the festive period. We’ve had ours for five years now and have become rather fond of him. For fun, we’ve chosen a weeping Himalayan pine. He’s rather odd with bare patches and elegant long needles. Adds a retro-chic element to Christmas.'

'We always love to collect a special tree decoration each year and have slowly built up a collection of decorations that we absolutely love. We opted to buy white porcelain or crystal ornaments so that there is a coherence to all the different decorations even though they were bought years apart. These form a strong base and we will often bring in different color elements like bold ribbons to change it up each year.'

Whatever type of tree you go for just check out your tree from all angles and pick the best to be front-facing, then give your tree an hour or so to drop before you start decorating. If you are decorating a faux Christmas tree spend some time fluffing the branches to ensure it looks as full and natural as possible. 

3. Start with the lights

Bare Christmas tree with just lights

(Image credit: The Musee Home)

Unless you are using a pre-lit tree, the next step is to string on the lights. When it comes to fairy lights, more is more, you want the tree to twinkle from all angles and you want enough lights to really get into the depth of the tree too. 'We'd recommend 170 lights per meter of the tree.' advises Chrissie Rucker, founder of The White Company. 'Start from the bottom, winding them up and around.'

Once you've tackled the inevitable untangling, switch your lights on before you start putting them on the tree, this will make it much easier to see gaps. Work your way across the tree, going up one branch each time you've made a full circle. Once you have this even spread you can start playing around – take some lights further back towards the trunk, drape the string over smaller branches and fill in any obvious gaps.

You can layer fairy lights too. If you like colored lights (personally we are all for their retro feel) start with a base of white lights that sit closer to the trunk and them wrap the colored lights around keeping them towards the edges of the branches. And different sizes of lights can give a lovely look too, mixing smaller fairy lights with slightly larger globe lights creates a really twinkly tree that has an almost lit from within look. 

Why not take inspiration from Jo's tree, founder of Musee Home and stop at the lights? 'I have always loved a sparsely decorated Christmas tree, especially a real one.' explains Jo. 'I usually give in and add the odd bauble or two but last year in lockdown it was just my husband and I at home and we could please ourselves so went completely naked and loved it. This year we have our niece and nephew helping us to decorate the tree so I fear it will be more kitsch then sparce but as Christmas is all about the sparkle I’m sure I’ll love that too!'

4. Fix on the topper

Traditional christmas tree with red and green scheme

(Image credit: Polly Wreford)

Now it might be tradition to do this last as the final flourish, but securing your tree topper on before you start adding baubles saves any casualties. You can't go wrong with a classic star to adorn the top of your tree, but a lovely velveteen ribbon tied to the top in a color that suits your scheme can look just as pretty. Or switch the star for a collection of decorations hung from the top branch. Oversized paper honeycomb decorations can work too for a more quirky alternative.

5. Layer your baubles

Brightly decorated living room

(Image credit: James Merrell)

On to the main event. How do you arrange Christmas baubles? There really is no hard or fast rules when it comes to adding your baubles but there are things to consider if you want a nice evenly spread design that feels full and finished.

‘To create a balanced, visually pleasing tree, buy baubles in threes, sixes, or twelves, and place these on first in a ‘Z’ shape,' says Mark Winstanley, Chief Creative Officer, The White Company. 'Hang larger baubles closer to the center of the tree to give it more depth and use small ones towards the end of the branches. Dangle delicate glass baubles at the top of the tree to prevent any breakages and add special ones last, so they are in the perfect position.’ 

So really, the key to creating a lovely Christmas tree is layers, as Jonathan Adler told us, 'nothing’s sadder than a wan display of “festivity” during the holidays.  You know that famous quote from Chanel about looking in the mirror and taking one thing off before leaving the house? Ignore it!  If you can’t go all-out for the holidays then when can you?  Think of your home like an outfit your eccentric, rich aunt might wear and layer, layer, layer.  Add gold, sparkle, and baubles. As long as you start with a chic foundation it will work.'

6. Hide gaps with sprigs or foliage

Christmas tree filled with flowers

(Image credit: Hello Flora)

If you've opted for a real tree, chances are even after you've covered it in lights and baubles there are going to be some gaps. But rather than gingerly spin the tree around in the hope to find a better angle, fill in the gaps with extra foliage like flowers or sprigs of evergreen.

'Adding blooms to a Christmas tree is a really great way to make your tree look fuller.' says Tracy Cole, interior designer and founder of Hello Flora. 'Fill in those gaps between twinkly lights and baubles with real, dried or artificial flowers. I like to pick a color palette for the whole tree and then work out what stems I need to really add the WOW factor.'

'The best flowers to use in a Christmas tree are those with big blousy heads, something like hydrangeas. But really any botanical with a bright pop of color will work. I’ve used red rosehips from my garden before, anything that adds contrast and texture to the green of the tree.'

'Dried or artificial flowers will give you the longest-lasting display. However fresh flowers can really elevate your tree. If you do use fresh flowers you can extend their life by trimming the stems short and at an angle, and then slip the ends into reusable floral water tubes to keep them hydrated.'

7. Drape ribbons, tinsel or garlands

Living room decorated with Christmas tree covered in paper decorations

(Image credit: James Merrell)

Tinsel may not be the most stylish of Christmas decorations (although we have seen it making a strong comeback) but these extra additions that drape over the branches do add shapes and extra interest to your tree. In fact, if you are after a really minimalist look switching your baubles for a bare tree just covered in ribbon or a neutral pom garland can be really effective.

Treat these additions as you did the lights, start at the bottom and wind them around towards the top, then go back in and arrange them so they drape nicely and hang naturally in the branches. 

8. Add the finishing touches

christmas tree trends

(Image credit: Nordic House)

Still not done? The finishing touches can take your tree to the next level. Interior designer Benji Lewis recommends to 'Spray the end parts of the branches white to look as if a dusting of snow has landed on the tree; with the natural green color of the needles in the background and strings of fairy lights between the two this is a fabulous way of conjuring up some festive magic.'

'If you’re placing your tree in the corner of a room, consider positioning a floor uplighter behind it, to cast an ambient glow upwards through its branches. This will create an additional talking point.'

We've also seen trees be delicately covered in Halloween web. Now bare with, we know it sounds awful but just a few pieces pulled over the branches doesn't create a spooky look but rather gives a very chic aged vibe.

Hebe Hatton

Hebe is the Digital Editor of Livingetc; she has a background in lifestyle and interior journalism and a passion for renovating small spaces. You'll usually find her attempting DIY, whether it's spray painting her whole kitchen, don't try that at home, or ever changing the wallpaper in her hallway. Livingetc has been such a huge inspiration and has influenced Hebe's style since she moved into her first rental and finally had a small amount of control over the decor and now loves being able to help others make decisions when decorating their own homes. Last year she moved from renting to owning her first teeny tiny Edwardian flat in London with her whippet Willow (who yes she chose to match her interiors...) and is already on the lookout for her next project.