How to decorate a Christmas tree (like a pro)

Whether you have a real or artificial tree this year, here's how to decorate it to perfection this year

John Lewis Christmas tree
(Image credit: John Lewis)

Decorating the Christmas tree is everyone's favourite festive activity that brings together the whole family. From getting out the boxes full of decorations to putting up the tree, the art of decorating the Christmas tree is often passed down from generation to generation. 

If you're after a specific look, however, or you just want to up your game and make your tree look absolutely perfect and Instagram-ready, the tips below are well worth checking out. Then, browse our Christmas decoration ideas for inspiration on colour schemes and trendy looks. 

Choosing the right Christmas tree

Even the most creative among us would struggle to make a sad twig of a tree look full of festive cheer, so make sure you choose the right Christmas tree to start with. Measure up to check that the tree won't overwhelm the space. You need at least half a foot to the ceiling for the topper and space around the sides to clear the walls and furniture.

If you are choosing a real Christmas tree, look for glossy leaves, then give the tree a tap on the ground (with the stump) to check it does not drop lots of needles.

John Lewis Renaissance Christmas tree theme

(Image credit: John Lewis & Partners)

Decorating your Christmas tree

Use our video guide below to pick up professional Christmas tree decorating tips. There are more tips below.

Picking a decorating style is very much about personal choice, but you can start with choosing between traditional Christmas decorations and Scandi Christmas decorations

1. Decide where to place your tree

Your tree needs to be placed away from fires and radiators, but near to plug sockets. Ensure it does not obstruct doorways, or block too much light if you are positioning it in a window.

Tip: To protect your flooring, place the stand on newspaper or something waterproof. You can hide this with a tree skirt later on. If you are worried about tree resin damaging a carpet, find a large circular rug to place under the tree.

2. Clear some space and get your tree ready

Make room for the tree and a bit of extra room to work in. If you are using an artificial tree, set it up according to the instructions. For a real tree, you might want to put some sheets or newspaper down as you work to catch needles.

Position it in the stand and screw into place – this is often a two-person job. A six foot tree will need a medium-sized stand with a water reservoir. Cut the net from your tree and prune long uneven branches if necessary. Trees often have a best side, so turn to suit. 

Tip: Only fill the stand with water once you are happy with its positioning, otherwise spillages are inevitable.

Christmas tree decorating scheme 2020 from John Lewis

(Image credit: John Lewis & Partners)

3. Add the fairy lights

10m 100 Multicoloured LED Connectable Fairy Lights

(Image credit: Lights4fun)

Check your fairy lights work before putting them on the tree. You will need 100 lights for every foot or foot and a half of tree. A six foot tree will therefore need 400 to 600 lights, but feel free to go for more if desired (you can never have too many...). 

For a dense lighting look, start at the bottom of the tree and wrap the lights around the trunk to the top. Work your way back down the tree, laying the lights towards the outer branches. If you have gone for extra lights, you might have enough to do a third trip around the tree.

You'll also need to decide on the colour scheme of your Christmas fairy lights: choose warm white or copper string lights for a cosy, traditional look, or cool white fairy lights for a more contemporary or Scandi scheme. Multi-coloured fairy lights will instantly make your tree look jolly, even with minimal decorations.

Hurn And Hurn Discoveries - Vintage Pear Style Bulb 20 LED String Lights

Add an industrial-style glow with these LED bulb string lights from Hurn 

(Image credit: Hurn and Hurn)

4. Add garlands, tinsel or string tree decorations

Vintage Style Bauble Garland, Cox & Cox

(Image credit: Cox&Cox)

Garlands add an opulent, 'more is more' look to Christmas tree decorating schemes. Choose a traditional glass garland for an enchanting traditional look; note that heavy garlands made from glass should always go on before you hang any baubles, but after your fairy lights. 

Tinsel garlands can go on last and have a more casual look to them. Avoid using tinsel if you have pets, as they love chewing on it, and it can block their intestines. 

5. Start adding large decorations

Cox&Cox Scandi decorating scheme, 2020

(Image credit: Cox&Cox)

Get your largest decorations together and distribute evenly across the tree. You might want to keep the biggest nearer to the base of the tree for visual balance. It helps to add your decorations one colour at a time so that you get a nice spread all over.

Having said that, if you tree is large and fluffy all over, especially if it's an artificial Christmas tree, it can handle large baubles closer to the top, too. If you're going for a more contemporary/formal decorating scheme, large decorations throughout the tree can look quite nice, so long as they're colour-coordinated. For a more relaxed decorating scheme, only use smaller decorations on the top half of the tree. 

6. Add smaller decorations

Art Nouveau decorations, John Lewis & Partners

Art Nouveau decorations, John Lewis & Partners

(Image credit: John Lewis & Partners)

Now you can add any smaller decorations you have. Again, spread evenly across the tree for a good range of shape, colour and type. Longer, daintier ornaments work well near the end of the branches, while chunkier objects look more at home nestled further into the tree.

Tip: Keep the lights on as you decorate so you can position twinkling decorations for maximum impact.

7. Dress with extra flourishes

Two Felt Teacup Mice, Cox&Cox

(Image credit: Cox&Cox)

If you want even more texture, you might want to look to the latest Christmas tree trends and include bows, feathers, ferns, or even decorations made from felt for a slightly rustic look. If they don't come with hanging loops, you can simply tuck them into the branches, at least halfway into the branch to prevent them from falling off. 

Tip: If you use any edible decorations such as chocolates or candy canes, keep them out of reach of pets. Chocolate is highly toxic to dogs.

8. The finishing touches

Snowflake LED Tree Topper, Lights4fun

(Image credit: Lights4fun)

Next put on the Christmas tree topper, such as a star, angel or fairy. Most come designed to sit on the top of the trunk, but you can use florists' wire to make it more secure. Find all the best Christmas tree toppers in our buyer's guide.

Tip: A Christmas tree skirt can be used to hide the base of the tree. Fabric ones can be wrapped around the stand once you have finished decorating. If you are using a solid one, you need to position the stand in it before putting up the tree.

9. Maintaining your tree

Make sure the water reservoir on your tree stand is kept topped up. The average tree will need one to two pints of water per day. 

A real tree will drop needles every so often. This can be exacerbated by the tree being too warm and, of course, it is best to get your tree closer to Christmas to ensure it looks its best on the big day.

10. Minimalism vs. maximalism: how to choose your tree decorating scheme

John Lewis & Partners Impressionism decorating scheme Christmas 2020

(Image credit: John Lewis & Partners)

If you prefer a minimalist look for your tree, it's not necessarily about having fewer decorations; you can still have plenty, but choosing lighter colours and sticking to no more than two will give your Christmas tree a more streamlined look. 

If you're after an opulent, maximalist look, on the other hand, you can mix and match as many colours and textures as you like – as the more bright colours, the better, whether you've a modern or rustic Christmas decor theme going on in your home for the holidays!