The common Christmas tree decorating mistakes you should always avoid, and how to fix them

Step away from the decs, do not touch the tinsel, at least until you’ve checked out our top Christmas tree clangers

tree with just fairy lights next to fireplace
(Image credit: Future PLC/Dominic Blackmore)

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, or it will once the tree is up. The first of December means it’s officially acceptable to drag the box of decs from the loft, dust off the fairy and reacquaint yourself with the finer points of how to decorate a Christmas tree

In your head, the occasion will be Bing Crosby-grade magical, with the kids accepting your gentle directions with grace and a glass of mulled wine in hand. In reality, you’ll be a hot mess after 10 minutes doing battle with the fairy lights and the kids will slope off to play Minecraft the moment they realise you haven’t bought any chocolate baubles, again. 

Still, you’ll soldier on, and there will be some fun times, like reacquainting yourself with favourite ornaments and drinking that second mug of mulled wine. But, unless you’re a professional stylist or interior designer, there will usually be some whisper of disappointment when you stand back to appreciate your efforts. Be it bald spots, suspect colour schemes, migraine-inducing fairy lights or a mixture of all. 

If this sounds familiar, step away from that loft ladder and take a moment to read through our experts’ seven most common Christmas decorating mistakes to avoid and find out what to do instead.

Christmas tree decorating mistakes to avoid

While our top decorating blunders are certainly worth a gander, the Christmas Police will not come a-knocking if you choose to blatantly ignore them. ‘We do not believe in rules when it comes to decorating, this is your tree and your Christmas, so follow your instinct. The most important thing is you are true to your personal design, ideas and whims,’ says Lou Graham, co-owner of Graham and Green.

1. Going OTT

Christmas tree next to fireplace

(Image credit: Balsam Hill)

Some will argue there’s no such thing as too much tinsel. Those same people have a giant inflatable Santa hanging from their chimney in June (probably) and therefore shouldn’t be trusted! Personal preference is a huge factor here, maximalists are always going to adopt a more-is-more approach, while minimalists will opt for a pared back look. However, if you’re seeking a picture-perfect tree that looks like it could feature on John Lewis’ Christmas Advert, you should strive for somewhere in between. 

Sadly, there’s no secret mathematical formula to help you decide how many baubles is too many baubles for your Christmas tree ideas but experts agree you should be guided by the size and style of your tree.

‘Both the width and height of your tree and size of your ornaments can make a huge impact on how many decorations are needed to make a festive impact,’ says Balsam Hill’s design expert, Jennifer Derry. ‘The style of the Christmas tree may also affect the number of baubles you need. Taking a lighter touch with decorations enables more of the tree to be visible which can be a good option if you have a highly impactful tree such as one with frosted foliage.’

2. Being too matchy-matchy

christmas tree next to fireplace

(Image credit: Future)

We’ve all been down the matchy-matchy road, whereby the entire tree (and often the rest of your festive décor) is locked onto a strict Christmas colour theme or style. Any non-matching bauble or tinsel swag that dares to step outside the tree trimmings box is immediately put on the fire. Or at least back into the box. And yes, it can look very smart, and very sophisticated. A grown-up tree for grown-up people, but militant matchy-matchy can also be…dull.

‘There is a good argument for following a theme as it allows you to select and organise decorations more easily. However, sticking to a strict theme can limit your creative expression and may not allow you to showcase your unique personality,’ says Kate Conrad, lead designer at Madison and Mayfair.

A looser, more laidback approach is often better. Have a general theme in mind, just don’t be rigid about it. ‘This can make it easier to shop for specific ornaments featuring the colours you’re majoring on, but also allows a little leeway to add in tree decorations with sentimental value that are unique or hold memories collected over the years,’ explains Kate. 

3. Putting baubles on first

tree with just fairy lights next to fireplace

(Image credit: Balsam Hill)

We know the christmas lights go on first, you know the lights go on first. Mess with this basic rule of tree trimming at your peril! ‘Try any other order and you will just get yourself into a tangle,’ agrees Jess Martin, Christmas decoration expert at Ginger Ray. ‘The most efficient order for decorating the tree is lights first, then the largest baubles which should be placed further back onto the branches and deeper into the tree. Then if you are using any sort of garland, drape this over the branches next.’ 

Moving in size order, add your medium baubles next, being careful to space them out evenly with the majority on the bottom of the tree cascading nicely up towards the top. ‘Leave the smallest baubles and accent pieces like ribbons, feathers and clip decorations until last so you can arrange them to pop,’ adds Jess.

4. Forgetting all about the base

christmas tree close up on metal skirt

(Image credit: Ivyline)

Everyone loves decorating a Christmas tree but it’s so common to forget about the base, especially when the tree is surrounded by presents. Then Boxing Day arrives, and all becomes unattractively clear. ‘The best way to beautify the base of your tree and tuck away unsightly wires and plugs is with a skirt, which you can coordinate with your tree decoration scheme,’ says Scott Thomas, managing director of Ivyline.

Tree skirts come in all manner of materials, from rustic rattan to modern metal. A traditional fabric skirt that spreads out wide can protect your flooring from needles and dropped baubles. Ivyline also sells foldable tree skirts that are easier to store away come January. 

‘The size of fabric skirt you buy depends on the look you want to achieve but, as a general guide, you should pick one that's about six inches wider than the full width of your tree,’ says Scott. ‘For skirts that simply cover up the stand, go for one that’s between 2.5-5cm smaller than the width of the branches.’

5. No personality

close up on personalised stork new-baby xmas decs on tree

(Image credit: Oakdene Designs)

Even if your tree is beautiful enough to stand proudly in the foyer of a boutique hotel, it shouldn’t be completely devoid of personality. Just a few homely touches like a few DIY Christmas decorations will make the tree in your living room unique, and unlike any other in the world. 

‘Include ornaments representing family milestones, relatives and handmade creations from family members, particularly the younger ones as these personal touches add depth and that extra sentimental value to your tree,’ advises Kate Conrad, lead designer at Madison and Mayfair. The tree topper is a great place to flex your sense of style and personality. 

‘The generic star or angel can be replaced by something that has a greater meaning to you and your family such as a personalised ornament or home craft,’ adds Kate.

6. Buying cheap

christmas tree with white and green deco in grey room

(Image credit: Future)

You’ve probably heard the adage, ‘buy cheap, buy twice’ and although it probably wasn’t originally coined in reference to baubles or fairy lights, it definitely applies. ‘Not only will cheap, disposable Christmas tree decoration almost certainly look tacky, it’s also likely they’ll fall apart easily and not survive another season,’ says interior designer Oliver Steer

With a little care and considered shopping, high-quality ornaments and decorations will last for decades, and some may even survive long enough to become heirlooms you can pass down for your kids’ Christmas trees. 

7. Cold white lights

christmas tree

(Image credit: Future)

When buying fairy lights for your tree, avoid cold white bulbs at all costs – they’ll cast a bluish glow that’s neither cosy nor flattering. ‘Warm white and gold are on trend when it comes to light colours, and, for bigger trees, larger, globe-shaped bulbs are more cost effective and give a striking look,’ says Alick Burnett, managing director, Blooming Artificial.

Flashing and strobing lights can also prove more painful than pleasant. If you do prefer your fairy lights to twinkle, make sure they come with a ‘still’ setting so that you can watch television or read in the same room without the annoying distraction.  


What is the correct order for decorating a Christmas tree?

Apart from the fairy lights, which absolutely must go on first, the correct order for decorating a Christmas tree depends on what you are putting on. Tinsel, garlands and other strung decorations, if using, should go on next, with baubles and smaller, finer ornaments hung from the tips of the branches. 

If you want to make life easier, and ensure an even spread of decorations, the experts recommend hanging tree decorations according to size. ‘For baubles, hang larger ones at the bottom and get smaller as you go up the tree, making sure to distribute them evenly so your tree looks roughly symmetrical, then fill in the remaining gaps with your favourite ornaments or perhaps some dried flowers, pine cones or fruit,’ recommends Alick Burnett, managing director, Blooming Artificial


Can you put too many decorations on a Christmas tree?

Overburdening your tree is not a good look, especially if it’s straining under the weight of decorations. There’s a fine line between joyfully maximalist and utter chaos. Aim for a balanced spread of decorations with a small amount of greenery and sparkling lights visible between ornaments. Arguably, under-decorating your Christmas tree is a far worse crime than over-doing it. Spartanly dressed trees can easily look sad and a bit lonely

But remember decorating a Christmas tree should be fun, so don't overthink it. If you're alarmed with these simple principles you can't go far wrong. If it ends up looking a bit wonky, sometimes that makes it look all the merrier.

Linda Clayton

 Linda Clayton is a professionally trained journalist, and has specialised in product design, interiors and fitness for more than two decades. Linda has written for a wide range of publications, from the Daily Telegraph and Guardian to Homes & Gardens and Livingetc. She has been freelancing for Ideal Home Magazine since 2008, covering design trends, home makeovers, product reviews and much more.