How to decorate a Christmas tree – a step by step guide, with tips from the professionals

Ensure your Christmas tree is dressed to perfection for the holiday season with our expert tips

A well-decorated Chriistmas tree in a neutral living room
(Image credit: Future PLC)

There is a fine art in how to decorate a Christmas tree, if you've ever stared adoringly at a department store Christmas tree or in a magazine and wondered how they got it to look so full, festive and dazzling we have the answers.

As a team, we've been decorating Christmas trees for magazine shoots for decades so we know a thing or too about how to turn Christmas tree ideas, into a work of art.

Sometimes it isn't just enough to know where to buy the best Christmas decorations, to get off to the best start you do need to be armed with the best artificial Christmas tree or a real tree. From there we can help you with a few styling tricks around how to position lights and baubles, and your colour scheme to make your tree a thing of beauty this year. 

We've created a step-by-step guide to take you through the best way to decorate a Christmas tree to capture that festive magic in your Christmas living room ideas. 

How to decorate a Christmas tree

‘A perfect Christmas tree is a truly beautiful feature in every living room or hallway,’ says Nicky Phillips, style editor of Ideal Home. ‘Yet sometimes, even when we have selected beautiful decorations and put a lot of effort into decorating it, it doesn’t always come out the way we would like.’

Nicky Phillips Style Editor portrait
Nicky Phillips

Nicky has worked for Ideal Home for over 20 years and has dressed 100's of Christmas trees in that time, for both Ideal Home and Style at Home, as well as our sister magazine, Ideal Home's Complete Guide to Christmas. With many of them gracing the magazines cover, she know just how to dress them to an exceptional standard.

At home, Nicky's own Christmas tree is dressed in silvers and whites and always with warm white fairy lights. She also loves to match her gift wrap to her tree theme too, for a stylish and cohesive look. 

‘The secret of a well dressed tree isn’t always about the well selected decorations, ribbons and ornaments – it’s the way you hang, scatter and place those pieces on the tree,' adds Nicky. 

Whether it be a faux or real tree this Christmas, then, we've pooled together our expert tips and tricks to help you to create your very best tree – without any stress whatsoever.

1. Place the Christmas tree and fluff the branches

Plain christmas tree

(Image credit: Future PLC/Joanna Henderson)

Before you start sussing out how to decorate a Christmas tree, you'll need to set your tree in a secure stand – we'll later cover this with a tree skirt. If you're using a solid, wicker tree skirt, make sure to add it on at this stage, however.

Even if you have a faux tree, fluffing the branches is still really important, as it will make your tree look more natural and full, and also much more beautiful!

You can also do this to a certain extent with real Christmas trees, but be gentle so the needles don't drop. Another tip – wear gloves because the branches can be extremely prickly and you could risk a splinter.

2. Put the lights on

Christmas tree decorated with lights

(Image credit: Future PLC/Joanna Henderson)

If your tree is not pre-lit, now is the time to put your lights on the tree. Christmas tree light hacks are our saviour.

Firstly consider where to buy Christmas lights (as well as which sort you need). 'When choosing lighting for your tree the golden rule is to ensure the colour of your lights don’t clash with your decorations and baubles,' advises Georgina Horspool, lighting designer at Alexander Joseph.

'Begin with coloured lights to provide the main colour to your tree, then use decorations to provide contrasting bursts of colour. If you have a larger tree, consider using ‘globe’ shaped bulbs rather than the smaller LED stings – they create a better sense of scale and will be more cost effective. This year soft white light is in vogue.'

Now it's time to place your lights on the tree. 'Wrap them around from bottom up, giving them plenty of slack to feed into the tree,' suggests Frances Clements, Christmas buyer at Homebase.

'For best results, avoid visible cords,' she adds. 'Using green cord lights can help to eliminate this problem.'

Fairy Lights Battery Operated | £6.79 at Amazon 

Fairy Lights Battery Operated | £6.79 at Amazon 

These battery-operated fairy lights can be used indoors or outside to light up a space. They give off a warm glow that's easy on the eyes.

3. Add your tree topper

How-to-decorate-a-Christmas-tree

(Image credit: Future PLC/Joanna Henderson)

Most people think this should be the finishing touch, but anyone who really knows how to decorate a Christmas tree will tell you it can actually be quite difficult to fix the topper once everything else is in place. 

It's a real preference: to top or not to top that is the question?

'The tree does not look complete without a focal point perched high on the top vertical branch of the Christmas tree,' says Vanessa Arbuthnott, founder and CEO of Vanessa Arbuthnott.

A star, fairy or oversized ribbon bow are traditional options but there are so many other original Christmas tree topper ideas out there.

4. Start adding decorations

Decorated christmas tree

(Image credit: Future PLC/Joanna Henderson)

Whichever of the Christmas tree trends you're opting for when sussing out how to decorate a Christmas tree this year, our best tip is to put the heaviest decorations towards the inside the tree first, so the weight is supported by the branches. 

Fill the area around the middle with inexpensive incidental glitter or shiny ornaments, as they are perfect to catch the light from within the depth of the tree.

This step will fill all the gaps inside the tree and make it more three-dimensional and interesting.

5. Hang your key baubles

Decorated christmas tree with lights and baubles

(Image credit: Future PLC/Joanna Henderson)

Start hanging your baubles, using larger ones at the base and medium sized baubles in the middle and top of the tree. Limit yourself to three or four different colours, using a variety of matt, shiny and glitter decorations. This will help give your tree depth and more interest.

'Pick up a couple of bauble packs in your colour choice and spread evenly around the tree starting with the largest first, pushing some further back to give decoration depth,' suggests Frances.

'Then finally place those special baubles towards the front of the tips to grab attention. If you have a fake tree you don’t even need to hang them, as they will just easily nestle in amongst the branches.'

A lack of structure and space with baubles is one of the major problems found when decorating trees. 

'A lot of houses will hang ornaments on their Christmas tree haphazardly, causing it to look populated and a little bit claustrophobic,' say the experts at Christmas Tree World. 'You can easily avoid that by having a plan of what you want your Christmas tree to look like. You should spread out your decorations evenly, whilst also considering symmetry.'

6. Add picks and sprays

Decorated christmas tree

(Image credit: Future PLC/Joanna Henderson)

Fill the tree with sparkling picks and sprays, branches with faux-ice crystals or snow, faux flowers, or just use natural branches with a dusting of white spray paint. You could try pine cones picks, too, painting the tips with white acrylic paint and sprinkling them with white and silver glitter, to make them look snow-drenched.

7. Showcase those extra-special ornaments

Decorated christmas tree

(Image credit: Future PLC/Joanna Henderson)

Now it's that part of learning how to decorate a Christmas tree that means it's time to showcase your favourite ornaments, and add an element of surprise. These could be heirlooms or collectables – maybe you've brought back a Christmas trinket from a family holiday, or perhaps you have decorations your children made when they were little. 

'Decorating a tree is a very personal experience for everyone, some people collect decorations through the years, and some go for a new trend every year!' says Frances.

If it's special, make sure it takes pride of place.

8. Time for finishing touching touches

Decorated christmas tree

(Image credit: Future PLC/Joanna Henderson)

Fill any gaps in the tree with smaller decorations, like mini baubles or bells. Or try finishing the look with glass (or acrylic) icicles on the tips of the branches, to create the perfect winter wonderland look for your tree.

9. Choose your tree skirt

Decorated christmas tree with silver baubles

(Image credit: Future PLC/Joanna Henderson)

Be imaginative with your choice of tree skirt or decorative cover. You could try burlap, faux fur or any other fabric to hide the trunk and any practical but mundane stand.

A fashionable option for the modern tree is a willow tree skirt, but as noted above, this would have to be placed on before the lights.