How to shape and light a Christmas Tree properly

This guide was published two years ago and it one of the top read blog posts here. As lots of people will be decorating their homes for the holidays today and in the coming weeks, I thought we could at least save a few more of them from ugly trees.

I have “decorated” a lot of pine trees on my walks, so it is probably safe to say I’m as close to an expert as you will ever find on shaping and lighting a Christmas tree. Almost all of the Christmas trees I have seen since Halloween in the stores are dreadfully shaped and badly lit.

It doesn’t need to be like this as shaping and lighting a Christmas tree is so very, very easy.

Overall rules: Do not buy a pre-lit tree. They look great for one season, but after one wire goes bad, the whole tree is shot. Also, buy a good quality tree. Personally, I like the ones that come in three sections with permanent hinges on the branches. If the branches need plastic inserts or hinges or any other part, walk away.

Step One: Think like a tree.
No, really. You have to think like a tree. The primary job of the needles on the branches is to attract sunlight so photosynthesis can happen. Don’t worry about the science, but think about where the light is relative to the branches you are shaping. If the branches are near the trunk, how do they get sunlight? Well, they stretch out and up. Now, ask yourself this question of every branch you are shaping and it all suddenly makes sense. For the visually impaired, I drew a sketch. (I’m a dog, people, not an artist, but if someone wants to draw and send me something better, I’ll use it!)

20081128sideviewbranch How to shape and light a Christmas Tree properly

Branch side view. Note that the closer the branches are to the truck, the more upright they will be.

The closer the branch is to the trunk, the more upright it will be as it strains to reach the light. This also has the side-effect of filling in the tree more. Don’t be afraid to stand thses branches straight up.

Nature makes sense, but she is imperfect. All this means is that nature has a reason for everything and it usually points to survival. Everything competes with everything else for resources; even individual tree branches on the same tree. That is one reason you will never see the branches all lined up in a row, neat levels of branches or a 90 degree bend in a branch! So, don’t do this while shaping your tree.

As you can see in the branch diagram above, the smaller branches are curved. Use your forefinger and palm to gently curve these branches.

The smaller branches also alternate left to right in the rows. Remember, there are no perfect rows of branches on a tree. Choose an alternating patterns and make sure the branch in front is alternated between the branches in the back. That way, each needle on the branch does not have to compete with the branch in front of it for sunlight. Are you still thinking like a tree?

I wish I could draw better, but the diagram below should kinda work. As you work through each row of branches, from the trunk to the end, alternate with the row behind it. When looking at the diagram, imagine you are looking at it straight on from the front.

20081128branchalternate How to shape and light a Christmas Tree properly

Alternate the branches with the row behind each. Once you start left-right, left-right, DO NOT change your mind and go right-left. Do the entire tree in the same pattern.

Step Two: The top
The trick for the top is to make sure it blends into the rows below it. Most tops will have long tree branches on the lower rows. Shape the branches like the diagram and then shape the upper top branches with the gentle curve you used throughout the tree.

20081128top How to shape and light a Christmas Tree properly

Shape the top branches to "swoop" into the layer below it. The goal is to make the top and the layer below it seamless.

Step Three: Touch Up
If you have shaped each branch to reach toward the sun, with the back branches standing up and the end branches reaching out and alternated each row with the one in back of it, your tree — no matter how cheap — should look full. Tweak the branches you may have bumped into and don’t be afraid to pull the lower branches wider to fill out the bottom row.

Step Four: Lighting the tree
For a 7 1/2 foot tree, you will need a minimum of 600 lights. Really, don’t skimp on the lights. Make sure you plan your outlets accordingly as many manufacturers will recommend only 3-4 strings per. DO NOT BLAME RUFUS IF YOU BURN YOUR HOUSE DOWN. If you were too stupid to follow the directions on the box, homeless is probably going to be the least of your worries anyhow.

If possible, use LED lights. They cost more, but they are brighter and they don’t burn out.

Like shaping, lighting a tree is very simple once you know the technique. Start from the back, bottom and near the trunk. Run the cord to the power source. If you will need 2 circuits, now is the time to run a green extension cord about 1/3 up the tree trunk and tape it there. Why 1/3? Because you will use more lights at the bottom of the tree (bigger branches) than you will toward the top.

Look at the diagram below. (Again, any artists out there, please)

20081128lights How to shape and light a Christmas Tree properly

Working from the back to the front, lay the row of light on the top of the branches, looping them around the front branches, underneath the main branch and back to the trunk.

Working from the back to the front, lay the row of light on the top of the branches, looping them around the front branches, underneath the main branch and back to the trunk. Do this on EVERY branch, making sure the lights are laying in the middle of the row of branches. When you are done with the layer, move up, but always move up at the trunk. Never connect a new string of lights aat the front of the branch. Make sure you wrap loosely and don’t mess up your shaping job you did earlier.

If you string lights like the diagram on every layer, your tree will look amazingly full AND you will not be able to see the light cords (well just barely).

I hope this helps save at least one tree from a fate of looking ugly for the holidays. Feel free to let me know if this has helped at all by leaving a comment!

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About Rufus Dogg

I'm a dog who writes a blog. It is not a pet blog. It is a real blog that talks about real ideas. No, really. I do my own writing, but I have a really, really cool editor who overlooks the fact that I can't really hit the space-bar key cause I don't have thumbs. I talk about everything from politics to social issues to just rambling about local problems. And, sometimes I just talk about nothing in particular. Google+
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2 Responses to How to shape and light a Christmas Tree properly

  1. Paul Anater says:

    You’re only missing one step and it’s my top secret guarantee for a joyous Christmas. I’m a live tree kind of guy but it works on fake ones too. Take the first string of lights and starting at the bottom of the tree, wrap the trunk. Use the entire first string and when you get to the top of the tree, light the tree’s branches as you would normally. This accomplishes a couple of things. For starters, you end up with a plug at the bottom of the tree which is always helpful. For seconders, you end up with a tree that glows from the inside. This makes the whole thing come alive and allows you to hang more ornaments. Put big ones in the back of the branches, medium ones in the middle, and small ones on the tips. You’ll end up with a fuller looking tree that will thrill not only you, but any one lucky enough to be invited in to see it.

    • Rufus says:

      I used to do that, but if you follow the light string all the way back to the trunk on each branch, then the entire “inner tree” is lit up and it gives you the same effect. Plus, a 7ft tree will use about 10-12 strings of 100 lights if you do it correctly. That is two circuits as most manufacturers say to limit to 6 strings end to end. Add another to wrap the trunk and we’re over the limit and you end up with a Griswald Christmas tree :-)

      I agree on the bulbs. Most people do not “design” a tree; they just slap up the decorations helter-skelter and call it “folksy” and charming…