The Homeowner’s Guide to Christmas Trees

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Artificial or live? Tinsel or garland? Read on for everything you need to know about Christmas trees, including buying, decorating and care.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, How lovely are thy branches…

For households across the world that celebrate Christmas, the holiday isn’t complete without a Christmas tree. In the U.S. alone, more than 75 percent of households put up a Christmas tree, whether live or artificial, according to a 2019 survey by the American Christmas Tree Association.

Let’s take a closer look at this enduring holiday tradition and what goes into decorating the “perfect” Christmas tree.

What Is a Christmas Tree?

A Christmas tree is typically a variety of conifer, a cone-bearing evergreen. The practice of worshipping and decorating trees has roots in ancient pagan traditions. But the development of the modern Christmas tree is thought to have started in Germany in the 1500s, with the advent of Protestantism. It is so closely associated with the Lutheran Reformation and the Protestant split from the Catholic Church that the Vatican didn’t erect a Christmas tree until 1982!

Early Christmas trees were decorated with fruit, sweets and colored paper. Candles became popular in the 1700s. At first only royalty and wealthy families put up Christmas trees, but the tradition eventually spread and became more mainstream across Europe, Britain and into the United States. And 1882 brought the advent of electric Christmas tree lights, a much safer alternative to candles.

Types of Christmas Trees

The first Christmas trees were freshly cut trees, now known as “real” or “live” trees. Initially, families might just walk into the woods and chop down a tree. The proliferation of the Christmas tree tradition led to the growth of Christmas tree farms, including those where customers choose their own trees. The majority of live trees in the U.S. are grown in North Carolina and Oregon.

Artificial trees first appeared in the 1800s, but didn’t really take hold until the mid-20th century, with the advent of aluminum and plastic trees. While aluminum trees now have retro appeal, Christmas trees made from PVC plastic account for about 60 percent of trees in U.S. households. Two-thirds of all artificial trees sold in the U.S. are produced in China, which also makes the lion’s share of all types of Christmas decorations.

Artificial trees come in green, white and certain specialty colors, with built-in lights or fiber-optic tips that change color. Other Christmas tree materials include wood, glass or ceramic, although these are usually “mini” trees suitable for desks, tabletops or small spaces.

Where to Buy a Christmas Tree

Live trees are often sold at garden centers or other retailer parking lots, or in temporary pop-up lots in most cities and towns. The website Pick Your Own Christmas Tree lists locations in every state where you can find fresh-cut trees, as well as “choose and cut” tree farms. At the latter, you and your family can pick out a tree and have it cut right there, or cut down your own.

Artificial Christmas trees are widely available in discount department stores, big-box home improvement centers and online retailers.

Before you purchase a live or artificial tree, know where you’re going to set it up. An eight-foot tree in a tiny apartment is probably a bit much, just as a three-foot tree in an expansive, high-ceilinged great room will seem too small. Keep in mind the girth of the tree, too, which is easy to underestimate. Make sure it won’t block traffic flow in your home.

When to Put Up a Christmas Tree

It was once considered bad luck to put the tree up before Christmas Eve. When I was a girl I remember my grandmother telling me how her parents would decorate their Christmas tree behind closed doors on Christmas Eve, then let her and her siblings in to see the tree, lit with real candles.

Today, there’s no hard-and-fast rule governing when the tree should go up. Many families like to decorate their trees on Thanksgiving weekend, when everyone gathers at the family home. Traditionally, trees were put up at the start of Advent, the fourth Sunday before Christmas. That happens to be November 29 in 2020, which is also Thanksgiving weekend. Others prefer to wait until the first weekend of December.

But in this pandemic year, more and more people have opted to put their trees and decorations up early — after all, we need all the good cheer we can get in 2020! One caveat for early decorations: Live Christmas trees will last four to five weeks if they’re kept watered. After that they start to dry out and lose their needles, becoming even more of a fire hazard.

Christmas Tree Essentials

Plan for your Christmas tree by selecting a spot in your home for it. Having the tree in a room where the family gathers, such as the living room, family room or dining room, is heartwarming and festive. It’s also nice to place the tree in a front window where it’s visible to passersbys, and especially pretty when lit up at night.

You’ll need a tree stand.  The type you buy depends on the size of your tree and whether it’s artificial or live. Most artificial trees require a simple metal stand, but you’ll need a more substantial stand if your tree is more than eight feet tall.

A live tree requires a stand with a water reservoir. To protect the floor under a live tree, consider a waterproof Christmas tree mat. Cover the stand with a tree skirt or its more modern cousin, a tree collar.

You’ll probably also need an extension cord and power strip for plugging in all those strands of lights.

Christmas Tree Decorations

The basics of Christmas tree decorations are:

  • Christmas tree lights. These might be static or flashing, multi-colored, white or another solid color, extra-bright LED, icicle-shaped, or vintage-style bulbs or bubble lights. You’ll need enough strands of lights to cover the tree from top to bottom — that’s typically 100 lights for every foot (in height) of tree.
  • Christmas ornaments. There are a nearly infinite number of possibilities when it comes to Christmas ornaments. Whether you adorn a tree with DIY keepsakes, vintage ornaments or oodles of glass, metal or plastic ball ornaments, each Christmas tree is as individual as its family. The general rule of thumb is around 10 ornaments for every foot of tree. But if you want a tree covered with ornaments, we say, go for it!
  • Garland or tinsel. We won’t wade into the great garland vs. tinsel debate. Whether you choose to drape lengths of glittery garland or individual strands of icicle tinsel, that’s up to you. Both reflect the lights and make the tree seem even more magical.
  • Tree topper. A star, an angel, a vintage-style finial topper or just a Santa hat, the tree topper is traditionally the last decoration that goes on the tree. It completes the look.

Christmas Tree Care

Live tree care:

  • Re-cut: When you bring your tree home, cut an inch or two off the bottom, get the tree into its stand and add water as soon as you can.
  • Water: Make sure the tree stand reservoir always has water in it. You may need to refill it more than once a day.
  • Avoid heat: Set the tree up away from heating fixtures like fireplaces, radiators, etc.
  • Clean up: Your tree will shed needles, so plan on sweeping or vacuuming around it periodically.
  • Proper disposal: When it’s time to dispose of your tree, check with your local waste management company about curbside pick-up or recycling options.

Artificial tree care:

  • Contain: Hang onto the original box to repack the tree in, or purchase a tree duffel, wheeled tote or other durable specialized tree container.
  • Un-decorate: Remove any tinsel and straighten all branches well before storing.
  • Store: Store the tree in a cool, dry place where rodents and other pests can’t get in!

When to Take Down a Christmas Tree

Taking down the Christmas tree is a dreaded task, but alas, it must be done. When you choose to take it down is personal preference, but most people aim for sometime between Jan. 1 to 6. The latter date is Epiphany, the end of the Christmas holiday season.

Some people leave their trees up a lot longer. But our take is, if you’re preparing for the Easter Bunny, it’s long past time for the tree to come down!