17 Essential Tree Decorating Tips, or How a Little Old Jewish Lady Taught me to Decorate a Christmas Tree

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah every one! As dreidels are being played with and menorah lights sparkle in Jewish homes around the world, Christians are putting up trees. I thought I’d give you my 17 essential tree decorating tips and tell you all about how a little old Jewish lady taught me to decorate a Christmas tree.

First, who was this lady? Well she was known as Mrs. F, the owner and matriarch of the most miraculous store in the world, Fortunoff. Mrs. F, also known as Mrs. Fortunoff, ran a family business she managed down to the last detail. She was a tiny woman with unquestioned authority, grace, determination, and above all, style.

“Beware of the naked Christmas Tree!”

I want to tell you more about her store, but if you are in a time crunch, please scroll down to find my 17 essential tree decorating tips.

Fortunoff specialized in home decor, wedding registries, and jewelry. Entering the store you’d see vast displays of china and silver, entire sections devoted to crystal, others to Lladros, or other figurines, art glass, and a grocery store-sized section filled with jewelry. They were known for their diamonds, but every piece of their jewelry was special — you wouldn’t find those pieces in a sales catalogue elsewhere. Each was unique, finely crafted, and the best quality for the absolute best price. In the summer, they carried a display of patio furniture that was always ahead of its time in function, quality and style. In the winter, the entire store turned into a winter wonderland of unimaginable beauty.

There would be displays of Christmas houses, train sets, and animated figures, long before the latter were common. An entire section of nativities, most from Italy, started my collection. Then there were the trees — each themed in different colors and ideas. One tree might be devoted to peacocks and all the ornaments to match would glisten and shimmer in the branches. The tree would lure you into the peacock “room” and all the components necessary to create that look would surround the tree. As you wandered the store, you might see themes such as angels, or baby’s first Christmas, monkeys, color themes in silver, or fuchsia, or design themes such as polka dots. I bought a gigantic engagement ring ornament one year from a brides tree that appeared the year I married. Additionally, in other sections of the store, there would be a forrest of artificial trees, rooms filled with inside or outside lights, other rooms filled with tree skirts that were embroidered, crocheted, plaid or entirely made of sequins, along with needlepoint, feathered, felt or beribboned stockings to hang at your fireplace mantle.

In short, there never was, and never will be anything like it. At her death, Fortunoff was run by family members who eventually sold it. The new people didn’t understand this wasn’t a catalogue store, but a family store with originality and personality. It went out of business in short order. Recently, a family member, Ester Fortunoff, has started a Fortunoff online jewelry store, I wish her much success. I hope she relaunches the whole store in person again. I miss it terribly.

Here are my 17 essential tree decorating tips and some of what I learned from a little old Jewish lady about decorating a Christmas tree:

  1. Start with the tree. Whether it is artificial, or real, make sure it has branches that have as many tips as possible. Those tips are what you will hang your ornaments on. Fewer tips make for a bare tree. Also, put your finger on the tips and see how they might stand up to the weight of a heavy ornament. If the tips are floppy, you will have ornaments sagging and possibly sliding off and onto the floor. Check to see if the needles shed — even artificial needles shed in low quality trees. A good tree lasts a very long time. I have had mine for 27 years.
My Christmas Tree

Prelit, folding trees are fine, but remember no matter what the manufacturer says, lights eventually burn out. Also, folding trees, that save the trouble of placing individual branches into slots, are less adjustable. You will see what I mean in a moment. For the purpose of the tree discussion, I am going to refer to the average artificial tree, but all the suggestions below apply to every kind of tree, real or not.

2. Next, take a look at your space. Is it wide enough to support that tree without it becoming a hazard? Is it so far back in a corner that no one but family can see it, or would it be better to have it in a spot where it shows when you open your door? I like the latter, but both are fine. There is such a nice feeling when packages are delivered, or neighbors drop by, to welcome them with a Christmas tree.

Courtesy Rebecca Robeson

3. Cheat in small spaces: If you tree is up against a wall, one of my favorite tricks is to remove branches from the bottom back so it takes up less space. This is difficult to do with a fold down tree. Sometimes I substitute some of the shorter middle branches at the borders of the missing branch space to transition– especially if it is in a corner. Honestly, no one will be able to tell. While this is my own original tip, which I’ve been using for years, I recently saw the incredible designer, Rebecca Robeson, on YouTube doing this one better. She had a fold down tree and literally sawed it in half and then placed it in front of a large mirror. Instantly, the tree doubled while she was still able to place it in a spot that normally couldn’t accommodate a full tree. Kudos to Rebecca!

4. Secure your tree: I like to place my tree next to my staircase for many reasons. It’s a good location for everyone to see it, it serves as a ladder behind the tree, and I can use the spindles to tie the tree. Every year we hear about trees that fell because of pets, children, or just because they were poorly mounted. Keepsakes are ruined, nearby furniture and presents are broken, and sometimes people and pets get injured, so this step is really important. If you don’t have a staircase or handy piece of molding nearby, you can place a hook in your wall. I like to use fishing line of good quality to tie the top of my tree in place, but a pretty ribbon or even twine will do nicely and won’t be visible after the decorations are properly in place. Just make sure that it is strong enough to support the weight of your tree if a toddler or pet decides to climb it. I place my tie at the junction between the top and middle third of the tree.

green plant with red ornament planted in white ceramic pot
Photo by Scott Webb on

Additionally, as your tree is placed in the stand, make sure it is completely tight and level. Screw the pieces in one after the other, one or two turns at a time, so that they are even around the tree trunk. This is essential. Use wooden wedges if the screws are not tight enough or get yourself a better stand. Do not skint on your stand.

5. Form your branches: Artificial trees need to be shaped, but so do real ones. Let’s start with artificial first. If you want to create the illusion that this is a natural tree, and not a spiky astroturf cactus, branches need to be shaped. Wear gloves for this, and make sure the branches themselves arc slightly upward. Then move on to the tips which should be splayed and each should curve slightly upward as well. Kinks are a give away that this is not a real tree.

Now for both artificial and natural, are there gaps between branches? if this is an artificial tree, check that branches are not missing and bend branches to fill spaces. In a real tree, use fishing line to support lower limbs and bring them higher and fill those gaps. It will make a huge difference later.

courtesy Christmas Lights etc.

“There can never be enough lights”

6. Now it’s time for lights. Yes, you may have bought a prelit tree and think that part is behind you. Did you buy a brightly lit tree? if not, the lights might be a bit pale and need additions. Mrs. Fortunoff’s trees were painstakingly lit, branch by branch. Her staff would wind lights around the branches starting from the trunk to the tip and back again. The effect was lovely, but honestly, I do not have the patience to do so. I have found that working the lights in vertical lines works best for me. I push them in as far as they will go and work outward in columns of lights parallel to the trunk. However, another way to approach this, that I’ve used with artificial trees only, is to light each branch as it is placed and shaped. Try to hide the wires as much as you possible can. They are not attractive.

“The secret sauce is Twinkle lights”

Lights come in all kinds of colors and designs. Some even have music. Beware. Music is a nice gimmick but if you use multiple strands will they all be in synchrony, or even in tune, with one another. Also, do you want to be hearing the same song all day long for a month? Make sure those novelty lights have an off switch for those features while the lights still can be turned on. Also, neon colored leds that flash like the vegas strip are pretty for a while, but are you going to be able to tolerate that setting for the entire holiday? Do you have friends or family with epilepsy? Please don’t give a seizure for Christmas!

green christmas tree with string lights
Photo by Elly Fairytale on

I have no problem with colored lights, but my favorite are white lights that do not compete with my colorful ornaments. I also like the new lights that can change colors and blink or not as you choose to set them. But one thing I cannot do without, my secret sauce on the tree, are Twinkle lights.

7. Have you ever been somewhere and seen a tree that seems as if it’s sprinkled with fairy dust? Totally magical, and you cannot see what is different between it and your tree at home? Odds are that the difference is twinkle lights. These lights are becoming harder and harder to find. They sort of blink, but in a very random, subtle way, reminiscent of sunlight moving over a tree covered in ice and snow. They aren’t expensive, just a bit harder to find. All you need are one or two strands to make your tree seem like it came out of a fairy tale. The ones in the video below come from Christmas Lights Etc.

8. Lights should piggy back in accordance with manufacturer directions. Follow these closely because a house fire is a real possibility if those directions aren’t adhered to. This is another reason to make sure your lights are UL (Underwriter Laboratory) approved and come from a good manufacturer. I use a surge protector strip under the tree and a remote controlled smart outlet. A timer can be a good alternative and should be installed before you do anything else.

9. Place your tree topper before your ornaments. Most people struggle at the end to place a tree topper with ornaments falling or getting mangled as they push a ladder into the branches. Do it now while your tree is still bare. This gives you a lot of leeway to secure the topper and make sure it is straight. If this is a lighted topper, it is the time to make sure that cord is hidden down the back of the tree trunk and out of sight. On an artificial tree, you can also twist an inner tip around that cord so that if the topper falls it cannot go far and won’t break in a crash to the floor. On a real tree, the same can be accomplished with twist ties. Use common sense and be careful.

a girl putting a christmas star on a christmas tree
Photo by Any Lane on

10. Next come your shiny globe shaped ornaments. Many people think these are actual fancy ornaments, but no matter how beautiful, these shiny globes need to be placed on the interior main section of the limbs as close to the trunk as possible. These ornaments reflect the lights and create a warm magical glow when placed interiorly.

red and white christmas balls hanging oon christmas tree
Photo by Brett Sayles on

11. Your tips should be festooned with your most prized ornaments. I like to see some order among the different types. For instance, I have many beautiful angels draped in cloth or paper mâché robes. I make sure these are placed throughout the tree, and not just in one clump. I put larger ornaments near the bottom and smaller ones nearer the top. However there are a few ornaments that are paired — my mother gave me a mother/daughter set that I always keep near each other. Likewise, some ornaments are a pair of kissing angels, or a boy/girl, or male/female dogs. These should not be separated.

“When you think you have enough ornaments on the tree, you are probably only half done”

12. It is tempting to think, okay, that’s enough, we’re done. Take the time and have patience. You likely have ornaments still in boxes and tips on the tree that are still bare. Mrs. Fortunoff hated naked trees. So, when you think you have enough ornaments on the tree, you are probably only half done. Go back and fill in those spaces.

13. Ornament hooks. These flimsy pieces of wire should not dictate where and how your ornaments hang. First, threads are not a good idea on the tree and are probably only there because the store had to hang and display them somewhere, and it also denotes that this is an ornament not a figurine when you see that thread. Feel free to remove those. Take your hook or a piece of wire and make sure it is firmly twisted on the top of the ornament. This is also a good time to make sure that the cap of the ornament — that little gold or silver piece of metal that holds the loop where your hook attaches — is in good condition and not likely to fall off. If necessary, glue the cap in place.

As I said, twist the hook firmly so the ornament cannot detach without your intervention. Then flatten the hook end and bring it to the tree. Determine what length you want the ornament to dangle. Closer to the actual tip is best, but you might have a space you want to fill, or want to stagger ornaments. Then bend to fasten at the desired height. For pricey, extremely fragile, or sentimental ornaments, wind the entire hook, or a piece of florist’s wire you might use as a hook, around the branch several times so it cannot fall off.

14. Garland and tinsel. I am not a huge fan of garland and tinsel, but this is the time to place those if you wish. Make sure the garland scallops gracefully around the tree and you hide the areas where it jumps from one level to another. Tinsel needs to be applied one delicate strand at a time. It’s better for real trees since it can be thrown out with the tree. It is very difficult to remove on artificial trees at the end of the season.

man person people woman
Photo by Vicki Yde on

Instead, I use florist picks, and long floral embellishments. Over the years I’ve amassed a huge assortment. These need to be the really long kind. My first time doing this was in a dollar store with my mother. She was aghast when I found these horrible gold roses and gold leaves on sale. Totally tacky for a flower arrangement, but when she saw me tuck these into my Christmas tree, in lieu of garland or tinsel, she tried to steal them from me. LOL. While Christmas tree branches and tips should curve upwards, these “picks” should curve downward as if a cascade of sparkle rained down on the tree.

I have red beaded picks, sparkly fans of silver and stars, glittered cranberries, gold balls that resemble little planets, even ostrich feathers. I pick one or two kinds each year and they completely transform the tree. These can be expensive, and if presently out of your budget, plan on purchasing them after the season at a much cheaper price. Oh, how I miss Fortunoff’s after Christmas sale. We’d line up for blocks!

15. Do not forget to decorate under the tree. I always place my tree on a square of cardboard lined with felt, so if we need to move it, it won’t damage my hardwood floors. If you have carpet, you might want to use something slick so you can slide the tree if you need to get to the outlet or there is some other problem. Remember you would have to untie it first.

Now that the tree is decorated, sweep or vacuum and place a tree skirt. These come in many styles, and I always use two. The reason is that most of them are not wide enough and if I properly cover the mechanics of the tree base, the skirt doesn’t extend far enough under the branches to be seen and used for under tree decorations. So I place one at the throat of the stand and then layer another one on top, leaving it open at the bottom as a cheat as I bring it out so it can be seen under the lowest tip of the branches. In a pinch, a sheet, tablecloth, or other piece of fabric can also work. Remember not to cover any electrical cords. Plugs and outlets should not touch fabric as that could be a fire hazard. Remember to adhere to manufacturer and fire regulations.

brown and gray train plastic toy
Photo by on

Under the tree I place a train set, or a nativity. I also place certain ornamental figurines like a pair of gold cherubs and a keepsake from my husband’s and my first date. Children love this area under the tree because it is at their level. Be careful of toddlers and pets getting into trouble with things that are dangerous and can get into little mouths.I also have a giant nutcracker that I put next to the tree and from there I start decorating the rest of the house.

jesus christ figurine
Photo by Jeswin Thomas on

16. If this is an artificial tree, now is the time to spray it with a good quality scent, if you like. This can do wonders for the illusion of reality. A family member was fooled, unintentionally, for three years, that my tree was real. She said, how do you get such a perfect tree every year. When I told her that it was fake, and the same one I always used, she couldn’t stop laughing. Scent should be reapplied as needed.

17. Turn on the music, make yourself a cup of hot chocolate, and enjoy.

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah everyone! Hope your New Year is bright. Sending you love and laughter always,

Diana Belchase

2 replies »

  1. What a wonderful article, Diana, and so beautifully decorated too. I love that you include several styles of decorating, my fav being that tiny tree with the red globe so large the baby fir literally bends over in it’s pot, giving it a Dr. Seuss kind of look. All it needs is a small grinch somewhere to complete the picture.
    Many of these tips are excellent for decorating the home throughout the year, and I intend to do just that! Thanks again for a great read.
    Happy Holiday hugs and fairy light twinkles,

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