Tree Engineering - Notes on Decorating

Tree Engineering - Notes on Decorating

How to turn your yearly trimming into an art


While not religious, my family is certainly traditional in some regards when it comes to Christmas. We're actually a little more old school than most in that we give the bulk of our gifts (stocking stuffers notwithstanding) on Christmas Eve. Once I got too old for Santa to make a stop at our house, we started going at it the more Catholic way. And my dad's always been pretty firm about the fact that we're not allowed to decorate the tree until Christmas Eve itself. 

Long before companies started amping everybody up for the holiday more than a month in advance, it used to be pretty normal to wait until the 24th to set up and deck out your evergreen. These days, though, most everyone who's not us picks up their tree after Thanksgiving or during the first week of December. As a result, we're always left to choose from the remainders, those awkward trees that have been left behind by the quicker shoppers. Our home ultimately becomes a kind of orphanage for very special trees.

We're too lazy to deal with the big guys, so most often we end up propping up a small, misshapen little bush in our living room. It means we don't always get to make use of the full range of our collected ornaments, but it also provides a fun challenge for the engineer in me. Tree trimming is no simple task to begin with, and to make a crooked dwarf tree look like the best of them requires an extra level of ingenuity. It's not easy. But luckily for my family, I'm an expert.

As the only child of two parents who were mostly indifferent to seasonal decorations over the years, it's always been up to me to bring the spirit of Christmas into our home. I've gotten pretty good at it. Hovering around the tree (or stunted bush, as the case may be), bauble in hand, looking for the perfect spot, I feel like an artist. I know you've got to start with the strings of lights--they're near-impossible to get on once everything else is hung up and it's never Christmas without their colorful, pulsating glow. I make sure to nestle each bulb a few inches in from the tree's perimeter, to give the illusion that the branches are glowing from the inside. Once the tree's wrapped in electric wire, it's ball time. If a Christmas tree were a rock song and the lights were the drums--the bare minimum laying down the beat for everything to follow--then those colored glass balls are the bass line. They're the standard for decorations--they're everywhere, they're obvious, but they're indispensable. I set them up in equal spacing, making sure never to put any two of the same color near each other. Once they're set, our rhythm section is done. It's time for the flourishes--the more eccentric baubles, the windy glass icicles, the birds, the Christmas kayak. These are more difficult because of their varied shapes--they each need a branch that allows them to hang down in full without having to rest on a lower branch (a clear sign of an amateur decorator is an ornament that's suspended from below, not above). But once those are done with, you're in the home stretch. You take out your tiny, uniform decorations--those miniature snowflakes that you have 30 of or those little gold disco ball-looking things--and you accent. You fill in the dark gaps where nothing quite fit before. You sprinkle the shiny stuff on top. 

Finally, you crown the whole thing with your centerpiece, your show-stopper--in our case, a gold paper star originally from Holland. It's at a bent angle this year because of our tree's crooked trunk, but damn if it doesn't look good. Because trimming is an art, and even the most awkward of canvases can be transformed into masterpieces given the proper attention.