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Finding the perfect Christmas tree is one of the biggest traditions of the holiday season. Rockefeller Center does it with ease year after year, and we can only hope for the same in our own living rooms.
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For anyone about to embark on their own Christmas tree adventure, just know that there’s more to the journey than unboxing/untying it and standing it up. First, you’ve got to decide whether you want a real Christmas tree or an artificial one. Then, you’ve got to feed and care for it, dress it, and clean up after it. Sounds like a baby, right? Almost!
Strap into your sleigh: Here’s our complete guide to Christmas trees.
Real or artificial Christmas tree?
This is the holiday quandary for the ages, isn’t it? Do you stay true to the nostalgia, character, and tradition of having a fragrant live fir, pine, or spruce tree in your home that you’ve perhaps cut down yourself, or do you embrace the convenience, dependability, and perfection that an artificial Christmas tree delivers?
The biggest factor in deciding whether to buy a real or fake Christmas tree is where you live. Do you live in a northern state where you can go to a tree farm and actually cut down a fresh tree? Or, are real trees being shipped to your local home improvement store, and thus, a little less fresh? Secondly, do you live in a home or an apartment? Can your space accommodate the size of a real tree, or should you opt for a tabletop tree or a twig tree?
Oddly, another reason you may have to opt for a fake tree over a real one is allergies. If you get watery eyes, a runny nose, or a skin rash, you may be experiencing a reaction to mold spores on the tree, pine tree sap, dust mites, chemicals used as pesticides at Christmas tree farms, or—gross—insect droppings.
Folks concerned with aesthetics can go either way depending on what they are looking for in design. A real tree typically speaks to old-world Christmases. A traditional artificial Christmas tree can as well, but fake trees also open the door to a wide variety of unique tree stylings from gold, pink, or other colors, to flocking, to pre-lit options.
Then you’ve got safety considerations. Real trees are flammable and can go up quickly if you let them dry out. Artificial trees are less likely to carry such a worry, as long as you buy a flame-resistant or fireproof variety.
When it comes to maintenance, a live Christmas tree requires regular care, including watering multiple times per week and vacuuming up fallen needles, also multiple times per week. After the set-up process, an artificial tree just, well, stands there.
Where do you live, what do you like, how much work are you up for? Your answers will decide if you should go for a real or an artificial Christmas tree.
Where to buy a Christmas tree
Like just about everything these days, you can buy a Christmas tree in person or online.
For fans of real Christmas trees, we highly recommend visiting a local tree farm and cutting down your own. Not only is this a fun, family activity, but you’ll get a much fresher tree than you would by buying one at a big box store that gets trees shipped from elsewhere and likely cut a month or more ahead of time.
If a tree farm just isn’t an option, you can visit a local nursery or garden shop, or major retailers like The Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Walmart. Believe it or not, you can also buy a real Christmas tree online.
Much like Christmas inflatables, string lights, and reindeer family yard displays, you can buy an artificial Christmas tree pretty much anywhere, starting at the beginning of October. Of course, you’ll get a vastly different selection depending on where you shop; a dollar store likely won’t be up to the caliber of what you may find at Lowe’s, which may not be up to the caliber of say, Pottery Barn, or even a specialty retailer like Balsam Hill.
Once you know your budget, shop around, and try to go check out the trees in person so you can get a feel for what it really looks like. You can always come home and order the artificial tree online, so that it gets shipped straight to your home without any heavy lifting on your part.
Caring for a live Christmas tree
Keeping a Christmas tree from drying out is a bigger challenge than the wisemen had finding baby Jesus in Bethlehem. But it’s one you really must accomplish because a dry tree is a major fire hazard.
Your options go beyond watering it daily: Some evergreen species have longer needle retention than others, like the fir and the Scotch pine. You also don’t want to cut or buy your tree too early—it will really only last about one month. Keep the tree cool inside the house, i.e. don’t set it up next to the fireplace, no matter how festive it looks there. You can even run a humidifier to keep the room a little more moist.
Before bringing a real Christmas tree into your home, you’ll want to check it for bugs and mold. You can do so easily by shaking it or blowing it with a leaf blower, and then washing down its trunk with a spray bottle filled with a white vinegar and water solution.
Success is in the Christmas tree stand
We’ve all seen the funny home videos where a wobbly Christmas tree falls over, smashing ornaments and dragging garland, possibly onto the body of a live victim. Don’t have that be you.
The key to a secure Christmas tree for the duration of the season is a solid, stable stand, one that can take on even the most mischievous kitty.
Christmas tree stands are really only for the person who plans to put up a live Christmas tree, since artificial Christmas trees come with their own stand built-in. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from bulky plastic pots to welded steel quadrupod-style contraptions.
Just make sure the stand you want can accommodate the size of the tree you buy. For instance, don’t buy a stand that can stabilize up to a 6-foot tree if you plan to buy an 8-foot tree, or you’ll have a cat-tastrophe!
Christmas tree lights: You’ve got options
Wrapping string lights around a Christmas tree seems like a fairly easy task, but there’s actually a lot to think about.
First off, there’s the question of whether you should opt for incandescent or LED string lights. Incandescent lights typically offer a nice, warm glow, and they’re what we traditionally consider “Christmas tree lights.” On the other hand, LED lights are newer, flashier, and tend to have cooler appeal.
You’ll pay more at the store for LED lights than you will for incandescents when it comes to the initial buy-in, but in the long run, LEDs cost a Santa’s sack-worth of money less to operate. Seriously—to the tune of 88% less in energy costs, according to the Washington Post, and 75% less in energy usage overall, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Plus, LEDs have a longer overall lifespan, are cooler to the touch, are sturdier, and are easier to install, all of which means you’re less likely to end up with a Clark Griswold situation.
Taking Christmas tree lights a step further, you can buy smart Christmas lights that can do everything from activating by voice command to syncing with a holiday playlist through an app on your phone. If you already have strings upon strings of lights, but still want some smart functionality, use a smart plug.
When you get your decorations out from last year, and your strings lights won’t illuminate, you can try to fix them first instead of just tossing them. Always put safety first, though.
When it comes to fixing string lights, it could be as easy as replacing a faulty bulb, or it may take some gumption to figure out the problem. You can also try replacing a fuse or using a specialty bulb-fixing tool.
Choosing your Christmas tree decorations
There are as many ways to decorate a Christmas tree as there are stars in the sky. Well, almost. But whether you like a quirky theme, gilded glamor, modern minimalism, traditional cranberry-popcorn garland panache, or what we call kid-crafted ornamental, actually decorating a tree is best done in steps.
Pick your style, fluff the branches, hang the lights, add your garland, dress with ornaments, and crown with a tree topper—in this order. Complete the look with a tree skirt or a tree collar. All should be done while blasting Christmas tunes, of course. Hey, we don’t make the rules.
After the holidays: Christmas tree clean-up
Just like the worst part of traveling is unpacking, the worst part of Christmas tree decorating is taking it all down again.
When it comes to taking down your Christmas tree, you want to do so with as little mess as possible.
For real trees, get a Christmas tree disposal bag, which you can neatly—maybe—pull up and around the tree from its bottom to its top. This should prevent dry pine needles from spraying all over your living room.
If the pine needles still go rogue, you can use an upright vacuum to clean up big floor messes or a robot vacuum for sprinklings and small jobs.
Alternatively, if you have a new artificial tree or one that you use year to year, you’ll have to store it properly so you can use it again without it looking like someone beat it with a stick. To do so, take down the fake tree and store it in a moisture-resistant Christmas tree storage bag. Before packing it away, make sure to clean it with warm water and dishwashing soap, and allow it to dry.
Wrap up your string lights in a string light storage container or even around cardboard cutouts or a garment hanger, so they don’t get tangled up before you need them next year.
Of course, don’t forget to store your treasured ornaments in sturdy bins or ornament specific storage boxes, whether they’re breakable or not. You want to protect them for the future, whether to grace your boughs again or pass along as family heirlooms.
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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.
This article originally appeared on Reviewed: Reviewed’s Guide to Christmas Trees: Tips for buying and decorating one