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Tips From a Professional Christmas Tree Decorator

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I am sitting here, working, looking at my half-decorated Christmas Tree. My mother called last night and wanted to know if I ever finished it.

“No,” I told her, “I have a Nana Tree.”

My grandmother Froehlich was one of those legendary grandparents. Aside from being a very soft touch, she was a great sport, had a wonderful sense of humor, and was a great cook. But she was also quite spoiled. Having come of age in Charleston when it was “Charleston,” one of her great claims to fame was being engaged to three other men when she met my grandfather, who simply confiscated the three rings.

After their first or second date, my grandfather talked Nana’s younger sister into snooping around for addresses. Lucille was always ready to make mischief, so she willingly obliged. (Lucille’s claim to fame was the time she was making frozen daiquiris with her new blender. She was talking so much she simply tossed the entire can of frozen limeade into the blender.) My grandfather wrote to each fiancé telling them my grandmother would be marrying him, and returned their rings. He and my grandmother were married shortly after that. Their marriage lasted for 65 years.

Nana never really did much ‘work’ unless it was power shopping. She had a succession of housekeepers until Mae came to work for her when I was 10 days old and remained with her until the day she died. By that time Mae,  was so old she had two assistants who did all her work. (I talked to Mae about two weeks ago on the phone. She’s pushing 85 and doing great!)

The housekeepers did all the heavy lifting, laundry and vacuuming. Before they left for the day the table would be set for dinner, the potatoes peeled, etc. Nana would cook dinner, do the dishes, have dessert, then sit down beside my grandfather, hold hands, and watch television. Ten minutes after sitting down she would be asleep. So there wasn’t much time for her to get around to decorating the Christmas Tree that would inevitably wait, naked, in the Florida Room.

Once in awhile a tree would be completely decorated before my sister, our parents, and I arrived from South Carolina around the 20th of December. Usually my mother would end up decorating it late in the evenings after we were ceremoniously put to bed. Most of the time, though, Nana would put the lights on it over one or two nights. A few days later she would put on a few ornaments. Usually by Christmas morning a few silver ice cycles would be dribbling off the now yellowing branches. By then, no one cared.

You see, my grandmother had a problem. She was a control junkie when it came to her Christmas Tree. No one could decorate it to suit her, and grandchildren were not allowed to touch her ornaments. When it came to the multi-colored lights that always outlined her wonderful two story house on Belvedere Road in West Palm Beach, just anyone would do as long as the lights were up in time for her to turn them on (all night, much to my grandfather’s chagrin) so we could watch her turn them off when we arrived at dawn after a twelve hour road trip from South Carolina.

Most Christmases, though, Nana would bring the boxes of ornaments down from the attic and put the lights on the tree. We would then be walking around the ornaments until a day or two after Christmas, when she would gently wrap the few she had hung, and would send Mae upstairs with the boxes. There they would be stored in the attic. She would bring them down in mid-December the following year, put them on the sofa in the Florida Room, and there they would sit until my mother would put them up under the tree with the rest of the gifts.

So right now I have a Nana Tree. I hired one of my best friends' 15 year old daughter to light the tree for me. This is not as simple as it seems. I am a Professional Christmas Tree Decorator, i.e., I am a perfect bitch about the tree. Okay, I’ve become my grandmother.

Rewind

I will admit I am old enough to remember the first artificial trees, now “valuable” antiques right up there with plastic pink flamingos. When the little silver contraptions were first invented they were too fragile and flammable for lights, so progressive senior citizens in South Florida were buying floodlights that rested on the floor. Around them was the epitome of science fiction-tacky – a rotating multi colored film. Okay, we’re talking Austin Powers mod here!

My very tasteful mother would have nothing to do with those tacky silver trees, but a few years later a ‘natural’ looking tree that was nearly 8 feet tall and close to six feet wide at the base hit the market. I remember the long drive, at least sixty miles from Fair Play to the Easley side of Greenville, to purchase one. It was quite expensive, even then. If I remember correctly it was nearly $300 (and Nixon was still President). The amber lights had to be about $20 a box. She bought at least 15 boxes of those. (Oh, keep this quiet. I don’t think she ever told my father how much it cost.)

We went home and set up the tree. Then my mother, sister, and I went about the slow, torturous process of wrapping the lights around the branches. We ran out of lights and had to drive back to Greenville for another half dozen boxes, the price tags having been removed before we carried them to the car where my father was waiting.

It was a beautiful tree. We put long garlands on it instead of icicles. I don’t like garlands. The moment I had my own tree, the icicles went back on the REAL tree. (Just a little FYI). New Year’s Day we spent hours unwinding the lights. Several years later someone (okay, it was me) had the bright idea of just taking the tree back upstairs with the lights on it. My parents had a huge attic. It was an idea whose time had come. (My mother to this day puts her artificial trees up with the lights on them).

Fast forward

Years later (George Bush #41 was President) my mother and I made the mistake of going into business together. Part of our 10,000 square foot gift shop included a Christmas shop. Here I must add that we had a wonderful old renovated flour mill. It was so well built we did not have air-conditioning, even in the hot and humid South Carolina summers. There were maybe four weeks in the summer when it was miserably hot. Naturally those were the weeks we would choose to re-decorate the Christmas shop and re-do 25 Christmas Trees.

I must also add this is when I lost all religion. Friends would come by the shop just to watch me get mad. My mother and I would go to war with one another. I swear our regular customers would take bets on who would end up killing whom. Then we would finish the redecorating and peace would prevail – until the bills started coming in for all that new Christmas merchandise.

FYI – never go into business with your mother.

The first year we were in business, I learned how to ‘professionally’ light an artificial Christmas tree. Until I came to my senses and closed the shop five years later, I always won first place in the local celebration of Christmas trees.

How to Professionally Light a Christmas Tree

Professional Christmas trees look good because they have so darn many lights in them. There is a very specific way to attach these lights. Done properly, when the time comes to remove the lights they just ‘fall off’ and you put them into single strand rolls making sure the male part of the plug is on the outside of the strand.

Rule 1 – NEVER EVER put more than 300 lights per connected strand. If you do, you blow fuses. (Been there and done that – trust me). If you have a three outlet extension cord, you can get 3 X 300 lights or 900 lights per extension cord. Use a switch box; it makes it easier to turn the lights on/off.

Rule 2 (For an artificial tree)– DO NOT “Fluff Tree.” Start at the back of the tree. Plug in the first strand. Pull the lights in to the place where the end of the strand nearest the extension chord rests on the bottom row of tree branches. You lay (not wrap) the lights on the top of the branch. You might want to pull up the back ‘frond’ branch to serve as a hook or a way to keep the lights in place. Then just pull the lights out to the tip of the branch.

Don’t pull the lights tightly. Make sure there are at least six or seven lights on that branch. Then wrap one end of the strand around the tip of the branch. You now pull the lights back –- keeping them on top of the branch –- to the back of the tree. Go to the next branch – always at the back of the tree. Repeat the process. For the bottom row you will only be able to decorate perhaps 4 branches using one strand of lights.

Using end-to-end lights, attach strand number two to the end of the strand that is on the tree. Repeat decorating process. After using three sets of three strands, you plug another extension chord into the switch box. Repeat the above process until the tree is ‘lit’.

If you are using a 7 foot tree you will end up using up to 2500 lights – or 15 strands of 100 lights. Right now, on my completely lit “Nana Tree,” I think I have about 2700 lights.

Rule 2 (For a natural tree) – Just shove the lights into the back of the tree and keep pushing and shoving and wrapping around the tree until you’ve lit the tree. If you want to live dangerously and are truly angry with someone around the time you are un-decorating the tree, unplug everything and take a pair of scissors and cut the cords out, which is quite stupid considering you are going to be throwing the tree out anyway. (Been there and done that).

Rule 3 (For an artificial tree) – Once all the lights are on the tree, you begin fluffing the branches. You will notice that the lights simply fall into place: no muss, no fuss.

Rule 3 (For a natural tree) – Skip – you’re done

Rule 4 – It is possible there are not enough lights to cover ‘dark spots’ in the front and sides of the tree. Using an additional extension cord attached to a switch box, simply drop, wind or shove additional lights into the tree until it looks good.

Start adding your ‘commemorative’ ornaments that plug into the lights. Just remember to save the light bulbs you’ve removed from the strand. When you remove the ornaments, put those bulbs back in, one ornament at a time.

I will discuss other aspects of decorating trees at a later date.

Question: How many ornaments are too many?

Answer: You can never get too many ornaments on a tree.

Unless you have a Nana Tree like I currently have. Half the ornaments are on the tree. The rest are in boxes sitting on the arm chair. I will attempt to add a few this evening but am making no promises.

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About SJ Reidhead

  • Nick

    I’ve heard of the shoving method, it’s very precise.

  • Jennifer Shroba

    I think this is the best christmas light adviceihave read on the Internet. Thank you. Can’t wait for part two.

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