Are you — dare we say it — bored with your Christmas tree? The same old garland with berries, the faded plaid ribbon, the few remaining silver and gold balls that haven’t shattered over the years. If it’s been a while since you refreshed your bin of ornaments, odds are those old glass snowflakes and metallic Kriss Kringles now seem mournfully generic, as if they were pulled from a dusty, decades-old catalogue.

It’s time to bring some personality back into those branches. We asked designers, lifestyle bloggers, artists, florists and craft experts — all self-described holiday fanatics with their own traditions and tastes — for advice on how to make a tree feel fresh and unexpected. Whether their trick is swapping silver bells for disco balls or classic star tree toppers for artificial exotic birds, they all agree: Christmas trees should embrace imperfection, rejoice in eccentricity and tell a story about your life.

“Christmas was huge in my house growing up,” said interior designer Josh Hildreth, who was raised in Minnetonka, Minn., and now lives in D.C.’s Wesley Heights neighborhood. He described his mother’s holiday decorating approach as one of abundance. “More was always more,” he said.

But “more” didn’t mean impersonating Martha Stewart or buying out the local department store. “She cringed at the idea of a designer tree,” he said. “Christmas was supposed to be about the beauty of nature, time with family, sentimental things. Every little decoration had meaning.”

Today, Hildreth trims two trees: one on his front porch and one in his living room. The outdoor tree is nature-themed, although it has needed some adjustments over the years. He started by using pine cones, peanut butter and birdseed to draw in local birds, but his porch devolved into “woodland chaos,” he said. “Every squirrel in the region was trying to get in.” Now, he uses an array of plastic fruit ornaments from American Plant that he swears look real.

His indoor tree is more sentimental and family-oriented, with ornaments that represent a part of his life — a place he’s visited, a person he’s lost. “One of my mother’s best friends gifted us miniature Christopher Radko ornaments every year,” he said. “At the time, I thought they were over the top and tacky. But now that she’s passed on, I cherish them. They look like love.”


Jonathan Adler, the potter, designer and housewares guru known for whimsical, modernist collectibles, has his own version of nostalgia. “Twenty-five years ago, [my husband] and I went to the Liberace museum in Las Vegas and bought two Liberace Christmas balls,” Adler said. “Every year, we hang them on either side of the mantel. They’re as fabulous and ghastly as you could imagine, but they’re ours.”

Otherwise, they keep their holiday decor “lean and mean,” Adler said, usually lighting one of his menorahs (he designs a new batch every year) and hanging ornaments from unexpected places (chandeliers, cabinet knobs).

“We have a motto at my company, which is: ‘If your heirs won’t fight over it, we won’t make it,’ ” he said.

To translate that motto into the language of tree-trimming: If you wouldn’t pass an ornament down to your children, don’t keep or buy it. “I think of the holidays as a season of unadulterated joy, but that doesn’t mean, ‘Go be a maximalist,’ ” Adler said. “It just means that, whatever you do, really mean it.”

If you’re starting fresh with your collection, resist the urge to stop at a big-box store and pick up a tree’s worth of ornaments. “Your tree will feel anonymous, and you probably won’t keep them,” said Erika Lavinia, who manages store displays for Anthropologie. “Instead, look for local artists who are making ornaments that reflect your community or region.” Allow yourself a few years to get going. Eventually, your decorations will feel full, authentic and personal.

Lavinia, who lives in Philadelphia, said her own Christmas tree has become more crafty and handmade since she had her two children, who are 4 and 6. This year, they made paper snowflakes and hung them around the living room, tree included, and will continue doing so through Christmas Day. “The crazy buildup is part of the fun. With kids, you have to embrace the imperfect,” she said.


Those eager for a more dramatic tree transformation will find no shortage of inspiration online, where lifestyle bloggers and Instagram influencers are consistently raising the bar. There are trees made of succulents; ones decorated with Polaroids, silk flowers, gingerbread and gumdrops, and even multicolored disco balls; and those with colorful decorations that flow in gradients. In 2017, Provo, Utah-based blogger Brittany Jepsen of the House That Lars Built made waves with her clever paper candle ornaments constructed from hazard-free copper and gold cupcake wrappers.

Last year, Atlanta-based floral designer Laura Wilson went viral with an eye-popping tree made entirely of pampas grass. It did wonders for her business, Flaura Botanica, she said, but requests for her to re-create it are met with a warning.

“People underestimate how expensive pampas grass is,” Wilson said. “It’s only available for a short period every year, so it’s about $20 a stem for the really fluffy stuff. And when I forage it, I’m really picky about the plumes. A tree that large, with more than 300 stems, would be about $4,000.” It’s also, she added, highly flammable. This year, she’s recommending dried fruit, ferns and amaranths instead. “In my experience, the more unexpected the materials are, the more showstopping the tree will be.”

Houston blogger Ashley Rose of Sugar & Cloth enlisted her two daughters this year to help her paint large papier-mâché village houses, which they hung on the tree with wooden nutcrackers. “I love reimagining traditional decor to add a quirky twist,” she said, “especially since we have two little girls that love a bit of extra holiday magic.”

But what if Christmas isn’t your thing? Grant K. Gibson, an interior designer who splits his time between San Francisco and Castine, Maine, describes himself as “not a holiday decor person.” He confessed to skipping trees entirely — that is, until the pandemic hit.

“In full truth, last year was the first time I put up a tree in 15 years,” he said. “Maybe it was something about being home in covid times.”


He went with a purposefully airy and minimalistic tree in the spirit of Charlie Brown, with vintage silver baubles that have been passed down through his family and a handful of artificial candles. Rather than using a tree skirt or base, he planted the tree in an old urn — an idea he saw in Martha Stewart Living years ago.

“I wanted to do something different while at the same time keeping it simple,” he said, adding that he liked the concept so much, he decided to do it again. “This year, I chopped down the tree myself.”


Set yourself up for success. Measure for the largest tree you can fit in your space and buy one with the straightest trunk you can find. Then, get pruning. “Do not skip this step,” Hildreth said. “Trees today come out like shrubs. They force all the lights to the outer limbs, which leaves no place for long or large ornaments.” When you’re done, you should have clear contact with the trunk, and the tree should have a certain airiness to it.

Swap disposable ornaments for heirloom keepsakes. Put as many handmade ornaments on your tree as possible, Hildreth said, and if you don’t have any, ask for them as gifts; they’re more special than multipacks from Amazon, he said. Hildreth picks up ornaments when he’s on vacation or gets them from the St. Alban’s Christmas Bazaar in Washington. “Support local artisans any way you can.”

Layer your ornaments. To make your tree visually appealing, decorate in layers: Tuck larger ornaments farther back, and place lighter ornaments toward the tips. “When you buy lights or ornaments, be mindful of weight,” Hildreth said. “If you wind up with too many heavy pieces, the outer edge of your tree will be naked. Light pieces help fill it out.”

Resist themes. If you aren’t a particularly crafty person, Adler suggests ditching themed trees entirely. “They tend to feel very catalogue,” he said. “Your tree should be a narrative reflection of your life. It should tell your story and capture your memories. It should represent your many Christmases through the years.”

Lean into contrasts. When in doubt, approach your tree like an outfit, with a balance of high and low, classic and kitsch. “My ornaments are an exercise in democracy,” Hildreth said. “I have bought many, both tacky and exquisite, from Tuesday Morning all the way to Bergdorf Goodman. It’s remarkable at how random they all are and how beautiful they manage to look together.” Hildreth pairs a whimsical ornament of Elizabeth Taylor holding a poodle alongside a handmade “Wizard of Oz” piece from a craftswoman he discovered at St. Alban’s. “Christmas trees are not to be taken too seriously,” he said. “I’m not against buying a hideous ornament just for the fun of it.”

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