One of my favorite traditions during the holidays is to learn about other people’s holiday traditions. I enjoy hearing about their childhood memories and how they have woven their holiday heritage into their own observances as adults. As I listen to the tales of Christmases past and present, I am always amazed by how many memories and traditions revolve around the Christmas tree. This special symbol is near and dear to our hearts and the star of the show when it comes to holiday decorating. This year, why not re-imagine your tree, blending old traditions with new ideas, to make it a fresh and glorious tribute to your family and your home. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Standout Stands

I swore off traditional Christmas tree stands the year my tree toppled over onto my dining room table, right in the middle of a dinner party. With the way I decorate trees, I needed a stand that could handle the weight of a million ornaments with grace and beauty. So now I always place my tree in a sturdy iron garden urn. Get creative and look about your home for unusual containers that will display your tree in style. How about a large and lovely blue and white Asian cachepot? A friend of mine placed her tabletop tree in a bright red metal ice bucket emblazoned with an old English family crest. I love how the splash of red popped in the navy room where the tree was displayed.

For a truly unusual presentation, get an evergreen tree sapling, take it out of the pot and rinse the soil off the roots. Then insert the tiny tree in a large glass vase, displaying it much as you would fresh flowers. When the snow melts in the spring, plant the tree in your yard. If you opt for a traditional tree stand, try covering it with something besides a tree skirt. Tablecloths are a wonderful option because they are easy to launder and they frame the tree in soft, luxurious folds of fabric.

Let There be Light!

Before you hang one ball on your tree, start with great lighting. In my opinion, the more sparkle and shine the better, so I load my tree up with lots of wattage. Plan to use 100 lights for each foot of your tree’s height and make sure the strands of lights are evenly distributed top to bottom. If you want your tree to be even more radiant, you can even run lights up and down the trunk. Another great solution if you’re short on time is to purchase a pre-lit tree. I’ve fallen in love with the convenience they provide.


Before you start hanging baubles, think about what you want your finished tree to look like and communicate to your guests. One approach is to make your Christmas tree a testament to you and your family, filled with ornaments that show guests what you hold dear. Festoon it with ornaments passed down through the years, framed family photos or a few small heirlooms hung from ribbons. A friend spiced up her Christmas tree with sprigs of broom corn harvested from her grandparents’ farm. She and her children picked the corn, dried it, misted it with spray paint and tucked it in the branches of their tree. Or, maybe your tree could showcase some of your favorite collectibles, like old post cards or cream pitchers. You could also fill your tree with ornaments you’ve brought back from favorite vacations. Let your imagination go and see what you come up with!

Another fun approach is to do a thematic tree that revolves around a color palette or a particular subject. In the past, I’ve decorated my trees with a nod to nature, covering them with huge pine cones and encircling them in honeysuckle vines. For a more opulent look, you could jazz up your tree with gold, silver and crystal ornaments. Or create a tree that’s dramatic in its sheer simplicity. Pick one special ornament style or color and use it exclusively on your tree. A friend of mine created a stunning look simply by hanging small plate ornaments, which featured vintage drawings of evergreens, all over her tree. If you have little ones in your home, consider decorating a tree just for them, full of whimsical ornaments or ornaments they have made themselves. Several of my friends decorate artificial tabletop trees to put in their kids’ bedrooms, where they serve as festive nightlights.

Hang with the Pros

If possible, it’s best to start with a beautifully shaped and spaced artificial or natural tree. But if your tree isn’t perfect, no problem. We’ve taken some ugly ducklings and made them into beautiful swans at Nell Hill’s. The key to transforming a mediocre tree into a showstopper is to supplement the branches with a number of picks. Your picks can be plain evergreen boughs; sprigs that sport berries, pinecones or even frost; or metallic sprays that will bring some sparkle and snap. Insert the picks  throughout the tree to fill in the branches and add more color, texture and interest. When the tree is to your liking, it’s time to adorn! Gail, a visual artist at Nell Hill’s, recommends starting at the top of the tree then working your way down. Hang the ornaments in diagonal lines that encircle the tree, top to bottom, to keep the eye flowing down and around so you can drink in the finished tree more fully. Start the process with your largest ornaments, burying some deep within the branches of the tree to give it more depth.

Gail likes to add strands of garland next, before she hangs the medium and small ornaments, so she can fill in any big holes. When the garland is to her liking, she hangs the medium sized ornaments, placing them midway inside the branches, following the top-to-bottom diagonal line started with the largest ornaments. She finishes off with the smallest ornaments, being sure to place them on the outside of the branches, where they are most visible.

Tree Trimming at Nell Hill’s …

At Nell Hill’s Atchison this year, we decorated our tree using this year’s hottest holiday look: metallics. This year, platinum, soft gold, copper and silver are big, big, big.

We fleshed out our spindly artificial tree with an assortment of metallic picks, like these wonderful gilded leaves.

For our large and medium sized ornaments, we used an assortment of clear glass, soft gold and silver balls. We also tucked in some marvelous gold and silver glitter-covered wire lanterns that hold battery operated tea light candles.

We wove a thread of gold ribbon garland around the tree in diagonal lines, starting from the top and working our way down.

Tiny metallic ornaments, like gilded acorns, finished off the outer branches of our tree, which was resplendent in its gold, silver and bronze finery.

Next Week …Stumped by how to decorate your fireplace mantel this holiday season? Come back next week when I’ll share some mantel treatments we love at Nell Hill’s this season. You’re sure to leave inspired!

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25 Responses to “Time to Trim the Christmas Tree”

  1. Lady Katherine Says:

    Love all the trees and ideas. I have an artificial tree, I think this year I will add some real cedar and pine. Love the pine cones on the tree.

  2. Emily B. Says:

    All the trees are gorgeous, but I especially like the smaller trees placed on tables. To me, this makes creating a really over-the-top tree seem much more do-able & economical.

    Thanks for your fantastic blog!

  3. Claudine B Says:

    Always wonderful ideas. Love how the natural look is so in this year, with all the pinecones and bird items. We are on the same page here, just posted about how to decorate your Christmas tree, as well!


    Claudine Barnett

  4. Lana Rae Higgins Says:

    My old tree is so tired and weary looking that this year I decided that 3 Alpine trees would take its place. They are grouped in front of the living room window as I want the outside world to know we are celebrating. They turned out much better than I imagined they could. They are decorated with gold cherubs and ornaments and loads of tassles. They wouldn’t be complete without the pheasant feathers that are a must for my husband. The feathers are all from Doniphan County and we have a brand new pheasant body as the topper for the tallest tree. I am more than happy that our new “tree “is pleasing to us and our friends that have seen it. Sometimes it just takes courage to be just a bit different.!!

  5. Kristin Malfer Says:

    Love the blog. It is such a refreshing thing to receive during the busy work day. Keep it coming!

  6. Barbara Rentschler Says:

    We decorate our tree every year with strings of popcorn that my husband and I strung 31 years ago when we were first married, and have added red beads, lights, and a multitude of Old World glass ornaments that I have collected over the years. Most of the oranaments on the tree are glass. My kids love to see the ornaments come out every year as they remember where so many have come from. Another tree I did a couple of years ago that touches my heart is a smaller one that I spray with snow, adding my 3 childrens homemade ornaments , ( they are now 24,18, 15), and old ornaments that I have from my childhood. We are traditionalists, and we love remembering these items at this time of year. Merry Christmas, and thanks for all the ideas!

  7. Alice J Molisani Says:

    Mary Carol.
    I just love to read your Blog…….you have fantastic vision…….
    Each time a hoiday rolls in I find myself relying on your ideas. I’ve never been a creative person…just always wanted my home to have my personality stamped in every room….I feel the rooms have reached a place where I can now fully enjoy them. Best of all, I have found the perfect place to come to and find “creativity at it’s finest”.

    Thanks for each of your lessons and for sharing your thoughts
    Falling Leaves.

  8. Jana Gridley Says:

    I love your idea (and have admired it in your home at your open house and your books for years) of using containers such as garden urns, cache pots, etc. to display the Christmas tree. What I’d like to know is how do you secure the tree in such containers? In a large enough urn to hold a Christmas tree stand? Please let us know!

    Thanks for your fresh blog, Facebook page, website and more! Love you Mary Carol and the entire Nell Hill Team!!!

  9. Barb and Don Says:

    Growing up out in ranch country, a native red cedar served that special role as “the tree” in the early years. It always brought a pungent aroma of nature into the house at Christmas time, and it was decorated with bits of cotton, fruit, dried seed pods, pine cones and a few treasured generational hand-me-down blow glass ornaments. We have been transported back to those simpler times by your facinating use of natural branches, cedar, pine and, of course, pine cones in your recent Christmas decorating designs. Needless to say you have embellished those earlier forms in delightful ways and we love it!

  10. Annette Says:

    Oh, how I wish I was there to see all the Christmas decorations at your Atchison stores. I just love to visit. This year we drove up in October, too early to see all the decorations. Usually at least one of my daughters and I drive up from SW Missouri. We have made it somewhat of a tradition.
    The decorators just have that special gift that makes holidays glow. And the trip to your home is so wonderful and generous of you.
    May God richly bless you this Merry Christmas season.

  11. Carol Hall Says:

    Can’t wait for mantel tips next week. Mine is hard to do as it does not have a high ceiling and all decorations have to be low and horizontal.

  12. Teresa Ann Domenzain Says:

    Merry Christmas! Thank you ever so much for all your great ideas on decorating our homes ~ Home is where the heart is ~ Love that you mention family traditions. Here in Phoenix all our family comes together to make my Nana’s tamales! This warms hearts with family & special friends. Everyone wants to buy them but we can not put a price on tradition so we end up giving then away for free! May God bless you & your family this Christmas 2010! Cant wait to shop at your store in May 2011! ~Cheers ~ Terri Ann Domenzain ~Phoenix Arizona

  13. Janet Doherty Says:

    These are just amazing and so inspiring. Hoping to get to the stores this winter…hope you are keeping well as you continue to amaze us all.
    Sugar Grove, IL

  14. Merit N. Hellman-Funk Says:

    A good statement made “There is no price on tradition nor the love of family and friends as we gather throught this grand country to Celebrate. As you are aware I come from Sweden and our tradition is deap as the snow on the 13th of December we celebrate Sangta Lucia (the patron saint of light) She is normally the eldest daughter in the family all dressed in white with a red satin ribbon around her waist and a crown of candles lit on a small wreath on her head. The boys who are called Tjarn gossar or (star Boys) wear a dunce cap with stars pasted on it and carry the starr the little girls also dressed in white which could be Dad’s old shirt with silver garland around the waist and silver garland around her head as a small crown. They come singing bringing coffie and home made cookies and breads to their family mostly parents. The holiday tree is dressed in small home made ornaments like woven red and white heart shaped baskets filled with nuts berries and candy. Our tree is decorated with much joy and rememberance of the past I have a great friend an artist Linda George who hand carvs and oil paints small santas on skies and many memories dear to all of us Swedish folks. My small tree sitting in front of my red french doors on an old Spanish bench has become the home of this little tree. My or our grand tree is filled with much from previous years when I came to shop at your grand store it too fills my heart with joy as I do remember a dear friend and all of her wonderfull staff. Colorado at Christmas
    is great however this year we will be heading back to Kansas City to surprise some old pals and for sure come to see you. You have brought much joy in to my life. Merry Christmas and as we would say in Sweden “God Jul” With love, Merit and Don

  15. Mary Anne Herring Says:

    Mary Carol…………you are awesome! I only wish I were closer so I could come and visit and shop!

    I will be back………….I promise!

  16. Mildred Hoppe Says:

    How do you make your tree stand up when you place it in an urn or an Asian cachepot?

  17. Cindy Albrecht Says:

    I used to do a small tree in each of my children’s rooms too when they were little! It was a great nightlight! They loved it & I hung all the ornaments they made on them….now I will wait for my grandchildren to do it again….

  18. Linda Lashendock Says:

    Hi Mary Carol and Team,
    Every year my Mama Jan and I travel to your store with great anticipation to see what is new! We treat ourselves to a lovely lunch with great conversation about our new purchases and your ideas! This year, I will not be traveling to Kansas. Viewing your website only brings my senses and sights to imagine the beauty of your talents! Thank you!!! Can you please tell me or show me via email what your outside urns have in them this year. I always like to purchase the contents for our North Carolina home. My outside urns with Mary Carol’s trimmings always receive great compliments and of course I inform friends and neighbors or your store by showing them your book…and now your website. Thank you. Have a very Merry Christmas and Thank you for bringing beauty into our homes!!! Wishing you and your family a very Happy New Year! Linda

  19. Jan Pankratz Says:

    Each year of our marriage (26) my husband and I have selected “our” ornament. We have continued the tradition with our 3 children. Quite often these have been purchased on our family vacations or have been gifts we’ve received or made by the kids. I have recorded each ornament with the year and place of origin on each of our lists. It is very interesting to remember the memories from our favorite trips, etc. Our living room tree is our “pretty” tree with lots of gold, silver and burgandy ornaments. We have 2 large rustic trees in the family room with vacation, Christmas and winter ornaments. We have needed to add another tree in our basement to hold more of the kids and sport ornaments. Soon the kids will be starting homes of their own and each will receive a box from their parents filled with their ornaments and lots of love.

    Our church is having a Christmas open house tour in a few days and we’ve been busy decorating like never before. We have set up separate displays for all 5 members of the family throughout our home with some Christmas gifts we have received in our lifetime with pictures from Christmases past. We will not be doing this every year, but it has been a joy for each of us to remember some of our favorite memories. Have a Merry Christmas and make lots of new memories with your loved ones!

  20. Mary Carol Says:

    Most of the trees shown here are smaller, table-top trees–which I love. I basically just run the poll of the tree to the bottom of the urn, then put a few bricks around it to stabilize the tree. Works for both inside and out.

  21. Mary Carol Says:

    I just wanted to say it was so fun to read this week some of your family traditions that have been kept through the years at Christmas. It’s such a busy season, but I couldn’t be more blessed to have such amazing customers as yourselves. Enjoy the hussle and bussle of the next few weeks. Happy Holidays to all!

  22. karen Says:

    It seems I’ve tried this, done that, sort of thing every year and never see any new ideas. I do, however, find unique displaying techniques in your blog and stores. Thank you so much. Would love to see you do a tv spot. By the way, love the idea of a fresh sapling in a clear vase for the holidays and to plant outdoors in the spring. It is ideas like this which keep me looking forward to your refreshing take on decorating, your staff’s unquestionable eye for design and all three stores approachability in asking and receiving answers. Kudos to you for your many years of success.

  23. Patti Dame Says:

    I put my artificial tree in a 2.5 ft.white urn and filled the urn with sand to stabilize the tree. The tree is white so then I put the white snow blanket cotton-like material to cover the sand and up to where the branches start. It looks like my tree is floating on a cloud! For the first time this year I arranged my main ornaments (turquoise) on the diagonal as suggested by Mary Carol and then added iridescent pearl garland, sparkly branches and my other ornaments which are white or mercury glass and my tree is breathtaking! (Not to brag or anything) I do think it’s my most stunning tree and I think one of the main reasons is the ornaments on the diagonal from the top to the bottom. Thanks for the great advice!

  24. shela Says:

    Love getting your blog– Happy Holidays

  25. AM Says:


    I just love all your ideas! I am really looking forward to Christmas and to all the fun I am going to have decorating our trees! Thanks for all your inspiration!

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