How to Choose the Right Christmas Tree for Your Home

Take the size of the room, your ornament collection, and your fresh or faux preferences into account before you shop.

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Martha Stewart Faux Christmas Trees
Photo: John Dolan

Though holiday décor can extend from the lights that line your roof to the candles on your dining room table, the Christmas tree is the centerpiece of your entire aesthetic—and often anchors the majority of your holiday events. Finding the right size and type for your home requires some planning ahead, though: Take the following three considerations into account before you start scouting spruces or finalizing your fir choice.

Real vs. Artificial Christmas Trees

The first item to consider is whether bringing a fresh or faux Christmas tree into your home is best for your space.

Fresh Trees Are Nostalgic, but Require More Care

If you opt to source a fresh tree, you can find them pre-cut at home improvement stores and pop-up markets in most neighborhoods—or you can make an annual trip out of visiting a local farm to cut one down yourself. "The family experience of getting in the car, debating the tree, and bringing it home is so much more memorable than dragging a dusty box out from somewhere," says Tim O'Connor of the National Christmas Tree Association. "And it's far more environmentally responsible."

But once you get it home, a real tree requires some care: Give the end a fresh cut to reopen the veins that pull water up through the trunk, and make sure you keep the trunk completely submerged in water, which is key for both safety (dry trees can become a fire hazard) and needle retention. For the first seven to 10 days, says O'Connor, you should check (and expect to refill) the water twice a day; after that initial period, a once-a-day pour is usually enough. "You have to think of it like a vase of fresh flowers: If you don't take care of it, it's not going to last," says Tim. "But if you give it a fresh cut and don't let it run out of water, it should be beautiful throughout the whole season."

Artificial Trees Are Better for Tighter Spaces and Budgets

Some homeowners prefer the picture-perfect look and lower maintenance of an artificial tree: For a homeowner with an awkward space that requires specific dimensions, the predictability of an artificial tree is comforting, and manufactured versions won't have bare spots that you need to camouflage with ornaments or placement tricks.

In contrast to the annual cost of buying a fresh tree, an artificial tree is an infrequent investment; you could use the same one in the same space for years. Plus, most come pre-lit—so you can skip the battle with tangled strands of lights. Though artificial trees are available at a wide variety of price points—from discounted under-$100 versions to high-end models with price tags in the thousands—this isn't a décor category where you should skimp. "There's a huge quality difference," says Glenna Stone of Glenna Stone Interior Design. "If you're going to get a faux tree, invest in a good one."

tree presents view New York Christmas
Stephen K Johnson

Tree Variety and Your Ornament Collection

If you're buying a real tree, you can generally expect to see the same types of evergreens available year after year, says O'Connor; like other crops, certain species grow best in specific regions (Fraser firs are abundant in the east and upper Midwest, Noble, Douglas, and Nordmann firs are common out west, and Leland and Murray cypress are popular in the South and Southeast).

Ultimately, the local variety that works best for you—whether it's a species of short-needled fir, a softer white pine, or a bluish-tinged spruce—is a matter of personal preference and region, but you do need to determine whether your species of choice can bear the weight of your ornament collection (or hold its own if you prefer a less decorated look).

If you plan to deck your tree with dozens of heavy, glittering balls, check the strength of the branches by gently pulling them down to simulate the weight of your decorations; if you like a tree that's not overloaded with ornaments, look for one with denser branches to prevent bare-looking spots.

Faux "Varieties"

Artificial trees can mimic a specific type of tree—Douglas fir, Fraser fir, or Blue spruce—or incorporate several different needle lengths and thickness into a single design, creating layers and texture for additional visual interest. "We look for mixed pines—usually three different pine infusions within the branches," says Linda Baker of Baker Design Group. "We're looking for something with some natural quality to it."

small Christmas tree
Lennart Weibull

The Size of Your Space

Always decide where you'll set up the tree before you start shopping. If you want a statement-making evergreen in your two-story entryway, you're looking for a very different height and width than one you might want to tuck into the corner of the kids' playroom or the family room-based one where Santa leaves the presents. Trees that will be visible through a window should hit a sweet spot of sizing: They shouldn't block more than about two-thirds of the window, says Baker—but you want to show off enough of the tree that the placement looks intentional, recommends Stone.

Avoid Oversized Options

All the experts emphasized that since every room, every tree, and every customer are different, setting firm size guidelines is nearly impossible; it's often a matter of putting up the tree and seeing how the proportions work within the room. But bigger isn't always better: A tree that's too large, says Baker, can visually overwhelm the room—and, from a practical standpoint, simply get in the way of how you use the space.

Always Measure

Measuring the height and width of the area where you plan to install the tree is a critical pre-shopping step: You're looking for a tree with a diameter that leaves 24 to 36 inches for walkways past the tree or space between the tree and furniture, say the experts, and a height that allows for at least 4 to 6 inches between the highest part of your tree and the ceiling. (Don't forget to account for both your tree topper and your stand, which will both add height.)

If you're shopping for a real tree, remember to bring your measurements to the field. "When you're looking at trees outside, it's really common to underestimate the size," says Stone. Many sellers provide a measuring stick you can use to roughly judge the height and width; another option is to pace off your indoor area before you go out and match that as you pace off the size of the tree in the field, says O'Connor. "The circumference of the tree is something people often underestimate," says O'Connor. "When you're shopping, walking it off will give you a good approximation."

Make Changes If Necessary

With an artificial tree, the size is more predictable, but you still may put it up and decide to exchange it for another that's smaller (or larger). "The tree should accommodate the room," says Stone. "You don't want it to feel like it's pressed up against everything. It needs to feel proportional to the space."

If you end up with a fresh tree that's too big for your space, you can trim it a little—or decide to appreciate the experience for what it is. "I may have been guilty along the way of bringing home a tree that was bigger than perfect, but that's the fun of it, too," says O'Connor. "Every tree is unique."

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