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Beautiful Christmas – Before You Start Decorating

I took Belle to doggie daycare for half a day yesterday and took advantage of the time to start decorating our house for Christmas. I got five trees up, including the 20 foot foyer tree; not lit or decorated– but they are up– and that’s a start!

IMG_5462I want to share some of my experiences and some tips on how to make the most out of your Christmas decorating in a few posts over the coming weeks. I know it’s not Thanksgiving yet and even if you don’t plan on starting until then; it’s not too early to shop or at least begin thinking about what you want to do this season.

Whether this is your first time decorating or you consider yourself an old pro, I hope you find some ideas that will help you make the most out of your holiday decorating.

Before You Start

Especially if you are new to decorating, or looking to expand your efforts this year, here are some things you really should consider first:

  • Budget. What’s your budget? Are you recycling old decorations or purchasing new for the first time? How can you save money?
  • Storage. Where are you going to store all your decorations after the holidays?
  • Time. How much time do you have to decorate AND take it all down?
  • Size. How can you make the most of what you have? Is there such a thing as too much?
  • Design. Do you have a vision in mind? Don’t know exactly where to start?

So, those are the five big things you should decide before anything else. You should consider these points in that order too. It’s great to have ideas first– but if you don’t ultimately follow these steps, you could find yourself coming up short down the line.

IMG_5434Budget. If you have an unlimited budget then you can skip this step. Most of us are trying to make the most of what we have; and believe me, it’s easy to go way beyond what you intended to spend if you’re not careful. Something that may start out as a simple idea can snowball. Before you know it, you’re either out of money or over extended.

Example 1– Trees need a lot of decorations and lights. The bigger the tree, the more you need. I always find if I think I need 6 strings of lights– I end up needing 8 or else I’m taking them all off and stringing them back on the tree again. At least with the ornaments, you can re-space them if you run out. I’m not saying you can’t have a simple, elegant tree. I’m saying that it’s so easy to start and then find yourself needing much more than you anticipated.

Example 2– Garland and swags. Yes, you can measure the areas you want to hang garland and swags and you can get a pretty good idea of what you need. Don’t be surprised though, if you don’t anticipate the extra you’ll need depending on how you drape it. I reuse whenever possible but garland doesn’t last forever. I’ve also noticed you can’t always find suitable garlands readily available form season to season. Prices have also doubled and even quadrupled in some stores this year.

Three ways to save money are: 1) Start early and watch for sales. 2) Don’t forget to check dollar and discount stores! You’d be surprised at what you can find. 3) Maybe go simpler this year and then make the most of the clearance sales after Christmas for next year.

If you wait too long, most of the good stuff will be gone. Don’t expect to find the shelves are still full after Thanksgiving. Trendy items and single color lights (even red or green) tend to sell out early.

A good rule of thumb is: What ever you expect to spend… double it. What ever you can afford to spend, cut it in half and start there as your budget amount.

IMG_5348Storage. Many people make the mistake of not considering what they are going to do with their decorations when they come down. You may not have room to store a large artificial tree and all the trimmings. You may have to go with a smaller, compact option. Another alternative is to use a live tree but that might not fit in your budget year after year. Know how much space you can afford to dedicate to storing your decorations before you buy– unless you expect to throw out or donate them when they come down.

Storage space isn’t so much an issue for me, the organization of it all has been a huge challenge. This past year, I actually took the time to separate out my decorations in containers and label them with the contents. This helps so much when you start to decorate the following year. Don’t skip the labeling part– You may think you’ll remember what’s in that box on the top closet shelf and a year later– your memory is gone. I label the top and at least one side of each container and make sure I store them with the label side out.

Proper storage does take a little extra time but not as much as you might think. It definitely save you time later on.

WARNING: I know it may seem obvious…. Don’t store items that can freeze or melt in an non-climate controlled area like the attic or an unheated garage. Candles and snow globes might not look the same when you open them the following year.

One more thing– when you take your tree down: It may not seem important at the time to separate out your ornaments (if you use sets of things) but do it. When you open the box the following year, you’ll be glad you did.

IMG_5224Time. Last year was the first year I wasn’t still decorating Christmas Eve. Biting off more than I can chew is an art I have mastered and a bad habit to break. I highly recommend starting early if you plan on a lot of decorating and think you might run into a time crunch. Procrastinating can also create a holiday stress load you don’t need.

Same as with your budgeting: Whatever time you think it will take, double it. Whatever time you have available, cut your time expectations in half. Start there and if you complete everything, you can always add more later.

We used to host the same group for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Michael always preferred that Christmas wasn’t up for both holidays. This created a big time crunch because of the amount of decorating I do every year. Some years I waited and some I started early depending on what the schedule looked like. My preference is to have everything up by Thanksgiving so the time before Christmas is open for holiday fun.

By all means, allow yourself enough time to enjoy decorating! For me, it’s one of my favorite parts of the holiday season.

Don’t forget, you have to take it all down! This is my least favorite part. It takes time. You may want to leave it all up a few extra weeks to enjoy, run out of time– and then find you’re still taking it down before Easter. Yes, that’s happened to me.

Size. This directly relates to the other four considerations. How big do you want to go? How much room do you have for storage? How much can you afford to spend? How much time is it going to take?

I love a fully decorated house, inside and out. But simple and elegant or warm and homey is great too. Know and stick to your limits!

IMG_5242Design. Here’s a chance to show off a little of your personality. Your ideas and creativity here, are your only guide. I highly recommend considering 1) colors and themes and 2) whether your design will vary from room to room or encompass the whole house. Make sure, what ever you decide, compliments the everyday design of your living space. Complimentary or contrasting colors and be very effective. Using one or two primary colors can also give a very elegant and designed feel to your decorating.

I love Christmas decorations so much, I’d be hard pressed to say I’ve seen a really ugly, tree, house or room. Christmas is the one time that I think its perfectly acceptable to be completely gaudy if you want to… It’s really your choice.

Christmas decorations can completely transform a space either good or bad. A tree that’s too big can make a room unlivable and hard to navigate. One that’s too small can look dwarfed. To compensate here, especially if storage is an issue: consider using a tabletop tree as room accent as opposed to a 4 foot tree stuck in a corner or behind the couch.

Colored lights are great — keep in mind you might not want blue or purple lights next year. White is classic, multicolored lights can be more casual and whimsical.

Last year, for the first time in many years, I used the inexpensive glass ball ornaments (that have been around for ever) on several trees. By limiting them to a few colors, (gold and white, silver and white, etc.) and using a couple different sizes; I was surprised at how really beautiful they looked. It’s a very cost effective way to decorate, you can use them in groupings and arrangements as well, and if you have to get rid of them because you can’t store them– they are cheap to replace.

I also love a traditional family ornament tree. Not only is it totally unique to your family but the sentimental value is priceless. That can be included in other decorating elements in your house as well. Saved treasures from your children’s, or your childhood, can be used for a warm, sentimental touch.

IMG_1244Go For It!

I hope this helps some of you in getting the wheels turning! I’d love to hear from you and have you share your own thoughts and ideas. I’ll be posting more though the season. If you’re new to my blog, check out the archives from last November and December for some easy ideas and suggestions.

Happy Decorating!


Decking the Halls For The Holidays: Part Three- Decorating the Tree

Ornaments Galore!

Ornaments Galore!

I love Christmas trees. Of the fourteen Christmases we’ve spent in this old Victorian house, this year it will probably see the fewest number of Christmas trees– with a total of seven if I stick with my plan. In past years, I’ve put up as many as thirty two trees. One in every window and then some. Sounds a little crazy– okay, a LOT crazy– but it’s something I really enjoy.

You can imagine, with that many trees, you have to be a little creative when it comes to decorating all of them. I thought I’d share some general Christmas tree decorating tips, as well as some of the imaginative solutions I’ve come up with over the years to make them unique.

First off, I can’t say I’ve ever really seen an ugly Christmas tree. (Alright, maybe a couple.) Christmas trees can be a personal and unique statement of who you are. It can also be a nostalgic trip through the past. Especially, if you’re one of those people that collects a few new ornaments each year or has ornaments made for, or by members of your family. Displaying them can be fun but also a challenge.

So let’s get started with some general tips and things to consider when planning to decorate a memorable tree. (I’ll be referring to all tree decorations, generally, as ornaments.)

  • Know what you have. Before you start your tree, take a look at the ornaments you’ll be using to refresh your memory. Size, color and quantities of similar ornaments, all play a part in the final outcome of your tree.
  • Start with an idea. Is there a theme to your tree? Will it be certain colors or highlight certain shapes or ornament styles? You may want to add to subtract certain ornaments from your plan if you have a vision for the final look.
  • What element(s) will be your constant to achieve your theme or idea? Several dozen ornaments of a specific color or style? Depending on the size of your tree, you’ll want to make sure you have enough to establish your design element  covering the tree.
  • Are you decorating the tree by yourself or will this be a family activity? If you want your tree to have a certain overall look and decorating it is going to be a family affair… you may want to pre-decorate with your base ornaments (or design element) before letting the family go to town with the rest. It’s also a good idea to keep fragile ornaments out of the hands of small children.

    Example- You have may have lots of unique family ornaments but you want your theme to be red. In order to make sure your tree has an even balance of red ornaments, you may want to space them throughout and then let the family add all the rest.

  • Ornaments don’t have to be expensive or necessarily holiday-related if they help achieve your look. Just make sure you have enough ornaments that will specifically carry your theme.
  • If you want to highlight or feature a collection of special ornaments– you will probably want to adopt the less is more philosophy or else your special ornaments are likely to get lost.
  • Make sure you balance the weight of your heavier ornaments on the sturdier branches and all around the tree. Too much weight on one side can make your tree tip over! Larger, heavier ornaments being concentrated towards the bottom is fine but you should still have a sprinkling throughout as you move towards the top.
  • Be creative and be flexible. Don’t be afraid to add another color or style if, through the process, you discover you need something more. There is no wrong or right look– it’s your tree!

Christmas Tree Themes

Mercury glass ornament tree, accented with berry picks.

Mercury glass ornament tree, accented with berry picks.

I’ve done many different themed trees over the years including Victorian trees, floral trees, mercury glass ornament trees, Santa and angel-themed trees, color based trees… Yes, even Beanie Baby trees. I know friends that do sports, hobby, Disney and occupation-themed trees as well. The possibilities are endless here. To be successful, you’ll need to have enough ornaments representing your theme– to stand out and cover your tree in balanced proportions.

Example- If you want to decorate a snowflake tree but you only have four snowflake ornaments, your theme isn’t going to be obvious. Even a dozen or so ornaments of a specific kind, can get lost on your tree if the other elements over power them.

I love mercury glass ornaments. Really nice ones can be quite expensive and I only add a few new ones each year. In order to fill out my themed tree, I’ve added other types of ornaments like painted glass, to be able to fully decorate my tree but still stick to my theme. I also add floral berry picks that add color and fill space without overpowering my featured ornaments.

Stuffing and Filling Your Tree

Try 'stuffing' the branches to fill gaps in large trees.

Try ‘stuffing’ the branches to fill gaps in large trees.

Large trees present a number of challenges including the spacing of the branches. Lower branches are frequently farther apart and if you don’t address them, can leave larger empty spaces that ornaments can’t always fill. A few years back, I adopted a method I call stuffing the tree to help solve that problem. This fills the void between branches and gives the tree a fuller look.

One of my favorite ways to stuff a tree is to use floral bunches or bouquets. The first step in decorating my tree is to stuff the voids with the bouquets, deeper in the tree. Spacing is still important. I try to fill the largest spaces first, while still spacing the bouquets throughout the tree for balance, which means also adding them where they may not be needed to fill a hole but are needs to give the tree a consistent look.

Another great inexpensive stuffing is netting or tulle. I cut or tear random-sized pieces and bunch them, stuffing the interior of the tree. It’s easy to use and manipulate between the branches, adding a soft effect to the overall look. This also might be a good solution for someone considering a flocked or specific colored tinsel tree. Tulle is available in a rainbow of colors and it’s not permanent so you could change the color of your tree every year, if you wanted– without breaking the bank.

I’ve also used pinecones, raffia and other everyday greenery to give a fuller, more natural effect.

NOTE: If your tree is especially thin, you may want to stuff your tree before you add the lights.

Though stuffing your tree may not add to your initial design or theme, it does play an important part in the final outcome. It can be subtle or dramatic, depending on what you use and how much of it.

Decorating Your Family Ornament or ‘Everything’ Tree

Family tree with only the ornaments creating the base. design element.

Family tree with only the ornaments creating the base. design element.

Since I decided to put up fewer trees this year, that leaves me with an abundance of ornaments to either use or put away.

I decided I wanted to use as many of my favorites as possible but still wanted to have a relatively designed look. Here was my solution.

This might help what many people will find they are facing when decorating the typical family Christmas tree.

  1. I gathered together some red and white ornaments, threw in a few silver ones and used them as my base colors. I inherited a collection of gold laser-cut ornaments (Danbury Mint) that I added next. I could have stopped right there and my tree was looking great. All the ornaments were spaced out with color, shape and style– balanced throughout the tree.
  2. Next I added all those favorite ornaments I love, again, paying attention to spacing. Always make sure that you don’t let one area get too heavy or unbalanced (too many, too grouped together.)
  3. I took a step back and made sure my tree still had a good balance of color, shape, etc. Moving a few ornaments, as necessary.
  4. I finished the tree, accessorizing it with berry floral picks as the finishing touch.
The finished family tree.

The finished family tree.

One of the main reasons I use a lot of floral picks in my trees is that it really helps to blend the overall tree. If you prefer a cleaner or more dramatic look, use picks sparingly or not at all.

Tree Garland or “Who Tied Up Your Tree?”

The use of garland on your tree can make or break your final designed look. Garland isn’t the easiest thing to use. I’ve seen too many trees that look like they were tied up and being held hostage as opposed to adding to the tree’s design element.

Christmas tree garland can take many forms. You rarely see the traditional popcorn and cranberry garland anymore– and personally, I’ve never had any luck stringing it together successfully. There are the metallic tinsel garlands (thick and thin), bead garlands, floral garlands, even grape vine and rafia can be used.

Do you drape the garland around the tree? In a spiral? Hang it Vertically? Do you swag it? All choices you can make depending on your skill and taste. Keep in mind that the way you hang the garland on your tree will also affect the quantity you will need.

My 7 ft. 'natural' tree with grapevine garland.

My 7 ft. ‘natural’ tree with grapevine garland.

You can add garland at any point in the decorating process but I prefer to add it first, if at all. When you wait until the end, moving and re-spacing the garland to get it just right can tangle with your ornaments and cause a big mess. You would also have to move a number of ornaments that would be hidden behind the garland. Adding it first allows you to adjust it until it’s just right, before hanging all your precious ornaments.

Christmas Trees and Pets (Children Too!)

You want to make sure you protect your loved ones, whether thay have two tiny feet or four furry paws.

  • Cats climb trees! They also like to bat their paws at dangling ornaments. I’ve know more than one person that has come home to find a toppled tree due to a kitty-climber. Make sure your tree is weighted properly and keep an eye out for felines that show too much interest in your tree.
  • Ornaments are not dog toys… or are they? My Boxers, even at ten years old, pull ornaments off my tree. I have to keep watch to make sure they leave them alone. It doesn’t matter whether they are round (like a tennis ball), plastic or stuffed (like a chew toy), or long (like a stick)– they all look like toys to them. Dogs being dogs, will chew and possibly swallow even glass ornaments so take precautions to avoid that emergency trip to the vet.
  • The rules that apply to toys with small parts should apply to your Christmas decorations. Try to avoid sharp or small ornaments that might be swallowed. Keep the more fragile ornaments out of reach. By all means, supervise small children around your Christmas tree. As hard as you try, no tree is completely childproof, so be safe!

Finally, a word about our foyer tree. We had talked about eliminating many of our other trees and getting one tall tree that would climb through the stairwell  from our foyer to the second floor. I decided to experiment this year and found I could combine tree sections from two of our 12 ft. trees and created a 20 ft. tree! The poles of the trees were the same size allowing them to be interchangeable. By bending and manipulating some of the branches, I was able to combine them pretty convincingly.

Best Tip of the Day: With a little thought and creativity– and a focus on color and balance– you can create your most beautiful Christmas tree ever!

Victorian Foyer Tree. I created this 20 ft tree from two 12 ft trees we already owned.

Victorian Foyer Tree. I created this 20 ft tree from two 12 ft trees we already owned.

Next Up: Tabletop Centerpieces

Decking the Halls For The Holidays: Part Two- Selecting and Prepping Your Christmas Tree

Live or Artificial… Large or Small… I hope you’ll find some tips here to take a little stress and frustration out of prepping your Christmas tree this year. I highly recommend adults setting up and prepping the tree prior to having young ones participate in the actual decorating.

Choosing Your Tree

There are many things to consider when selecting a new Christmas tree that rely heavily on your own personal taste and the space where it will be displayed. Height , color, fullness and shape are all considerations… pre-lit or not? There are also safety issues to consider, and things you can look for to anticipate the longevity of your tree.

Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 4.33.42 AMLive or Artificial? For some a matter of taste, could be a cost or storage issue and for others a necessary tradition.

Live Trees- Benefits include: scent, natural and no storage concerns. I have friends that always insist on using a live Christmas tree. Part of their holiday tradition is going out and cutting their own. Very nostalgic. For those that don’t have that luxury, you are likely purchasing a tree that was cut and stored in a refrigerated truck back in August. No wonder there is often little scent and the needles barely make it past Christmas Eve! I’m not going to say a lot here, there is a lot of information online about things to consider and to watch out for when selecting a healthy, safe, live Christmas tree. Remember, the cost does not indicate the freshness!

Artificial Trees– The possibilities here are endless. Height, color, fullness, thick or thin… it’s out there if you look hard enough. Benefits include: Reusable, many are made from recycled materials, more cost effective over time and they are considered safer to display than live trees.

Best Tip of the Day: Strapped for Cash? Did you know there are lots of people giving away trees on Craigslist.com?

There are affordable options out there but artificial Christmas trees can be quite expensive. Remember no tree is perfect, live or artificial. Here are a few things to consider when purchasing a new artificial tree:

  • Fullness and strength of branches. When buying a tree online it’s really difficult to check the quality and details. You want sturdy branches that have lots of tips for a full look.
  • Check the tips for needle drops. Better quality trees tend to hold their needles because of how they are manufactured. Cup the tip (a finger of the branch) and run your hand back and forth on it. You should little or no needles fall off on a new, good quality tree. Overtime, of course, the needles will become more fragile. I have one tree that is 10 years old and it is so well made, the only way I can get any needles to fall off is to pluck them off.
  • Pre-Lit or Not? Personally, I prefer a tree that is not pre-lit. Even though the lights are hidden in the branches and it makes it easier to prep the tree, the light will inevitably stop working. Finding that one missing bulb or short in the wire in nearly impossible. Removing the lights if they stop working can be difficult but you can always add strings of lights to the tree if they do stop working. NOTE: Pre-lit trees can be very, very heavy. Something to consider for moving and storage.
  • Branches. Check to see if the branches are individual and have to be added one by one or if the branches are all hinged to the pole. A tree with individual branches can be stored easier if space is an issue. You have to be careful because the plastic fittings where the branches attach to the pole can crack if there is too much weight or force on the branch. The plastic also becomes more brittle over time causing breakage.
  • Collapsible Pop Up Trees? They do exist! I’ve seen them in traditional evergreen styles and collapsible tinsel garland trees, that seem to be in most of the stores this year. These aren’t usually very full and most can’t hold many or even any ornaments. They are easy to set up and to store but I wouldn’t expect that these would last more than a year or two.
  • As always, shop after Christmas to get your best bargains. Every tree I’ve used for the past 15 years was purchased after Christmas for 70-90% off!

Prepping Your Tree

Decorating your Christmas tree is the fun part. No one looks forward to setting up and prepping the tree, which for me, starts when I take it out of the box, through adding the lights.

Tree Stands. Whether you are using a live or artificial tree, it’s very important to have a good, strong tree stand that is the right size for your tree. It’s also probably a good idea to make sure your live tree stand can hold plenty of water. Most artificial trees come with stands appropriate for that tree. In rare cases, I’ve had to find a better stand so the tree would stand safely and securely in place. If you are reusing an old tree and have had tipping issues– you need a better stand.



Fluffing the Branches. This obviously only applies to artificial trees. Once your tree is out of the box and assembled in its stand, you need to fluff out all the branches before you add any lights or ornaments. I highly recommend wearing a cheap pair of work gloves during this process to avoid scratches and skin irritation.

Start at the bottom of the tree and work your way around and then up, fanning the tips on every branch as you go so they aren’t laying flat and clumped together. This accomplishes two things:



1) It makes the tree appear to be much fuller; and 2) It will actually help stabilize and support the surrounding branches.

(If the tree still looks thin or sparse, I’ll cover what you can do to add fullness in the next blog post– and this works for both artificial and live trees.)

Now you are ready for the lights.

Lighting Your Tree.

Stringing your lights on the tree can be one of the most frustrating parts about decorating. I’ll talk about the different types available in a minute– but here are some things to consider when actually lighting the tree: If you prefer a more sparse or uniformly decorated tree, then you want to try have your lights evenly spaced without holes or dark spots in your tree. If you use a lot of decorations, you don’t have to be as concerned with this as some of the decorations are inevitably going to block some of the lights anyway.

I find to get the best coverage, you should move around the tree completely, all in one direction. Save a few strings of lights to fill any troublesome dark spots once this step is complete. I personally prefer to to move around the tree in circles, from the bottom moving up in a slow spiral (horizonally) instead of stringing the lights up and down (vertically) on the tree. I have tried winding lights around the branches to help hide the strings, only to find: a) it’s very time consuming; b) you need a lot more lights; and c) you still end up needing to run additional strings around the tree to fill the dark spots. After I run the lights completely around the tree, I’ll take my extra strings and move around the tree diagonally, to hit the dark spots and to try and avoid creating a noticeable light pattern.

Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 4.39.06 AMLight Types.

LED lights are the newest technology and also the most costly to purchase. The good news is that after a few years, the energy savings will outweigh the initial investment. If you are purchasing white, pay attention whether you are getting cool or warm white. There is a definite difference and you’ll want to avoid accidentally buying both. I’m in the process of switching over to LED lights completely. One of the best things about LED lights is that you can connect up to 40 strings together end to end, eliminating a lot of extra outlets and cords.

Mini lights make up the bulk of what most people currently use today. They can still have different covers or shapes but if you use different styles on the same tree. Make sure you spread  out each type evenly or you will likely be disappointed with the result. Most mini lights can be connected end to end with a maximum of 3 strings without blowing fuses on the plugs. Mini lights are currently the most affordable and come in the largest variety of colors and styles.

C-Series lights should not be used indoors, period. These are the larger old fashioned bulbs. They are still available but designated for outdoor use only. They can get extremely hot and become a fire hazard, particularly on live trees. I will admit that I have used them on an artificial tree in the past… and they melted the needles on the branches that they were touching.

Multifunction Mini or LED lights. If you want twinkling lights, flashing or fading these are the ones you want. If you use these, you need to run them around your tree more random than uniform and overlap them to get the desired effect. One of the drawbacks is that they cannot be connected end to end and must each be plugged in separately.

White, Colored Lights or Both?.

Completely based on your individual taste, adding colored lights to your tree can create several things you’ll want to watch for. If you use all one color or use the multicolored strings, you should be fine. If you mix colored strings of lights, you need to make sure you evenly distribute the different colors evenly throughout the tree. If you don’t, you could end up with unwanted patches or blotches or color.

The other day I notice one store selling trendy pink, lime green and lavender lights (the wire was colored too.) If you decide to go with something trendy, keep in mind the cost, longevity of the trend and by all means, make sure you purchase enough to finish the job. Keep in mind that 6 strings may work this year but next year you may need 8 and they are no longer available. Then what? Back to the drawing board.

AND, make sure the lights you are purchasing are green wire and not white wire! You may need to look in the box to be sure. White wire strings of lights are very difficult, if not impossible to hide on a traditional green tree.

Now you’re finally ready to decorate!

After you have all your lights on the tree, you might want to take a moment to vacuum up any dropped needles so they don’t get tracked all over the house, especially if your family will be decorating the tree together.

One Last Thought– Say NO to Canned Snow!! The only situation where this might be a good idea would be a live tree. If you do, try and spray it outdoors or take careful precautions to protect furniture and walls if you must spray the tree indoors. Never spray canned snow on an artificial tree unless you plan on throwing it out after that use. And please, please, PLEASE… only spray a tree BEFORE you add lights or ornaments. The spray will ruin them for future use. If you want the snow effect on your tree, buy a flocked tree. They are some other options that I’ll share with you in the next installment.

If you have any questions or comments, please contact me! I’d be happy to help.

Next Up: Decorating Your Tree– To Stuff or Not to Stuff?