How to make an artificial Christmas tree look okay?
November 22, 2016 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Looking for a decent artificial Christmas tree on a bit of a budget. Do you have one that you really love? Tell me about it! I have been internet-searching these all morning but I can't really tell from the photos how they look, so I came to Metafilter for personal recommendations. (Alternately: tell me your tricks for making fake trees look less sad and fake!)

Due to health concerns, my mother has been forced to give up a 40-year tradition of cutting down a Christmas tree for her home, and she is heartbroken. Christmas is her Favorite Thing Evar and she is extremely proud of her gorgeous trees.

Real trees of any kind aren't an option, at least this year -- she is in no shape for the watering/cleaning up/eventual disposal, and unfortunately none of us kids live near enough to take over the task.

A friend gave her an artificial tree, but she hates it -- it's smaller than she likes, definitely looks like a fake tree, and was difficult to assemble. I would LOVE to get her one of the very very good artificial trees out there, but have been struggling financially this year and just can't manage a $700 or whatever tree.

So I'm looking for something:
-7ish feet tall (Not taller than 8)
-full, not skinny
-no artificial snow effect
-Maximum budget ~$300

At this price point it seems like I probably won't be able to get something Very real looking (prove me wrong, AskMe!) but maybe something that she can make *okay* with lights and decorations. So if you have any tips and tricks for decorating fake trees, lob 'em at me! I myself never have a tree, so I don't know from nothin'.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
In my opinion, which may not be shared by you and your mother, the best fake trees are the ones that thoroughly and completely embrace their fakeness. Like the ones that are purple or super sparkly or have crazy fiber optic stuff going on. They're just plain fun, and make you happy when you look at them, which is what a Christmas tree is supposed to be. The ones that try to go for true realism are prohibitively expensive and too try-hard; they fall into uncanny valley territory. You will always look at that tree and know it's fake. Just go whole hog on the thing. I mean heck, this one's gold!

However, if this were my grandmother, who is displeased by nearly everything and most certainly things that are fun, and Christmas was THAT IMPORTANT to her, I'd consider just going ahead and getting a real tree, and paying a good looking neighbor gentleman to do the set up/take down maintenance for her. Then she gets the tree she wants and gets to chat with the good looking neighbor gentleman.
posted by phunniemee at 9:29 AM on November 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

A big part of the whole real tree experience for me is the smell. So, maybe find one of those plug-in scent diffusers that smells like a pine tree? I'd try to actually smell them in real life; some of them are more authentic than others.
posted by Weeping_angel at 9:32 AM on November 22, 2016

One of the tricks to a good artificial tree (besides fullness, that makes a big difference) is to not light the room like you're preparing for an interrogation. Soft lighting in the room, put extra lights on the tree even if it's pre-lit, and I like to use lots of bulky, reflective, three-dimensional decor - the fluffy kind of garland, that fancy ribbon with the wire edges artfully coming down vertically from the top, wire garland. Make sure you're hanging shiny ornaments inside the tree, too, not just on the tips.

Artificial trees are generally meant to be fluffed. They all look like crap if you leave them mashed up. Seriously have two people minimum spend 20-30 minutes on this, go away for an hour, and then come back and find the gaps.

I also use silk flowers, greenery, and berries for dimensionality. Go to Michael's/JoAnn's/Your Local sewing-and-shit store and peruse.

Also, if the tree will be in a corner or up against a wall, either put an entire string of lights right down the back or set up an accent lamp or similar behind it to backlight the wall softly.

I recommend buying the tree from Home Depot/Lowes/Walmart/Big Lots/etc brick-and-mortar so you can go stick your face in the trees, see how they assemble, and find a needle style you find most appealing.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:33 AM on November 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

Artificial trees have improved a lot in the last 10 years, in terms of looks and ease of set-up. Here's one for about ~150 that is pre-lit and looks good to me, though you'd have to see it in person to be sure.
posted by cardboard at 9:33 AM on November 22, 2016

We got ours from Target. I love it. I think it's this one, but I'm not sure. It's obviously a fake tree, but it's not plastic-y and obvious.

Our trick is to wrap a strand of white lights around the trunk, then wrap a separate strand of colored lights around the branches. It gives it volume.

Of course, the best tip is to fill it so full of ornaments that you can't tell if it's a real tree, a fake tree, or just some coat hangers and twigs. Quantity can often equal quality.

Finally, this will probably be the cheesiest thing I ever say, but I sincerely believe it: the thing that makes a Christmas tree a Christmas tree, whether real or fake, is love. It sounds to me like any tree that your mom gets will end up looking wonderful, because she cares about it. It's my suspicion that one of the biggest reasons a fake tree looks fake is because the person who put it up just did so out of obligation. They aren't really in the Christmas spirit; they just feel like they have to participate, and so they bought the first tree they could find and hung a couple of generic ornaments on it like "see? I've fulfilled my duty". That's not what Christmas trees are about. If you decorate intentionally, with ornaments of sentimental value, even the fakest tree will look great.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:35 AM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Another thing to watch for - find a store that has the display trees on the damn ground so you can stand next to them, but if you DO get home and realize ugh, this tree is really short, there are ways of fixing that. My tree is a bit unimpressive in the vaulted-ceiling houses I've lived in at some points, so I have flat-out put the tree on a big ugly end-table that was about to go to Goodwill, I have duct-taped it down to a large rubbermaid bin full of heavy stuff (too heavy for my cats to tip), I have built a platform out of milk crates. Once you drape a giant tree skirt (or cranberry-red sheet, if you're me, under a not-very-large tree skirt) over it, you've got a pretty tree on a snowy hill.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:42 AM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Just yesterday The Sweethome posted their review for the best artificial Christmas tree.

I think that most artificial trees you see in commercial spaces (at least here in NYC) are Balsam Hill, which is a pretty expensive brand, but looks really nice. Their pick seems to look very similar (by their eye and by mine just going by the pictures), but is much cheaper and around what you want to pay, so that seems like a good option.
posted by odin53 at 9:50 AM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Complication: I cannot go to a brick and mortar store in the time necessary to do this thing. I know it would be best, but it's not possible, which is why I was hoping for reports from people who have indeed seen these trees in the 3D world
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:52 AM on November 22, 2016

Michaels has a nice selection of trees of all prices. I don't have one to recommend, sorry, but I'd say that the ones that don't look so perfect are the ones that look more realistic.

Also, if she's not ready to rule out a live tree, try googling 'christmas tree delivery [her location]'. At least in my area, it's a thing, and maybe that will give her another option? Then she can get a better fake tree for next year, buying it after Christmas, on clearance...
posted by hydra77 at 9:57 AM on November 22, 2016

Expanding on hydra77's point, christmas tree delivery and disposal are definitely a thing these days, for people who are in your mom's situation. They'll vacuum up the needles and pack up the ornaments and everything.
posted by Etrigan at 10:16 AM on November 22, 2016

Response by poster: Real tree = not an option. In addition to the cleanup etc., with her limited mobility she is concerned about the fire hazard, and since she would not be able to reach to water a tree, it would become a fire hazard pretty damn quick.

Also, if I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on a thing she needs to throw away in 2 weeks she would literally use her available strength to murder me.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:20 AM on November 22, 2016

Best answer: We just went shopping for a new artificial tree. I find the ones that have some "better" branches interspersed with the regular fake ones look better. We looked at a lot of trees in person and both agreed the best option was this one at Home Depot. Warning: it has pinecones, which you may or may not like.
posted by thejanna at 10:39 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I went to Michaels, Walmart, Target, etc and I will attest that the best tree I found for under 300 bucks is the same one thejanna just posted. The "fir" branches really make a difference.
posted by clarinet at 10:45 AM on November 22, 2016

You can get "picks" at the dollar store. Little branches of fake christmasy vegetation you can use to make the fake tree look thicker & more lush. It doesn't even have to be matchy matchy using some pieces with fake frost or colors or ribbons on them on them scattered through out.

Some examples are here. Here's one I'm wanting to try & copy this year. If you look closely you'll realize there is very little actual tree there it is mostly picks & added branches & wide ribbon. You can get all of that at most dollar stores or hobby stores & ebay. You can spray paint some branches silver or white or whatever & tuck them in too. Hang some real pine cones off it as they fill in areas lovely.

I use them on a tree I got on sale for 15 bucks 2 days before Christmas & lots of cheap lights & it comes up great I spent maybe $30 on picks from the dollar tree at the time.

If you want the smell you can buy a wreath of real greenery from places like Sams club pretty reasonably or even buy odd branches of greenery at the Christmas tree guy on the corner.
posted by wwax at 10:51 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I can vouch for Balsam Hill's trees; they're pretty pricey to start but shipping is free and they're having a Thanksgiving sale at the moment. You'll pay more for the taller ones and ones with lights, but they have three tiers of realisticness. We just bought this one with the "most realistic" needles and it's lovely.
posted by anderjen at 11:32 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree that unashamedly fake is the way to go with fake trees. Pretending to be real just looks sort of sad, while something pink or purple or silver iridescent just looks very fun. "Tinsel Tree" is the search term.

We just got a new one manufactured by National Tree Company, iridescent white. It looks really cool and reflects lights really nicely. They don't sell directly, but all the American chain stores sell them. It is well constructed, stable, and its (fake) foliage is very dense. (Something many fake trees are lacking.)
posted by Cranialtorque at 11:36 AM on November 22, 2016

Just yesterday The Sweethome posted their review for the best artificial Christmas tree.
I have never gone wrong with sweethome's recommendations on myriad things, so in your situation, I would depend on their picks.
[I cannot however give firsthand experience with the trees.]
posted by Tandem Affinity at 11:56 AM on November 22, 2016

Best answer: I'm not an expert in fake trees, but I can tell you this. The better looking ones have moulded plastic tips. Now I doubt you'll be able to buy a sub$300 tree that is all plastic, but try to get the one with the highest ratio of plastic tips to "garbage bag tips" (I don't know what the official name for this kind is) that you can afford. Sorry I'm not in the US so can't help you out with specific models or places to buy them.
posted by sardonyx at 12:00 PM on November 22, 2016

Here and here are two guides that show the difference.

Another thing to consider is the type of tree your mom prefers. If she's a balsam or spruce person, she won't likely be happy with a fake pine.
posted by sardonyx at 12:04 PM on November 22, 2016

Best answer: My Christmas tree was under $20 at Target and is at least 8 years old. It is cheap-looking AF before I decorate it but once it's decked out it looks great and people are even fooled into thinking it is real.

My secret: really excessive amounts of lights, ornaments, and garlands. My tree is ~5 feet tall and about 2 feet in diameter at the base and I think I put ten to fifteen strings of lights on it (probably 1000 bulbs, which sounds insane now that I think of it). Every room-facing branchlet has at least one ornament on it. Then tinsel, garlands, beads, and ribbons to cover up anything that still looks sad.

The tree is small but I put it on a console table behind to sofa which makes it seem like there's a whole bottom part of the tree back there. Also you can't get really close to it unless you're actually sitting on the couch so that also makes it look more real.

Oh also, if you go with a cheap tree, wear gloves and long sleeves while you fluff out the branches and put up the lights; they are very scratchy.

But seriously: cheap trees can look pretty great if you have a lot of ornaments.
posted by mskyle at 12:06 PM on November 22, 2016

sardonyx: Here and here are two guides that show the difference.

Those are some good write-ups with examples. In short, there are 2 key to differentiate trees:
1. needle color, shape and length
- more variation on all is good, and the descriptions might mention this
2. needle and branch density
- these criteria are often listed in product descriptions

In short order you can see variation in these details makes preview photos look more realistic, but also a lot more expensive. At some point, you'll be making concessions for price, and then you can work on hiding the flaws.

Anecdotally, I love our fake, pre-lit Christmas tree. I thought I was a die-hard "pick our own tree from a tree lot or nothing" kind of guy, but we bought our fake tree last year, and I came to terms with it as a good "investment" plus something that's generally safer around our two young boys, one cat and one dog (who don't always get along). This year we put it up early just to have some sense of festivity and joy in our house, and I love it - dim the lights, as Lyn Never suggested above, turn on the tree and we have a warm, seasonal glow in our living room. The needles are clearly fake, but from a few feet away, it looks real enough.

(And I really like being able to bend the branches to make ornaments fit just right :))
posted by filthy light thief at 1:23 PM on November 22, 2016

Is Costco an option? Their trees are really nice (and prelit).

Also get a real wreath and use it inside the house. Candles and air fresheners suck at smelling like real pine. A nice wreath is the way to go.
posted by 26.2 at 2:57 PM on November 22, 2016

We had fake trees for several years growing up and it was definitely all about the garlands. Shiny tinsel is great for making the tree seem thicker, wide wire ribbon as a garland is classy and stays put, and sometimes we even bulked up in interior of the tree by using a fake fir swag wrapped around the center support pole.

Pine scented candles are always a nice thought, but we never found any that really worked and they're an open flame so that's a fire hazard right there.

There are so many advantages to fake trees! Less money over time, you can put it up and take it down whenever you feel like it, with LED lights there's an extremely low chance that it would catch on fire, no worries about making sure a live tree is disposed of properly, no weird trunk that won't fit your stand or won't stand up straight, and as you mentioned, no watering it.
posted by Pearl928 at 4:23 PM on November 22, 2016

Another thing my sister did with our fake tree one year was insist I restrain myself from putting on so many shiny glass ornaments and put on some regular old pinecones on fishing wire. She was right - having the natural pinecones on the fake tree looked great.
posted by Pearl928 at 4:27 PM on November 22, 2016

I love my fake tree...for me it's all about having lots of lights (pre-lit all the way!) And absolutely taking the time to fluff. From there, create depth by putting reflective ornaments inside the tree. Wire ribbon which is mesh and sparkly for the next layer, followed by more reflective and matte ornaments on the top layer.
posted by MandaSayGrr at 4:47 PM on November 22, 2016

We got into the fake tree thing a few years ago and went with Balsam Hill, seconding a mention or two above. It just seemed to be the most realistic thing out there. We needed to abandon real trees because we have a big holiday open house early in December and then family home for Christmas, and don't want to clean up after a completely dead tree by New Year's. That said, I also agree with the idea of embracing fakeness, and/or just loading up the tree with lots of lights and ornaments so nobody can tell.

One way to sort of rationalize the fake tree is in terms of global warming: (a) it saves a real tree from being cut, so it will grow and continue to lock up carbon (or helps convert that acreage into long-term growth forest), (b) this benefit repeats annually for as long as you stop buying real trees, and (c) your fake tree locks up carbon as well in the form of plastic, which if it is a really good tree will stay locked up for many years and then could be recyclable. (Some disagree of course.)
posted by beagle at 5:17 PM on November 22, 2016

Do you have time to fancy up a fake tree? here are steps to make it look like it has snow on it. There is also a follow up post on how it looked the next year, and how to store it (you need to scroll down for that one)
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:29 PM on November 22, 2016

I think bare trees like this one are fun. That all depends on your grandma though.

You can also search sites like wayfair and sort by customer reviews, and read the reviews. The top three results for this search look pretty good and are within your budget.
posted by bunderful at 6:37 PM on November 22, 2016

I like the strategy of an unashamedly fake tree inside, and a real pine wreath on the front door. Wreaths are cheap and they are made from cuttings and scraps, so I don't feel bad about cutting down a living tree for decoration. You can add a few ornaments or even lights to it. They have that real pine smell, which is nice. Any needles are dropped outside, and they are much easier to dispose of come January. It might be something to consider for your Mom.
posted by Cranialtorque at 1:56 PM on December 12, 2016

« Older Have you worked with an architect to build a home...   |   best. reading. pillow. ever? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.