Trimming a Christmas tree needn't be intimidating or arduous. Instead, designers recommend thinking about it as an opportunity to reflect your personal flair. "There aren't any set rules," says interior designer Sandra Keeney. "You want to make sure it reflects your personality."

Tucson designers agree that decorating a Christmas tree is an intensely personal experience, but there are a few principles they find helpful to keep in mind as they work through the process for themselves or their clients.

First, select where the tree will go. The space will determine how large a tree you will need. "You want to make sure there is plenty of space around it," Keeney says. "It should be appropriate in proportion and scale to the room."

Other designers, such as Lorraine Edminster, advocate a bigger-is-better attitude, reasoning that the tree will become the centerpiece of the room.

The calculation will depend a bit on whether a real tree or a synthetic one will be used, but in both cases suppliers are responding to customer requests for trees with a smaller diameter toward the bottom. These "slim line" trees allow customers to have a tall tree without having to dedicate quite as much floor space.

Many families are turning to synthetic trees as they continue to look fuller and more lifelike. Synthetics sometimes come with the bonus of lights already added. They are popular among those looking for a "greener" option than a live tree, and they make messy post-holiday tree disposal unnecessary.

Some families, however, have a strong connection to traditions associated with having a real tree in the house for the holidays. "I love the smell," says Edminster. She also loves a tradition passed down through her German family of leaving bread on the tree for birds once it has been moved outside. "It wouldn't be the same with a fake one."

For those who decide on a real tree, it is important to decide which is the "Charlie Brown side," as Keeney puts it. Spin the tree to ensure that the most aesthetically pleasing side is facing out before you begin to decorate.

The next step is adding the lights. Interior designer Lori Carroll recommends white lights to set off personal ornament collections or the metallic decorations that have recently been in vogue.

"It's a little cleaner, a little simpler, and it allows the ornaments and metallics to show off and not fight with it," she says.

Some families are replacing their old strings of lights with more energy-efficient LED strings. Although Home Depot recently offered a trade-in deal to spur LED purchases, designers are reluctant to recommend conversion because so much of Christmas decoration hinges on tradition.

Emily Rockey, curator for horticulture at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, does have one suggestion to replace lights: popcorn. "That's what they used to do," she says, "and it's really fun."

After the lights, many designers move on to the bigger, heavier decorations that are placed deeper in the tree's branches. Jacque Askren, a floral designer at Askren & Sons, says she often creates swags of natural objects to fill this role. "It makes that statement and fills a big space," she says.

The bigger items might relate to a Southwest theme, a favorite of the season, or another of the looks currently in. Designers say they are seeing a lot of traditional looks this season, sometimes with an accent color such as turquoise.

"I like the little burst of color this year," says Cathy Grim, a floral designer at Inglis Florists who is accredited by the American Institute of Floral Designers. "It still has a traditional look; it just has a little pop of color."

Other looks that have gotten attention this year are a candy theme involving giant and brightly colored sugar candies, and a garden look involving herbs and succulents.

Collections of all kinds can work, says interior designer Cory Babcock, who uses a music theme on her own tree, including Christmas carols rolled and bound in ribbon, tiny drums and trumpets.

It's all about emotional connection. Askren likes the candy theme because "it appeals to the kids, but it also takes adults back to their childhood."

Once the big stuff has a place, designers say delve into the smaller objects and allow your personal taste - as well as your personal history - guide you. "It's nice when a tree feels like a tree from where we are rather than a tree from somewhere else," Edminster says. She also likes the idea of homemade objects and objects made by friends.

Last to go on is the light stuff - possibly garland or fabric draping and then, of course, the topper. Carroll generally opts for a Santa Claus topper for more sentimental trees and a star for more contemporary or colorful trees. Askren typically opts for a wispy branch or arrangement of berries, sometimes a double-sided bow.

In any case, they say, make the tree yours.

A desert alternative to the pine tree

Tucsonans interested in using a Sonoran Desert plant to replace the pine tree as a centerpiece Christmas decoration might consider a century-plant stalk, the long, flowering shoot that rises from an agave plant just before it dies.

The stalk can be cut and used to hang ornaments from, says Emily Rockey, curator of horticulture at Tucson Botanical Gardens.

Among the possible natural ornaments she suggests hanging from the stalk are seedpods from devil's claw, screwbean mesquite, Mexican buckeye and yucca.

"You can just use fishing line and tie it to one end and hang it," she says.

Another benefit of using the century-plant stalk, says interior designer Lorraine Edminster, another advocate of natural objects in decoration, is that it takes up less floor space than a traditional Christmas tree. "They're pretty vertical."

Trends this year

• Traditional, with a hint of color - red and white with turquoise accents.

• Metallic - silver or gold, lots of sparkly objects.

• Southwestern - pine cones, desert seedpods, gourds, berries, chile peppers and natural metals.

• Garden - succulents, herbs, oranges with cloves, gardening tools.

• Brightly colored candy - giant lollipops, peppermint sticks, jars of candy.

Carli Brosseau is a Tucson-based freelance writer. She can be reached at