Hints for Trimming the Christmas Tree When You’re Blind or Visually Impaired

Head shot of Fred Wurtzel

Guest blogger Fred Wurtzel is an Elder at the First Christian Church in Lansing, Michigan and a former president of the Michigan Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). Fred’s Twitter profile describes him as “High school class of ’69. I love Michigan. Enjoy writing, Church Elder, NFB, outdoors, reading, and social change.”

Trimming the Christmas Tree: How We Began

My wife Mary and I have been married for 36 years and have collected lots of ornaments over the years. Our first tree was just two feet tall, sat on a table, had one string of lights and maybe a dozen ornaments. I bought it for $1.00 very near Christmas and all the needles fell off within a couple hours of bringing it into the house. We loved the tree, just the same.

Some Basic Tree-Trimming Principles

Some people have “theme trees” and some people have all the same-colored lights and ornaments. We are very eclectic. We have ornaments that remind us of people and events in our lives, ranging from computers to pets, sports, food, and reindeer to abstract curiosities. I like eclectic, myself.

Mary and I have a stylized star for the top of our tree. It is pretty old and too heavy for some trees. I sometimes have to trim the treetop down to get a stem strong enough to hold the star up. But that is tradition for you.

Artificial or Real?

A Christmas tree with white lights

We now have an artificial tree. I object to this, but I am too lazy to fight about it, since I will have to go out in the cold and wet weather, bring the tree home, let it dry out, mount it in a stand, have it tip over a couple times before I get it right, and then clean up all the needles after we take it down.

I love the smell of a real tree. I like the ecological reasons for having a real tree. Real trees create more jobs than artificial and the disposal is more ecologically friendly than a plastic, glass, or metal tree. So convenience and laziness (in me, that is) is turning me into an environmental hypocrite.

Trimming the Tree

I prefer starting at the bottom with the lights. The lights go on first. Then garland if you use it, then ornaments, then tinsel if you use it instead of garland. Garland and tinsel are optional. Most people don’t use both, though there are no rules.

We started using garland because cats are vulnerable to choking on tinsel. A more earth-friendly alternative is to string popcorn with or without cranberries and use it instead of garland. This takes a lot of patience – and that is why I don’t do it.

Dealing with Lights

The Colorino Color Identifier with several color samples

One of the most annoying parts of lighting a tree is knowing if the string actually lights. Our electronic color identifier has a light probe on it, so we can use it to know if a bulb is lit. You can also plug them in and feel if they get warm.

Most tree lights are wired in parallel, so if one goes out, they all go out. I find this to be the most annoying part of decorating. So plug in the lights before you string them on the tree to make bulb replacement easier.

(Note: The Colorino Color Identifier, pictured at left, is a pocket-sized electronic device that can detect approximately 150 colors and announce them in a clear voice. It can also detect the presence of light, including the light’s location and intensity.)

Placing Lights on the Tree

Unless there is a window behind the tree, I do not totally encircle the tree with lights. I start nearest the electrical outlet, then go straight across the tree, proceeding toward the opposite side and near the wall.

Then I go up six inches to a foot, depending on how many lights I have, and come back across, keeping the second string as near parallel to the first as possible. I keep repeating this until I reach the top of the tree.

It is sometimes necessary to adjust if you come up with too few lights to reach the top, or have too many left when you reach the top, though this is not a major problem since you can simply reverse and go back down. You may end up with more lights at the top if you do this, which really isn’t a big problem, either. I all depends on how fussy you want to be.

Adding the Ornaments

If possible, imagine where most people will view the tree from and consider that most of the decorations should be visible from that point of view and should look relatively evenly distributed. My only rule is “Do my best, have fun, and don’t worry.”

With the ornaments, I start with the larger ones and try to distribute them evenly from left to right and top to bottom. I then fill in the blank areas with smaller ones. I hope this is useful!

Additional Information

@pegapooh2000 added this hint: “With the tiny lights, if you don’t have a color identifier, place the light on your bottom lip and you can usually tell if it’s on by doing that. Sometimes your fingers alone can’t feel the heat.”

You can find more information about identifying colors, labeling, and marking at Organizing and Labeling Clothing When You Are Blind or Have Low Vision, Labeling and Marking, and Find Services: Assistive Products on the VisionAware website.