After your tree, your fireplace mantel is the most important part of your holiday decor. After all, this is where Santa makes his big entrance! The sky is the limit when it comes to dressing this long, thin stage.

Some of us like a display that has a few discreet touches of seasonal cheer. Others light up with joy when their mantel is brimming with layer after layer of opulence.

When decorating your own mantel this year, use this checklist as your guide:

1. Start with great greens.

A garland of holiday greens is the base layer. You can use yards and yards of a very full garland, dipping it below the line of the mantel and trailing the ends toward the floor. Or you can keep the greens close-cropped to the top of the mantel.

To secure your garland so it doesn't slide off the mantel, tap brad nails into the seam between the mantel and the wall, on the right side and the left side. Twist thin wire around the nailhead, and tie it to the garland.

Your greens do not need to be traditional ropes of pine boughs. Try something different this year, such as a magnolia leaf garland.

Once you have a garland of greens in place, embellish it with interesting picks, such as berries, sticks, pine cones or contrasting leaf colors and shapes.

2. Include a dramatic focal point.

Get creative on this one, because the sky is the limit. Do you have family holiday mementos you want to spotlight? This is the perfect place. A holiday collection you want to showcase? Pick one or two of your favorite pieces and work them into your design. Go for some vertical height and a mix of sizes and shapes for maximum impact.

3. Embellish with an assortment of ornaments.

When picking the ornaments to include in your mantel, approach it like you would your Christmas tree. Make a pile of small, medium and large ornaments. Make sure there's a variety of shapes, colors and finishes. Start with the largest ornaments as your base layer, then build up.

4. Finish with twists of ribbon and trim.

Lace your ribbon through your garland or dot in bows or knots. For a fuller look, add in garlands of beads and pearls.