Everything You Need to Know About Buying, Hanging, and Storing Christmas Lights This Year
Make your home merry and bright with pro tips for buying, hanging, and storing Christmas lights.
When December rolls around each year, you might be excited to watch all the Christmas movies on Netflix and share your favorite Christmas quotes far and wide, but you might also be dreading the most physically challenging part of Christmas: hanging Christmas lights. Even knowing how to put lights on a Christmas tree might not help you if you have a sharp roof line or tons of outdoor greenery to cover. The sad truth is, looking at Christmas lights is grand; learning how to hang Christmas lights is a headache.
Until now, at least. We’ve polled the pros for the best tips for buying, hanging, and storing Christmas lights with minimal stress and strain, so you can focus on coming up with the best Christmas card sayings and shopping for Christmas gifts. Follow these tips, and you’ll be sipping eggnog and staring at your very own Christmas lights in no time.
Before shopping, do a little prep work to make sure you get everything you need in one go. Look at your home from across the street at night to identify which areas you want to adorn. Consider what will look best and what level of installation challenge you’re confident tackling. Bushes and hedges are the easiest spots to illuminate. “Use net lights. You just drop them on and you’re done,” says Lance Allen, holiday merchant at the Home Depot. The roofline is a little more advanced. Measure the base of your house to determine the length of lighting you’ll need and add a few more feet to account for steep pitches, recommends Thomas Harman, CEO of Balsam Hill, a seasonal home decor company.
Using a diameter tape measure (a flexible tool that can be wrapped around cylindrical objects, $15; amazon.com), calculate the length of cord needed to cover curved surfaces, like porch columns. Also note how far away your power source is to ensure you have enough outdoor extension cords. Plugging too many light sets into one outlet can overload the circuit. Check whether you have 15- or 20-amp outlets: A 15-amp outlet can safely handle 1,440 watts, and a 20-amp outlet can handle 1,920 watts. The wattage of your lights should be on the box or tag.
To calculate how many strands you need for your holiday tree, consider light count and tree height. The general rule is 100 mini bulbs ($10; lowes.com) per foot of tree, so for a six-foot fir, you’ll need 600 bulbs.
The pros recommend using outdoor lighting both inside and out to avoid confusion over which cords belong where in future seasons. The package should clearly state that the lights can be used externally. Next, decide whether you want LED or incandescent lighting. While the latter offers a warm, vintage glow, LED lights are much more durable and energy-efficient. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, they consume up to 80 percent less energy and can last 25 times as long as incandescents.
Most brands will include the color temperature, measured in kelvins (K), on the outside of the box. For exterior decor, 2,700K to 3,000K lighting will appear soft and inviting. Lights above 3,000K will likely give off an unflattering glare that makes them difficult to look at directly. For your indoor tree, choose 2,300K to 2,700K lights to achieve a gentle glow. “These will look the most like warm candlelight,” says Greg Lehmkuhl, creative director of Terrain, a garden and lifestyle store.
Select cords that match the color of your tree’s needles so they blend in among the branches. For your house’s facade and roofline, opt for brown or green cords. Use white cords for light-colored gutters and window moldings.
Purchase at least four more boxes than you think you need. If a strand breaks or you decide to extend your decoration into other areas, you’ll have backup. Plus, lights typically sell out quickly, so you may not be able to find the same model on a second trip. Gather the extra bulbs that come with the strand in a zip-lock bag in case you need to replace any throughout the season.
Test your lights before you hang them. Attach multiple cords and give them a shake to see if they flicker. If they do, the strands are likely past their prime and should be replaced. Generally, you can connect around 20 strands of LED lights ($12; target.com) or six strands of incandescent lights before you risk overloading the circuit (but always check the directions on the package). You’ll know you’ve linked too many if the lights dim. Incandescent strands are notorious for shorting out completely when even one bulb is defective. Use a light tester ($26; homedepot.com) to revive a nonfunctioning strand. It detects which bulb is the dud and sends an electrical pulse to reenergize it.
Next, enlist at least one helper to stabilize your ladder and hand you supplies. If you don’t feel comfortable on a ladder, or if you have a particularly large or high roof, hire a pro to hang your lights. Set up lights on a dry day, ideally before the first snowstorm, says Allen. Attach strands to the roofline using S-shaped clips ($7 for 100; amazon.com); one end holds the cord and the other slips over the edge of the roof.
If you’re installing one long strand of lights around a series of windows, mask the LED bulbs you don’t want seen between the windows with electrical tape. Don’t try this with incandescent bulbs, as they may melt the tape. Zip ties ($5 for 100; amazon.com) can secure cords along railings or banisters. To illuminate the lights on a schedule, plug them into an outdoor stake timer ($20; homedepot.com) connected to your exterior outlet.
Inside, light your tree from the top down, nestling the cords close to the trunk to keep them hidden. For a well-distributed glow along each bough, says Harman, secure strands to the branches using two-inch pieces of floral wire ($3; michaels.com). Plug in the lights when you’re two-thirds of the way down and step back to see whether they’re evenly dispersed. (It’s fine to leave lights plugged in while you hang if it’s more convenient.) Finish the final third and connect the cord to a smart adapter ($17; amazon.com), which lets you control your lights from your phone. You can use the adapter with other devices the rest of the year.
Be diligent about monitoring your tree’s water level; always keep the container full so the needles don’t dry out. Incandescent bulbs can get very hot and may pose a fire risk, but LED lights are cool to the touch, so they’re a safer option for your tree. A good reason to go for a faux fir? Artificial varieties often come pre-lit and are made with fire-retardant materials. No matter what, turn lights off before going to bed or leaving the house.
When the festivities are over, wrap cords around a string reel or a sturdy piece of cardboard, or use a holiday-light storage box ($18; target.com). Let lights dry completely before packing them away. Many retailers have recycling events for dropping off old or broken strands. The HolidayLEDS.com recycling program accepts both LED and incandescent string lights. Of course, investing in quality strands that last multiple seasons will make decorating easier and reduce waste.
- Lance Allen, holiday merchant at the Home Depot in Atlanta
- Chris Fitts, owner of Angels in the Architecture in St. Petersburg, Florida
- Thomas Harman, CEO of Balsam Hill in Redwood City, California
- Greg Lehmkuhl, creative director of Terrain in Philadelphia
- Christian Waugh, owner of NY Landscape Lighting in Yorktown Heights, New York