The first time someone decided to hang little lights on a pine tree that was chopped down and carried inside a home was in December 1882, when Edward Johnson, vice-president of the Edison Electric Light Company, wrapped a hand-wired strand of 80 colored light bulbs around his Christmas tree. It probably looked beautiful, even if it was a terrible fire hazard.
Today, Christmas lights are used by more than just one brave guy — a lot more. And we have a lot more options. LED bulbs that use less energy and are much less likely to burn out. Bulbs that are outdoor rated. Bulbs that twinkle and pulse. And, in extreme cases, bulbs that people set to music.
With so many choices, it can be hard to know what the best Christmas lights are. Plus, the best lights for you may be different than the best lights for your neighbor. To help navigate the choices, we spoke to Brandon Stevens, president of the Decor Group, a Texas-based Christmas light installation company with franchises in 48 states; Josh Trees, president of the Christmas Light Installation Pros Association; and Bob Young, a Port Washington, New York, homeowner who has been covering his house, bushes, trees, and lawn with Christmas lights (and causing a line of gawking traffic up and down his suburban street) for more than 20 years.
In Young’s case, “we use about 300,000 individual bulbs and it’s probably about 20,000 total feet of wiring,” he says. While you don’t need to use that many bulbs on your house to make an impression, there are other tips from the pros that will help you have a beautiful display. The most important is this: Symmetry is key. You don’t want your work to look haphazard.
Okay, maybe that’s the second-most-important thing, right after safety. Young recommends always using ground-fault circuit interrupter extension cords and LED lights, which are safer and more cost-effective than incandescent bulbs. Plus, thousands of LED bulbs can be connected to a single outlet.
Below, the best Christmas lights — and how to use them — according to our experts.
The best Christmas lights for your house
Stevens agrees with Young that LED is the way to go when it comes to outdoor holiday lights. LED bulbs stand up to harsh weather, they last for years, and if you’re going full Griswold, they can save you quite a bit of money over time. “Warm white has been the standard for outdoor decoration for 25 or more years,” Stevens says. “You see some incorporation of color these days, but white light is still the most popular for roofs, windows, trees, and shrubs and all.” Long strands like this 105-foot option from Decute are perfect for long roof lines. “We use clips along gutters or that go right onto the shingles,” Stevens says. “They are always removable.”
These are the lights you get if you want to pay a lot this year, and then never pay again (and never have to hang and remove them again, either.) Each fully customizable LED bulb in an EverLights set is rated with a 50,000-hour life expectancy, and the bulbs and wiring are fully weatherproof. Josh Trees, the president of the Christmas Light Installation Pros Association, has been installing Christmas lights professionally for 23 years. “EverLights stand out with their simple customization and durability in nature’s elements across the country,” he says. He recommends hiring a CLIPA-certified crew to install the lights. You can always call Stevens at the Decor Group, too.
The best Christmas lights for outdoor trees and shrubs
“We primarily use mini lights on trees,” says Stevens. “We do trunk and branch wrap with mini lights because you can control the effect they create so well.” A shorter, 16-foot strand like these lights from Holiday Essence allow you to wrap branches without driving yourself crazy winding a long string of lights around and around and around (and around) the same branch.
Blending mini lights with larger bulbs, especially in taller trees gives an elegant effect appreciable both close up and from a more distant view. “We use a lot of larger C bulbs high up in the large canopy of trees,” says Stevens. “It creates a look a lot of people like better” than wrapped trunks and branches alone. This strand of large bulbs from Govee is perfect for use high up in a tree because you can control the lights remotely using a smartphone app.
“On shrubs and bushes, we do a lot of mini lights,” says Stevens. With a net dotted by miniature bulbs, you don’t have to spend time laboriously wrapping strands of lights around bushes or hedges. Instead, just drape the net over the plants and, if needed, use twist ties to secure the wiring in a few places.
The best Christmas light projector
“Light projectors are popular with homeowners and they’re great for commercial applications as well,” says Stevens. They install in seconds and can be removed just as quickly, and once the sun has set, these laser light projectors create dazzling effects on walls, in trees, and on roofs. This remote-controlled LED projector can beam out thousands of red and green dots and can also create patterns of images such as a snowflake or a Christmas tree. It can cover an area as large as 3,500 square feet when set back 50 feet from the surface it’s projecting on.
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