The Ultimate Christmas Lights Survival Guide

Are you in a competitive neighborhood where it feels impossible to keep up with the light shows during the holidays? Or maybe, you are the only house on your block that lights up for Christmas? Either way, decorating with Christmas lights can be a quintessentially festive way to celebrate the season!

But how do you even know where to start? Whether you’re decorating the Christmas tree or the whole house, we’ll fill you in on the basics from indoor to outdoor, LED to incandescent, white to multi-colored, C6 to C9, and strands to nets. Fill your house and neighborhood with the holiday spirit through the power of Christmas lights.

When Did People Start Decorating With Christmas Lights?

Before Christmas tree lights, people illuminated their Christmas trees with candles. Not surprisingly, this practice led to many house fires. So in 1880, less than a year after inventing the light bulb, inventor Thomas Edison wrapped the first strand of lights outside his lab in Menlo Park as decorations during the Christmas season. However, the tradition would take almost 40 years to establish itself as a beloved custom as the everyday population greatly mistrusted electricity at the time.

President Groover Cleveland played a large role in the acceptance of Christmas tree lights. 1895, he was the first President to have electric light bulbs illuminate the White House Christmas tree. At this point in time and for the next eight years, string lights were reserved for the wealthy, as the wiring of the lights required the skills of an electrician. The approximate cost in today’s dollars to light an average Christmas tree was $2,000.

But by 1903, General Electric began offering pre-assembled Christmas light kits, allowing everyday citizens the opportunity to use Christmas lights in their decorating. It still took over a decade for the public to begin decorating with Christmas lights as we know it. In 1917, Albert Sadacca and his family began selling affordable colored strands of Christmas lights to everyday people. He went on to establish NOMA Electric Co., which dominated the Christmas light market for the next forty years.

christmas lights on a house

What’s the Difference Between Indoor and Outdoor Lights?

Christmas lights are one of the most festive Christmas decorations because they can illuminate our homes inside and out. But with all of the varieties of lights, how do you know where to start? To start, notice the difference between indoor and outdoor lights. While you can use outdoor lights inside or inside, most indoor lights are not as durable and should never be used outside.

Depending on your style preferences, you can use any style of light inside or outside, but you’ll usually see icicle Christmas lights, string lights, light displays, and cluster LED lights outdoors. Popular indoor lights include light-up Christmas trees, mini string lights, twinkly lights, and fairy lights.

Fairy christmas lights
Fairy lights are great for small indoor displays.

Many lights are available in both outdoor and indoor versions. If you ever become confused or your lights get mixed up, you can check the tag to determine whether the lights are meant for indoor or outdoor use. Typically, outdoor lights have a red or silver tag with red writing. Similarly, indoor lights have a green or silver tag with green writing.

Regardless of whether your lights are indoor or outdoor, make sure your lights have UL certification. UL classification indicates the lights have been tested to ensure they are not a fire or electrical hazard.

outdoor christmas lights
outdoor lights by @its_keith_may

How Do I Power My Christmas Lights?

Christmas lights can be powered by three primary sources: electricity, batteries, or solar. Your intentions, demands, and preferences for the Christmas festive season determine which option(s) is best for you.

1. Electric or Plug-In

Electricity is the most common power source for Christmas lights. These lights require extension cords or outlets, but you won’t have to worry about dead batteries or a lack of sunlight. While these lights won’t shine during power outages, they’re a very dependable option.

Best for and our recommendations: These lights are best when looking for reliability.

electric christmas lghts

2. Battery Powered

Batteries are good for Christmas lights if you don’t have easy access to outlets, or cords are a tripping hazard. The longevity of the batteries depends on the number of lights on the strand and whether the lights have incandescent or LED bulbs. A general rule of thumb is the fewer lights there are on a strand, the longer the batteries will last. LED lights provide longer battery life compared to incandescent bulbs.

Best for and our recommendations: Best for spots where extension cords wouldn’t work or there are no outlets.

battery-powered christmas lights
A Christmas battery-powered garland

3. Solar Powered

Solar Christmas lights are an eco-friendly way to brighten up the holidays. While solar lights may be more economical, they will not light up at night if they do not get sunshine.

Best for and our recommendations: Small spots that get full sunlight

Types of Bulbs

There are two primary types of Christmas light bulbs: LED lights and incandescent lights. The biggest difference between LED and incandescent lights is their sources of luminescence.

Incandescent lights require a filament that requires more power and burns out more quickly. LEDs, which stand for light-emitting diodes, don’t have filaments. Instead, an electrical current passes through a semiconductive material (the diode) that emits light and produces the visible light we see through LEDs.

LED Lights

LED lights are more energy efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs, lasting up to 100,000 hours, or 90% longer than incandescent lights. They are also brighter and stay much cooler when lit. However, they are more expensive!

Also, Smart RGB-W LED string lights are color-changing lights that sync to an app and change colors with music.

LED Christmas lights
LED lights like these are great for wrapping around the tree!

Incandescent Lights

These lights are less durable, use more electricity, and burn out faster than their LED counterparts. However, incandescent light strands are less expensive and give a warmer, more natural glow.

incandescent christmas lights
Incandescent lights generally provide a softer, warmer glow than LEDs

Light Bulb Sizes

All Christmas lights range in size from 1/4 inches to 1-1/4 inches in diameter but come in various styles. The main styles are mini lights and cone lights. Mini lights are common for Christmas trees and are 1/4 inch in diameter. Cone lights are distinguished by their characteristic strawberry-shaped bulbs, which come in sizes ranging from C6 to C9.

Mini Lights

Mini lights are typically LED lights that resemble incandescent bulbs. They are the ideal strand lights for indoor and outdoor use because their small size makes them perfect for intricate decorating. M5 and T5 bulbs are the two primary varieties of mini lights. Both have a similar general form, although T5 bulbs’ pointed tips more closely resemble incandescent lights’ design. M5 bulbs have textured sides and a somewhat more rounded tip.

Christmas Mini Lights
Mini lights by @torik_thrift_heaven

C6 Lights

C6 Christmas lights are the smallest of the berry-shaped variety and are about 3/4 inch in diameter. They are what many people envision when they think of Christmas lights. These lights can be used to line the roof of your home or can be wrapped around the Christmas tree for a classic style.

C6 Christmas lights
C6 bulbs are great for both indoor and outdoor displays

C7 Lights

C7 bulbs are slightly larger than C6 bulbs at 1 inch in diameter. While they are still strawberry shaped, they are shorter proportionally, giving them a rounder appearance. C9 bulbs are widely used to decorate indoor trees, illuminate mantle displays, and wrap around columns, railings, outdoor plants, and tiny shrubs.

C7 christmas lights
C7 lights by @noel.snow_

C9 Lights

C9 Christmas lights are the largest in the c-series having a diameter of one and a quarter inches and two and a half inches tall. Their greater size and power make them perfect for illuminating outdoor spaces and as pathway lights. Due to their size, these lights are also the light of choice for many professionals to line commercial properties and light up large displays.

C9 Christmas lights
Colorful C9 Christmas lights are bright and cheery and also bring a sense of nostalgia for many.

Light Colors

Knowing your color schemes before buying Christmas lights is important to coordinate your decorations. Therefore, the first step in the Christmas light process is to decide if you want to go with colored or white lights. From there, you have more options to choose from.

White Christmas lights come in two primary forms: warm and cool. Warm lights create a traditional aesthetic. Some people prefer to use completely white lights or include a mixture of color and white lights in their décor. Also, a home trimmed in Christmas icicle lights is sure to add something special.

Color lights are very versatile and can be combined with white lights to add a pop of color, whether through strands of single colors or with strands of multi-colored lights. For example, you could wrap the trunk of a tree in white lights and then wrap the canopy in colored lights. Christmas lights allow you the opportunity to get creative by mixing and matching!

colorful christmas lights
You can find Christmas lights in any color–which is especially great for displays with themes.

Popular Types of Christmas Light Sets

There are many different types of Christmas lights to take into account, depending on whether you want to hang lights along the trim of your home, illuminate trees or shrubs, or add some stand-alone ornaments to your landscape.

1. String Lights

String lights are perfect tree lights both indoors and outdoors. FYI, you can easily wrap them around the trunks of trees and line the border of your rooftop or wrap them around your indoor Christmas tree.

string Christmas lights

2. Net Lights

These are perfect as a quick way to light up your shrubbery for the holidays. These interconnected strands will dazzle your neighbors and illuminate your yard with Christmas brilliance.

christmas net lights
Net lights by @christmaslightsource

3. Light-up Decorations

Stand-alone ornaments are a great way to light up the yard with Christmas magic. You can also get stand-alone decorations that display things that are important to you. For example, a nativity scene or angel is a great way to remember how Christmas began.

4. Icicle Lights

As the name suggests, icicle Christmas lights imitate the appearance of icicles hanging from the roof. These holiday-themed lights have shorter light strings that descend from the big string. Even a green Christmas may seem cozier by hanging icicle lights along the gutter or eaves of a house.

Tip for Surviving the Battle of the Christmas Lights

There is only one tip, and here it is. Don’t just toss them in the bin at the end of the season. We know it’s probably after New Year, but some great DIY Christmas light storage ideas exist if you cannot afford a power cord reel. The first is the cardboard storage idea, where you take one side of a cardboard box and cut a notch on either side. You then roll the lights around the cardboard box.

Another great DIY Christmas light storage solution is to take an old Pringles can and cut a slit on either side of the top. Then, put the power-block end of the light cord in one of the slits and proceed to wrap the strand down and around the can. When you reach the end of the strand, put the other power-block end of the strand in the other slit. Finally, put the lid on the can to prevent the cords from slipping out in storage.

No matter how you store your lights, be sure to wrap your lights in tissue paper to protect the bulbs from damage and prevent moisture.

Happy Lighting!

Ready to add more Christmas lights to your holiday decor? If you want to learn more about Christmas lights, be sure to check out some tips from our Christmas Lights Mom on the Street, Shellie Gardner!

Which lights are you most excited to try out this holiday season? You can let us know on social #getfamilyapp. 

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