Holiday Lights 101

Your guide to selecting and storing outdoor display lights this holiday season.

By LuAnn Brandsen | Updated Dec 16, 2015 2:10 PM

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Holiday Lights


Home holiday light displays—including those megawatt extravaganzas that require an extra generator—have their humble origins in the 17-century German tradition of using small candles to light the Christmas tree. Despite the obvious fire hazards, the candles were so enchanting that people simply kept buckets of sand or water at the ready should the tree ignite.

For safety’s sake, it was fortunate that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879. A few years later, an innovative Edward H. Johnson strung 80 colored bulbs together to decorate his Christmas tree, an idea that took decades to become affordable. Now each season brings new innovations to light the way.

Related: Holiday Lights Go Neutral: 9 Options

“This year, two thirds of our sales are LED lights,” says Sandra Schafsnitz, a buyer for Bronners, the world’s largest Christmas store in Frankenmuth, Michigan. “They’re longer lasting, don’t burn as hot, and are very bright.” She notes new color-changing LED lights for rooflines and synchronized LEDs that give yard figures a sense of motion.

LED lighting, in fact, is changing the decorative landscape. “Because LEDs require about a tenth of the energy of incandescent lights, you can pile on the lights without worrying about overloading circuits,” says Mike Marlow of Holiday Bright Lights, a national chain that provides professional holiday lighting for homes and businesses. “One of our best selling LEDs this year is a light tube that almost looks like falling rain and is spectacular hanging from trees.”

Christmas Lights


It’s easy to be blinded by the numerous types of holiday lights, but here’s a quick look at what’s available today:

Incandescent. These traditional lights are covered with paint and cast a warm glow. They’re less expensive than LEDs, but more costly to operate.

Christmas Lights
Light-emitting diode (LED). Made from solid-state chips that convert electricity to light, LEDs have no filaments that can burn out and are 80-90 percent more energy efficient. If you prefer the glow of incandescents, new LED varieties create that look, too.  Those shown left, are GE’s Color Effects G35 LightShow, available at the Home Depot.

C7 & C9 bulbs. These heavy-duty light sets feature large 5- or 10-watt bulbs that make a bold color statement. Offerings range from frosted incandescents to new LED retrofit lights.

Net lights and trunk wraps. Mesh with uniformly spaced lighting makes it easier to cover shrubs, bushes, and tree trunks.

Icicle lights. Mimicking their name, these lights most frequently dangle from rooflines.

Christmas Lights
Rope lights. Highly versatile, rope lights are enclosed in a flexible plastic casing so they can easily wrap around architectural elements, such as railings and windows. Options include blinking, flashing, and chasing. The green rope lights shown here are from Christmas Lights Etc.

Incandescent mini-lights. Strings come in varied lengths and colors and are inexpensive to buy and to power. The miniature bulbs create the effect of twinkling stars in trees.

Snowfall tubes and snowdrop lights. These 2 and 3-foot tubes feature chasing LED lights that simulate falling snow. Shorter 5, 7, and 9-inch icicle-shaped tubes hang beautifully from eaves.

Animated and synchronized decorations. Nodding reindeer and color-changing spiral trees can enliven any area of the yard. Look for multifunction controllers that can synchronize patterns, too.

Pathway markers. Light your footsteps with themed shapes like presents and stars.

Battery-operated lights. When you don’t want a cord hanging around (think wreaths), these lights do the job.

Container Store Wing Lid Light Storage Box Bob Vila Holiday Lights

Store holiday lights properly and you’ll both preserve their life and avoid a tangled mess.  Make sure outdoor lights are allowed to dry and store in a dry area without temperature extremes.

You can purchase spools and reels designed specifically to store holiday lights or use sturdy cardboard squares or tubes. Cut a slit in one end to hold the plug, then wrap without overlapping. Or loosely loop each strand and place in individual plastic bags.
Finally, take a few minutes to label each strand with electrical tape noting where it was used, and you’ll make next year’s decorating even easier.

The Wing Hinged Storage Box and Holiday Light Cord Wrap shown here are from The Container Store.

If you are hanging outdoor lights, be sure to read Bob Vila’s 8 Safety Tips.

For more holiday content, consider:

How to Keep Your Christmas Tree Fresh
Christmas Trees—Real vs. Artificial?
Bob Vila’s Top 10 Artificial Trees