Buyer’s Guide: Christmas Lights
Updating your holiday decor this year? Start by reviewing these tips for selecting the right string lights for your setup—and don't miss this season's top-rated recommendations.
Who hasn’t slowed down to marvel at a house with an especially elaborate display of colorful holiday lights? Or, for that matter, a towering Christmas tree decked from top to bottom with twinkling lights and shiny ornaments? One of the joys of the season is all the opportunities for creative and beautiful displays of holiday décor, and prime among those decorations are string lights.
These days, however, the choice of holiday lights goes far beyond the old-style large incandescent bulbs that once graced the Christmas trees and eaves of homes everywhere. You now have a choice of bulb type, a much wider range of colors, sizes, shapes, and even twinkling ptaterns—from a simple on/off alternation to elaborate dancing displays set to music. Read on for an overview of what to consider when choosing your holiday lights, along with three recommendations for the best Christmas lights you can string up this year.
Shopping Considerations for Christmas Lights
Indoor vs. Outdoor Christmas Lights
Your first decision is where you’ll use the lights. You’ll find three options: indoor only, indoor/outdoor, and outdoor. While it’s generally okay to use outdoor lights inside the house, the opposite is not safe. Never use indoor-only lights outside, where moisture and weather exposure could short them out, creating a fire hazard. Of the three, indoor/outdoor lights are the most practical option if you like to change up your holiday décor each year or don’t want to be bothered separating lights by type.
LED vs Incandescent Christmas Lights
While LED lights have surpassed incandescent string lights in popularity, you can still frequently find a few of the older-type lights on store shelves.
- Incandescent Christmas lights only have two advantages over LED holiday lights: They are less expensive, and the bulbs give a warm glow that has a vintage appeal.
- While LED Christmas lights do cost more at purchase—often twice the price of incandescent string lights—you’ll recoup your expense over the next few holiday seasons. LED bulbs use approximately 10 percent the amount of electricity as an equal-size incandescent bulb and last two to three times longer. They also burn cool, unlike incandescent bulbs which can heat up enough to burn your fingers, and feature plastic shells (not glass) that are less likely to shatter or flake off coloring.
Choosing the Right Bulb Shape, Size, and Color
While the traditional “teardrop” Christmas light is still the most popular, closely followed by round or globe bulbs, you’ll find a wide array of other options. Icicles and snowflakes are fairly common, as are rope lights, which enclose the lights in a clear plastic tube. Shape and size are a matter of preference, so choose your favorite, or mix and match around your home.
There are several sizes of teardrop and globe lights available. The most common include:
- Mini lights, which work well both on the tree and for decorating small accents on the interior and exterior of your home. Mini lights are currently the most popular size, but as with all fashions, holiday decorating style changes over time, so if you prefer something larger, feel free to buck the trend. These lights are typically ⅝-inch long.
- C6 bulbs are shaped like little strawberries and are the perfect size for indoor trees. These bulbs are 1⅛-inch long.
- C7 are a little rounder and longer than C6 bulbs and work well on larger trees, wrapped around stairway banisters, or outdoors. These bulbs are 1½-inch long.
- C9 are the traditional teardrop shape and size for outdoor décor you might remember from your youth. At 2½-inch long, these lights provide a big impact in outdoor displays.
- G12 are globe-shaped bulbs that often have an etched design that looks something like a raspberry. They are 1½-inch in diameter and work well both indoors and outside.
When it comes to color, some people prefer it pure—all white lights, for example, or alternating two colors—while others prefer a rainbow of hues. The choice is entirely up to you; while traditional primary colors are always popular, you’ll also see colors unheard of in years past, such as pink, purple, and turquoise, along with neon-bright or pastel bulbs.
The Magic Numbers
Always check for the length of the overall string, the number of bulbs, and the space between the bulbs, all of which is normally listed on the packaging.
String length. While strings of specialty shapes are often less than 15 feet long, the more traditional bulb shapes generally run longer—you’ll find strings as long as 100 feet. Just remember: The longer the string, the more difficult to wind it neatly for storage between seasons.
Number of bulbs and spacing. As a rough rule, mini lights are spaced 4 to 6 inches apart on the wire. You’ll mostly find mini bulbs in 50-bulb/25-foot strings and 100-bulb/50-foot strings, although longer and shorter strings are also available. Larger bulbs are spaced further apart; C9 bulbs are often one per foot and often span between 25 and 50 feet long.
To determine which options best meet your needs, use these rules of thumb for decorating indoors and out with Christmas lights:
- When decorating your tree, aim to string up 100 lights per foot of tree height.
- Always round up in length. When decorating other surfaces in or out of your home, measure first. Then, remember to allow for the bare stretch of wire at the plug end—this length will be stated on the packaging—and err on the side of going a little bit longer to avoid finding yourself with another two feet of eaves and only one more foot of lights.
- Combine string lights carefully. Typically, you can plug strings of lights together to get as much length as you need, but heed the guidelines given on the packaging, which should state how many strings can safely be plugged together. When combining strings, always stick with the same type—don’t plug strings of different lengths or with different size bulbs together. Doing so can overload the wire and create a fire hazard.
- If you’re covering an outdoor bush, Christmas light nets make the task super-easy. Just drape the net over the foliage, plug it in, and enjoy the festive display. Most nets are 4-foot by 6-foot and contain 150 bulbs, but as with most holiday lights, you’ll find other size options as well.
Picking a Power Source
The majority of Christmas lights of all sizes plug into an electrical outlet. But you might prefer to pick up battery-powered strings (which are perfect for spots that aren’t near an electrical outlet) or even solar-powered string lights for use in your outdoor décor—no more running extension cords across the lawn!
Consider These Extra Special Features
If a simple row of colorful lights isn’t enough of a splash for your liking, go ahead and take it even further. Many string lights have small control boxes with a multitude of settings for light patterns. Some of the most common include blinking, slow or fast fade, sequential single colors, waves, and sequential on/off patterns. If you really want to make a splash, you’ll even find string lights that play music and “dance” the light patterns in rhythm with the tune.
But there’s one bonus feature that almost every homeowner can get behind: remote control. You can’t beat string lights that turn on and off via remote rather than having to reach for a toggle switch along the cord. (Alternatively, if you have a spare smart home outlet and a smart assistant, you can control the outlet via your phone or voice command—but these extra components can cost you an extra $25+ and $50+, respectively, if you don’t have either.)
Three Top Picks
There are a lot of options on the market, but the following three Christmas string lights win rave reviews from homeowners.
BEST TEARDROP COLORED LIGHTS: Wintergreen Lighting 25 LED Multicolor Indoor/Outdoor Lights ($19.99)
Strung with large C9 LED bulbs, you can certainly use the 17-foot string indoors, but these big lights really shine when used outdoors to frame your home’s roof, highlight an outdoor tree, or jazz up your front porch. The multicolored bulbs have an etched, diamond design on the plastic shell for a little extra pizzazz. They’ll last for years without burning out, and if you want to go longer, you can plug up to 80 strings together to wind around your entire house. Says one pleased buyer, “Beautiful colors, really adds to our outdoor display!”
Available on Amazon.
BEST MINI COLORED LIGHTS: Ankuka 200 LED Christmas Lights ($32.99)
At 66 feet long, this string of 200 multicolored LED mini lights is long enough to wrap around a 5- to 6-foot tall Christmas tree. Need more length? No problem! You can plug up to 22 strings of these lights together to decorate even the tallest tree. Or use the lights to weave through the staircase banister, jazz up the mantelpiece, or frame a doorway. You’ll get years of use at very low energy consumption. In the words of a happy customer, “These work perfectly for our holiday tree. Love how long the strand is and how bright the lights are.”
Available on Amazon.
BEST SPECIAL EFFECTS ROPE LIGHTS: TaoTronics Dimmable String Lights with Remote Control ($19.99)
The 100 LED mini bulbs on this 33-foot string are cheery hues of red, yellow, blue, and green. They are rated for indoor and outdoor use, so you can add a splash of color anywhere, be that wrapped around your Christmas tree or framing your front doorway. Plus, the lights include a remote control that lets you adjust the brightness to any one of 10 levels as well as set the lights to a flash, strobe, or fade effect, or just let them glow steadily. With a 4.3-star average for over 700 reviews, these Christmas lights have left a lot of buyers satisfied, but these reviewer’s words sum up the sentiments of many: “These lights are AWESOME!!! They are beautiful, easy to use, and best of all can be manipulated in many ways with the remote control. On and off, brightness in varying degrees, flash…there are numerous options.”
Available on Amazon.