The Best Christmas Lights for Any Indoor or Outdoor Display
Updating your holiday decor? Start by reviewing these tips for selecting the right string lights for your home interior and exterior.
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?
If you find yourself stopping and staring more often than you used to, part of the reason may be that string lights, also known as Christmas lights, have advanced far beyond the old-style incandescent bulbs that once graced the eaves and living rooms of homes everywhere. You now have a choice of bulb type, a much wider range of colors, sizes, shapes, and even twinkling patterns, from a simple on/off alternation to elaborate dancing displays set to music.
There is, quite simply, a dizzying array of options to choose from. For help in understanding what to consider when choosing your holiday lights, and for a look at our top five products we recommend in the category, keep reading below!
- BEST LARGE COLORED LIGHTS: Wintergreen Lighting 25-Count LED Multicolor Indoor/Outdoor Lights
- BEST MINI COLORED LIGHTS: Ankuka 200-Count LED Christmas Lights
- BEST MEDIUM-SIZE WHITE LIGHTS: NOMA 70-Count LED String Lights
- BEST MINI WHITE LIGHTS: YULETIDE 200-Count Warm White LED Christmas Lights
- BEST SPECIAL EFFECTS ROPE LIGHTS: TaoTronics 100-Count Dimmable String Lights with Remote Control
Key Considerations When Shopping
Indoor vs. Outdoor
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 by separating lights by type.
LED vs. Incandescent
LED lights have surpassed incandescent string lights in popularity, although you can still find the older incandescent variety. Here’s what you need to know about the differences between the two types.
- Incandescent lights only have two advantages over LED lights: They are less expensive, and the bulbs give a warm glow that has a vintage appeal.
- LED lights cost a little more than their incandescent counterparts, but they use less energy and are less expensive to run, enabling you to save over the long term. In fact, LED bulbs use approximately 10 percent of 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.
Bulb Shape, Size, and Color
While the traditional “teardrop” 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 5/8-inch long.
- C6 bulbs are shaped like little strawberries and are the perfect size for indoor trees. These bulbs are 1-1/8-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 1-1/2-inch long.
- C9 are the traditional teardrop shape and size for outdoor décor you might remember from your youth. At 2-1/2-inch long, these lights provide a big impact for outdoor displays.
- G12 are globe-shaped bulbs that often have an etched design that looks something like a raspberry. They are 1-1/2-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.
String Length and Spacing
Always check for the length of the overall string, the number of bulbs, and the space between the bulbs, all of which are 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:
- 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, so-called “string 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.
Most lights of this type plug into a standard 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!
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.
Out of all the myriad options available, we’ve narrowed down the field to a selection of fan-favorite holiday string lights for virtually any kind of display, indoors or out.
1. BEST LARGE COLORED LIGHTS: Wintergreen Lighting LED Multicolor Indoor/Outdoor Lights
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 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!”
2. BEST MINI COLORED LIGHTS: Ankuka LED Christmas Lights
At 66 feet long, this set 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 one happy customer, “These work perfectly for our holiday tree. Love how long the strand is and how bright the lights are.”
3. BEST LARGE WHITE LIGHTS: NOMA LED String Lights
These diamond-cut C6 bulbs are perfectly sized to suit the front of the house—they’re both easy to spot on posts from the driveway and still not too large for entryway decorations like wreaths and staircase garlands. The color is as alluring as the versatility: “The pure white is a happy medium between a traditional warm Christmas light and a stark LED Christmas light,” writes one shopper. Whether you intend to use the NOMA LED String Lights outdoors or indoors, each 23.8-foot strand can be connected to up to 44 additional strings for all of your holiday display plans.
4. BEST MINI WHITE LIGHTS: YULETIDE Warm White LED Christmas Lights)
Set on a 66-foot-long strand, this set of warm white bulbs is full and flexible enough to complement any holiday decorating scheme: red and green, blue and white… you name it. Connect up to 10 strands for 660 total feet of lighting. “I love the soft light they give off,” one shopper wrote. “[It] reminds me of my Nana’s tree in Maine where I grew up.”
5. BEST SPECIAL EFFECTS: TaoTronics Dimmable String Lights
These LED mini bulbs give off a warm, white twinkle—indoors or out. Plus, the lights include a remote control that lets you adjust the brightness to any of 10 levels. You can also set the lights to flash, strobe, or fade— or you can just let them steadily glow. This reviewer’s words sum up the sentiments of many: “I bought two packs of these last year and just bought four more sets for our house this year. We used to use regular lights on wreaths and decorations inside our house, but these are much more elegant looking since the wires and lights are so small…. I particularly love that you can turn them on and off with a remote control rather than fumbling around with a power cord as we did with the regular lights…. Couldn’t be happier with these!”