Follow these tips to ensure the best, and safest, Christmas décor.
christmas tree
Credit: Kelli Durham

If debates over the best way to add lights to a Christmas tree have become as traditional in your home as your grandmother's holiday morning cinnamon rolls, settle the controversy once and for all. Derek Miller, senior turfgrass technician at Pennsylvania's Longwood Gardens, and Francis Toumbakaris, founder of New York City-based interior design company Francis Interiors, shine light on the best—and safest ways—to add lights to your holiday decorations.

Start with a safe power source.

At Longwood Gardens, where Miller and his team light 50 or more indoor Christmas trees every year, all tree lights are plugged into a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter device (GFCI) power source. "Safety is our priority and this adds a layer of protection," he says. They also keep track of how many strings of lights connect to each other: "Our rule of thumb is no more than 20 of our 5-mm bulb strands can be plugged in back to back," he says; most eight- and nine-foot-tall trees require only six to eight 50-bulb strands. "If using more than 20 strands, you would either have a tri-tap connector at the base of the tree to plug more than one run into," he says. "Or we run a main line up the trunk of the tree so we can plug in at various stages of the tree."

Work toward the top.

Miller has a clear vision for the look of the finished trees: "Our goal is for people to see the lights, not the wires," he says. Achieving a polished look depends on making the plugs and connections as invisible as possible. "Hiding the end of a cord at the top of a tree is not as easy, and can be an eyesore," says Miller. "When starting at the top and ending at the bottom, any excess can be hidden." His team starts by wrapping the first strand of lights—the one plugged into the main power source—around the base of the tree trunk, continuing to wrap the trunk until they reach the highest set of branches. "The wrapping of the trunk going up is literally just to get to the top," says Miller. "It also adds some lights to the center of the tree, adding some depth."

And then work toward the bottom.

Wrapping the trunk usually takes about half of a 50-bulb strand, says Miller, so as you begin lighting the branches, you won't need to camouflage a plug connection at the tree's narrowest point. "Once we get to the top, we work our way from branch to branch, wrapping the branches, sometimes splitting the wires—there are three wires to the strand of lights—and pulling small branches through the wires to disguise them," says Miller. "Essentially you can wrap a branch from the start of it near the trunk, towards the outside, then go to the branch next to it, and then wrap the branch going back in towards the trunk." By wrapping each branch with lights—instead of laying the strands on top of the branches as you circle the tree—you can hide the wires and create a richer look. "The lights are literally wrapped around the branch as if they are a part of the branch," says Miller "Once the wrapping is done of a branch, you should not be able to simply pull the lights off the branch. You may be working your way totally top to bottom, [or] one side to another—each tree is different—but you always want to end at the bottom."

Take a step back.

Most light strands have bulbs secured six inches apart, so Miller and his team use that distance as a guideline for lighting the tree as a whole. "We like to use what we call the 'squint test,' which is when we look at the entire tree, squint, and you should see a uniformly lit tree," he says. "This means no dark spots, no overly bright spots. Sometimes after taking a step back, you may have to adjust single lights here and there throughout the tree, or it may be that you need to add another strand to help add light in dark spaces."

Customize a pre-lit tree.

If you're working with a pre-lit Christmas tree, most of the lighting work is done for you—but layering on additional strands gives your holiday focal point more depth and personality. Toumbakaris, who offers specialized holiday decorating services, likes to add tiny LED fairy lights near the inside of the tree, or use colored floor spotlights to uplight the tree from behind. "Here you have a majestic tree and behind it you have this dramatic lighting effect," he says. "It creates shadows, it adds a pop of color in the home, and it's just spectacular and very theatrical." When estimating the number of lights appropriate for an indoor tree, he takes a "more is more" approach. "Usually my shopping cart would have 1,000-1,500 lights for a nine-foot tree," he says. "There is not such a thing as too much for a Christmas tree. Literally, if you think you have enough lights, buy three more strings."

Add lights to decorative trees outside.

While the technique for lighting a decorative evergreen is the same for indoor and outdoor trees, outdoor trees require lights UL-rated for exterior use and careful attention to safety procedures. "When having lit trees outside, we are always plugged into a GFCI—having a tree connected to a source with that kind of protection is always a must," says Miller. "Any connection that is left empty—either on the end of a strand of lights, a tri-tap connected to the tree, whatever it may be—we always put a plastic tab in that connection to make sure there isn't any way of someone getting electrocuted." Open connections also allow for the dangerous entrance of moisture. "Obviously we know water and electricity do not mix," says Miller. "Therefore, we make sure there is no way of it getting into the circuit and also tripping the breaker."


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