Follow these tips to ensure the best, and safest, Christmas décor.
christmas tree
Credit: Tom Merton / Getty Images

If debates over the best way to add lights to a Christmas tree have become as traditional in your home as the tannenbaum itself, it's time to settle the controversy once and for all. Should you start from the bottom or the top? Should you hide the strands? Is adding extra lights to your pre-lit tree really necessary? By following the proper technique, your evergreen will shine bright—while you and your loved ones stay safe.

Make Sure Your Power Source Is Safe

Connecting multiple strands of Christmas lights together can be dangerous if the circuits short or overload. Mitigate this risk by installing a ground fault circuit interrupter device, which protects you from electrical shocks. "Safety is our priority and this adds a layer of protection," says Derek Miller, senior turf grass technician at Pennsylvania's Longwood Gardens.

Track How Many Strands Connect to Each Other

You should 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," Miller says. Most 8- and 9-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."

How to String Lights on a Christmas Tree

There is one overarching goal when stringing lights on a Christmas tree: Making the lights visible, but not the wires. This can be accomplished with the proper technique.

Start From the Top

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."

Move to the Bottom

Wrapping the trunk usually takes about half of a 50-bulb strand. "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. To wrap a branch, start near the trunk then move towards the outside of the tree; move to the next branch then wrap going back in towards the trunk.

By wrapping each branch with lights—instead of laying the strands on top of the branches—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."

Review Your Work

Most light strands have bulbs secured 6 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. During the squint test, you shouldn't see any dark spots or any overly bright areas. Take a step back and see where you might need to adjust single lights or even add an extra strand.

How to Customize a Pre-Lit Tree

If you're working with a pre-lit Christmas tree, most of the work is done for you—but layering on additional strands gives your tannenbaum more depth and personality. Do so by adding tiny LED fairy lights near the tree, or even colored floor spotlights. "Here you have a majestic tree and behind it you have this dramatic lighting effect," says Francis Toumbakaris, founder of New York City-based interior design company Francis Interiors. "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, more is always better. "Usually my shopping cart would have 1,000-1,500 lights for a 9-foot tree," says Toumbakaris. "There is no such a thing as too much for a Christmas tree. Literally, if you think you have enough lights, buy three more strings."

How to Light an Outdoor Christmas Tree

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. You also need to pay careful attention to safety procedures when decorating an outdoor tannenbaum. "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.

If any connections are left empty, put a plastic tab in the connection to protect you and your loved ones from getting electrocuted. Open connections also allow for the 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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